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How to Make Pesto

POSTED July 25, 2018

Summer has arrived and basil plants are in full swing. Around here, that means one thing: It’s pesto season! When you use the perfect proportions of the freshest possible ingredients, you can make a to-die-for pesto that’s perfect for pasta, grilled chicken, pizza, and more. If you want to know how to make pesto to perfection every time, just follow our guide.

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The History of Pesto

Before we jump into the ins and outs of pesto, let’s start by looking at the history of this incredible sauce. Pesto hails from the Liguria region in Northwest Italy, where basil crops grow like crazy. The first actual pesto recipe was written down in 1863. But before that, Roman citizens were eating a paste called moretum, made from from fresh herbs, garlic, salt, cheese, olive oil, and vinegar…sounds familiar, right? Ever since the 1860s, Italians and Europeans have been making homemade pesto with the same classic ingredients: fresh basil leaves, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper. Other fun pesto facts:

  • Today, many people make pesto in a food processor or blender, but it was originally ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle. The words pesto and pestle both come from the Italian word pestare, which means to grind or to crush.
  • The original pesto recipe notes that if basil isn’t in season, you can substitute marjoram or parsley.
  • Pesto wasn’t popular in North America until it started to show up on restaurant menus in the 1980s and 1990s.

Choosing Pesto Ingredients

When you’re in a pinch, there’s nothing wrong with using store-bought pesto (we offer some delicious pesto varieties). However, homemade pesto made from fresh ingredients is more flavorful and complex than what you can buy in a jar. So if you plan to make your own pesto, start by getting the freshest ingredients you can find. Here’s a breakdown of what you need:

  • Basil. If you grow your own basil, don’t harvest the leaves until you’re ready to make the pesto. Don’t have a garden? Look for bunches of basil at a farmer’s market or in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. When selecting basil leaves, use the smaller leaves near the top of the plant because they have a nice delicate flavor.
  • Pine nuts. Pine nuts are high in fat and they yield a silky, smooth pesto. When you’re shopping for pine nuts, look for softer Spanish or Italian varieties that have more oil. We know pine nuts can be expensive. If cost is an issue, you can trade in pine nuts for walnuts, almonds, or cashews–or use a blend of all three!
  • Olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a brighter, more authentic flavor because it comes from the first pressing of the olives. This makes all the difference in homemade pesto.
  • Parmesan. A nice, salty parmesan is the perfect complement to the strong flavor of basil leaves. Some cooks prefer Pecorino Romano or other sheep’s milk cheese. The most important thing is that you use freshly-grated cheese–avoid the stuff in a bag or can!
  • Garlic. Buy fresh garlic and chop it at home to be sure you get the most flavor from this important ingredient. It doesn’t take a lot of garlic to add extra flavor to your pesto–but you don’t want to skip this one.
  • Salt. Depending on the type of cheese you use, you might not need much salt. Add this ingredient last and taste the pesto often so you don’t add too much.

If you or your loved one has a special dietary need, you can make simple substitutions that won’t compromise your pesto’s flavor:

  • Dairy-free or vegan–Skip the cheese and add a few tablespoons of lemon juice and nutritional yeast instead.
  • Nut-free–Use fatty seeds like sunflower seeds or pepitas, or use chickpeas to keep the pesto creamy.
  • Vegetarian–Find a brand of cheese that doesn’t use animal rennet. Check labels closely!
  • Low-fat–Swap the olive oil for plain low-fat yogurt or use a half-and-half mixture of olive oil and vegetable broth. Use chickpeas instead of nuts.

If you love the idea of pesto, but you don’t love basil, use other herbs and greens such as arugula, kale, parsley, marjoram, or mint.

How to Make Homemade Pesto

Ready to make pesto? The first thing you need to do is gather your ingredients. Remember: the fresher they are, the better your pesto will taste.

Making good classic pesto is all about using perfect combination of ingredients and proportions to yield the best flavor and consistency. Here’s a good place to start:

  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2-3 packed cups of basil leaves
  • ⅓ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, or a combination of cheeses
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup olive oil

Traditional pesto was made with a mortar and pestle–and if you have the time (and the arm strength) we recommend that you try this method at some point! Using a mortar and pestle yields the freshest possible pesto. However, you can always use a food processor or a blender to speed things up.

To make pesto, simply add garlic, basil, nuts, cheese, and salt to a food processor. Pulse these ingredients until they form a thick paste. Then slowly add the olive oil in a thin stream while the machine is running. Continue processing the ingredients until they are blended together. You want your pesto to have some texture, but if it’s too thin or thick it won’t evenly cover a dish of pasta. Here’s how you can tell: A spoonful of pesto should slowly run off of the spoon. If it runs off quickly, it’s too thin. If it’s stuck to the spoon, it’s too thick!

Once the ingredients come together, let the taste-testing begin! Adjust the ingredients to your tastes and then use the pesto immediately or store it in the fridge for a few days.

How to Use Pesto

Pasta with pesto is a traditional dish in Liguria–and it’s simple to make! Cook about a pound of pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Lightly drain the pasta and then add it to a large bowl. Top with fresh pesto and toss until the dish is well combined. If necessary, add some pasta water to help the ingredients come together. Serve immediately!

Here are some other inventive ways to use fresh pesto:

  • Use it on pizza instead of tomato sauce.
  • Spread it on grilled chicken or fish
  • Toss it with roasted or grilled vegetables
  • Mix it with butter and eat it with corn on the cob
  • Use it as a condiment to dress up your next sandwich
  • Add it to pasta salad

Once you figure out how to make a classic pesto recipe, have fun experimenting with other greens and ingredients. Consider using hazelnuts, sundried tomatoes, goat cheese, chives, and other flavor combinations to push your tastes to the next level. Mangia!

Need some more inspiration? Check our gallery of recipes!