Start this classic pesto recipe with a food processor and end by mixing in two special ingredients by hand. Don't have a food processor? You can still learn how to make a fresh, classic pesto recipe of your dreams. Plus—learn tips for freezing pesto and how to keep it from turning black.
Pesto is the forever favorite, peak of summer, no-cook pasta sauce. Especially when basil is at its peak and when you don't want to turn on the oven. Even though it only takes a couple of minutes to whip up a batch, you might find that making homemade pesto can be troublesome.
Which means it's time to do some research and turn to the experts.
Tried and true pesto technique
There is no need to improve on perfection and that's why this recipe borrows a technique from the queen of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan. (Her culinary masterpiece on the Essentials of Italian Cooking makes the perfect gift for the aspiring Italian cook.)
When making pesto, Marcella starts by using the food processor to quickly pulse the ingredients (eliminating the need to chop the basil) and ends with mixing in a bit of butter and a second cheese (parmesan) by hand, adding a rich texture that elevates this pesto to a raving "10".
And once you try making it this way you'll want to put it on everything. Go ahead and slather it all over this Chicken and Pesto Flatbread Pizza.
You won't be one bit sorry.
You have several options:
Get out that food processor or mini-chopper from your basement or cabinet and get ready to find a spot for it on your counter. Don't have one? It's not secret that I adore the Magimix food processor and it comes with 3 bowls so it performs like a big, medium and mini-chopper. Love multi-tasker countertop appliances!
Mortar and pestle
The word "pesto" in Italian means "to pound or crush"
So—it would make sense that a marble mortar and pestle is truly the classic way to make this basil sauce. A mortar and pestle has the benefit of creating a creamier silky pesto but does take longer than the food processor method.
Similar to a food processor, a blender can also be used to make pesto. Don't overblend or your pesto will end up bitter! A high powered blender, like a Vitamix, can heat your pesto so run it low or pulse blend the pesto for best results.
p.s. this is the Vitamix model I own but there are many to choose from.
Chopping by hand
If you don't have any of the above, you can make pesto by finely chopping the ingredients by hand using a knife or a mezzaluna. The downsides are your pesto won't be as smooth and it's going to take more time.
Pros and cons, am I right?
Ingredients for basil pesto sauce
The beautiful thing about pesto is you only need 5 ingredients. Ok, 7—if you count salt and pepper—which to me, they don't count because they are a staple of the Italian pantry.
Fresh basil leaves. Whether from your garden or in an herb packet from the grocery store, fresh basil leaves are paramount to pesto. Of course you can use different greens like spinach or arugula, but we are making classic pesto and for that we need basil.
Fresh garlic cloves. Just 1 or 2 add a nice little bite. The traditional recipe for pesto alla Genovese doesn't usually have garlic but when has that stopped us?
Extra virgin olive oil. I know choosing olive oil can be subjective because some definitely have more grassy notes and others more fruity notes. There's a lot going on flavor-wise so the mildest flavored extra-virgin olive oil is suggested. Extra-virgin olive oil is olive oil that has been cold-pressed instead of being heated and refined.
Pine nuts. They can be costly but if you pick up a pack from Trader Joe's, it's much easier on your wallet. You're only going to use a couple of teaspoons so now is not the time to buy in bulk unless you're planning on making pesto all summer.
Parmesan and/or Romano cheese. I say "and/or" because we are going to use both. You don't have to if you only have one or the other on hand but each adds its own flavor texture (Parmesan is more crystal-like) and flavor profile (Romano has a saltier flavor).
Unsalted Butter. Marcella's secret and adds so much luxurious flavor to pesto.
How to make pesto, step by step
Add the fresh basil leaves to the large bowl of a food processor. The one here is 14 cups. Layer in the cheese, whole garlic cloves, and nuts.
Pulse the processor about 5 times.
Slowly pour in the oil through the chute while running the processor to get the desired texture.
Remove the blade and scrape the pesto into a bowl. Use the end of a wooden spoon or a pastry blender and press the butter and cheese into the pesto by hand (image a couple of scrolls up) until creamy and mixed in.
Different ideas for using homemade pesto
Homemade pesto mayonnaise is the perfect sandwich condiment like the one found in this oh-so-juicy chicken caprese sandwich.
And mix a little pesto into a skillet before topping with a fried egg and bread for eggs in a nest the kids will love!
Storage suggestions and other good stuff
- Refrigerate in an airtight container up to 4 days. Stir periodically to keep the oil from separating.
- Freeze pesto in an airtight container or freezer safe bags/containers up to 6 months. Defrost completely in the fridge before using.
Made this recipe?
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Two Minute Classic Pesto Recipe
- Place the basil, salt, pepper, whole cloves of garlic and pine nuts in the medium sized bowl of a food processor or mini prep. Pulse about 5-7 times to chop the basil 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 30 seconds or so.3 cups basil leaves, 1-2 teaspoons kosher salt, 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 Romano cheese
- Toss with hot pasta. Add pasta water as needed to make a thinner sauce as desired. Serve with parmesan.
- 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.
- Use roasted and salted sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts. Pistachios or walnuts make great pesto as well!
- Other herbs or green to use in pesto are spinach, kale (stems removed) and arugula.
- Never heat pesto directly on the stove. Heat isn't pesto's friend. Toss cold or room temperature fresh pesto with hot pasta.
- Limit pesto's exposure to air by either using immediately or storing covered in an airtight container.
- Press a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of pesto before covering with an airtight, hard lid.
- Freeze as soon as possible if freezing is your intention.
About Lori Murphy
Lori has over 30 years in the food industry as a marketing strategist, culinary instructor and chef for three kids with discerning palates. As the chief content creator at Josie + Nina, Lori is dedicated to helping home cooks create food memories through fresh ingredients and Italian flavors.