I spent a whole summer researching all the different ways to make basil pesto. And while experimenting with pesto with pine nuts, pesto without pine nuts, pistachio nut pesto and more, I came across a pesto I have never eaten despite being very Italian and having spent a lot of time in Italy: lemon pesto.

Zesty lemon pesto adds freshness to cavatappi.

I’m not talking lemon and basil pesto. Lemon pesto sauce involves swapping out fresh basil for a lot of equally fresh lemon zest to make a bright yellow, tart pesto that might become your favorite pesto sauce ever.

Or maybe it’ll be this tomato ricotta pesto. So many pestos, right?

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Why lemons work in pesto

black spatula mixing lemon pesto in white bowl.
Lemon pesto is thick and loaded with amazing flavor.

Lemon and basil are obviously unique, but actually share some common flavor notes especially when it comes to acidity. Basil has a very earthy, peppery flavor with a hint of herbal acidity while lemon has a much strong citric acid flavor.

Regardless, I use the same supporting cast of ingredients for pesto with lemon as I did in basil pesto except the quantities have been adjusted to balance the lemon.

Ingredient spotlight: lemons

When shopping for lemons for pesto (and pasta sauces and salad dressings), there are a few things you want to look for:

  • Weight. Choose lemons that are heavy. Heavy lemons yield more juice.
  • Color. Look for bright yellow color without a tinge of green (too young) or dark gold (too old) for the ultimate ripeness.
  • Texture. A smooth rind without presence of ashy or black spots.

Meyer lemons

You might spot Meyer lemons in your grocery store. Meyer lemons are sweeter in flavor and are actually more similar to mandarin oranges than they are conventional lemons.

Gather your ingredients

The role call for lemon pesto pasta sauce is simple and ingredients you’d find in an Italian pantry.

Lemon pesto starts with lemon zest, juice, parmesan, pine nuts and garlic.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Lemons. The zest from 5 lemons and the juice from 2. Save the remaining lemons for making tagliatelle al limone.
  • Olive oil. My favorite olive oils are single-sourced from Tuscany, Italy; Spain and Greece. I’m also a really big fan of California olive oils.
  • Garlic. Look for bright white paper/skins that tightly surrounds the cloves and with cloves that aren’t pulling away from the root.
  • Parmesan. Freshly grated, no green cans please! Pecorino romano or grana padano are also great alternatives.
  • Kosher salt.
  • Black pepper.

How to make lemon pesto pasta sauce

A food processor or high speed blender are great tools for making lemon pesto and what I’m using for this recipe. Check out these alternative homemade pesto methods.

It’s seems like a lot of zest but it make this lemon pesto so good!
Add the zest, garlic, pine nuts (not shown) and seasoning. Pulse 5 times.
first pulse of lemon pesto being made.
This is how it’ll look after the first process.
  1. Zest lemons using a lemon zester. My favorite lemon zester makes this a dream. And then juice two of the lemons.
  2. Process. Add zest, garlic and pine nuts to a food processor. Pulse 5-7 times.

Pro tip

Do not use a grater for zesting citrus. You risk getting the bitter white pith instead of the zest which is what contains all the citrus oils and flavor.

food processor with oil being added to lemon pesto with zested lemons nearby.
After adding first 2 T of olive oil.
white bowl of grated parmesan being mixed into lemon pesto.
Hand mix in parmesan cheese.
butter being muddled into lemon pesto in white bowl.
A muddler helps take incorporate butter into pesto making it really creamy.
  1. Add olive oil while the processor is on. Start with 2 Tablespoons and add more until you get the desired texture.
  2. Stir in parmesan. The lemon pesto will be quite thick.
  3. Muddle in softened butter and taste. Correct for seasoning.

Best kind of pasta for lemon pesto sauce

close up tossing lemon pesto on cavatappi pasta

Like basil pesto, lemon pesto has a way of hugging certain pasta shapes better than others. My favorite types of pasta for pesto are:

  • Trofie. The quintessential noodle for pesto, trofie pasta has a chewy, twisted texture.
  • Cavatappi. Curvy and twisty, cavatappi already proved how great it works with pesto in the sun dried tomato pasta salad.
  • Gnocchi. Even though it doesn’t have curves, potato gnocchi partners well with pesto thanks to its thick bite.

Tips for making creamy lemon pesto

You can make a creamy lemon pesto without adding cream thanks to these tested techniques. And they work:

Use pasta water. Reserve some of the hot starchy pasta cooking water and add it to the sauce to extend the pesto, creating creamy texture.

Add high quality, unsalted butter. Muddle in some butter right before tossing with pasta and pasta water for a touch of sweet flavor and texture.

Pulse the processor or blender in short bursts. Running the processor continually could heat the cheese creating stringy clumps.

Where to use lemon pesto

Brush pan seared chicken breasts with lemony pesto and toss with pasta.

Serve with grilled bread on a charcuterie board for a hearty appetizer.

Toss with pan sauteed broccolini for a zesty vegetable dish.

Storage and freezing

Storage: Homemade lemon pesto can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Freeze. Lemon pesto sauce can be frozen in a freezer-safe container or resealable bag for up to 3 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight before reheating per the instructions above.

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wooden bowl of lemon pesto with wooden spoon.
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No Cook Simple Lemon Pesto Sauce for Pasta

There are many ways to pesto and they all don't have to include basil. Lemon pesto sauce screams "hellloooo Spring!" and doesn't have any basil. With loads of lemon zest, juice and parmesan, lemon pesto is just as simple to make as its basil cousin thanks to a food processor. Get all the tips including what kind of pasta (or sandwich) to pair with lemon pesto. Your spring menus just got a whole lot brighter!
Prep Time:2 minutes
Total Time:2 minutes
Servings 1 cup




  • Zest the lemons using a lemon zester that removes only the zest and not the pith. Don't grate the lemon or you risk getting the bitter pith (white part).
    ½ cup lemon zest
  • Place the lemon, salt, pepper, whole cloves of garlic and pine nuts in the medium sized bowl of a food processor or mini prep. Pulse about 3-5 times to blend the lemon and garlic. Then, turn the machine on and pour the oil in slowly through the feed tube at the top. Stop when you have a thick sauce, about 10 seconds or so.
    1 teaspoons kosher salt, 1-2 cloves garlic, ½ teaspoon ground black pepper, 3 Tablespoons pine nuts, ½ cup olive oil
  • Remove the pesto to a medium bowl and add in butter and parmesan cheese. Use a bar muddler to press the cheese(s) and butter into the pesto. This should be really easy especially if the butter is softened as noted above.
    2-3 T softened butter, ½ cup Parmesan cheese
  • Toss with hot pasta. Add pasta water as needed to make a thinner sauce as desired. Serve with parmesan.


Storage Suggestions and Tips
  • Refrigerate in an airtight container with a lid for up to 4 days.
  • Freeze small portions in ice cube trays (Souper Cubes are awesome too!) so you can have pesto all year long.
  • Defrost in the fridge or at room temperature and stir to blend before using.
Substitution Ideas for Nuts. Use roasted and salted sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts. Pistachios or walnuts make great pesto as well!
Course: Appetizer, Main Course, Pasta, pasta side dish, Salad
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

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