Homemade Basil Pesto is such an easy thing to make, and can elevate so many different dishes. Use this as a sauce on pasta or pizza, toss it on popcorn, or just eat it with a spoon!
Originally published July 9, 2013. Updated on 3/11/2022
While pesto seemed gross to me when I was a kid (I think it was probably a cheap jar of pesto from a grocery store?), I revisited the subject as a young adult, shortly after I moved to the United States.
My husband and I would stroll farmers’ markets on a regular basis. One time, a vendor at the local farmers market was selling her Pesto Genovese - fresh pesto made from basil, and we bought a jar.
Not sure what to do with it, we sampled it with a spoon to get some ideas.
... we went through the whole jam jar worth in one sitting, just sat at the table and going at it with the spoon.
While you can buy premade classic pesto in grocery stores, it doesn’t tend to be GOOD pesto. Good thing it takes only a couple of minutes to make!
Or, you know ... just snarfed with a spoon or on crackers.
We may be just a little addicted, here!
If you have access to a lot of basil, I recommend doubling or tripling (or more!) this recipe.
When in doubt, just know that it freezes very well - spoon into small freezer bags, push the air out, and seal.
On the other hand, if you’re buying basil at a grocery store and find obscenely expensive at the time, this recipe is easily halved.
Pesto is made from very few, fresh ingredients, but they’re important! A few thoughts on them:
There are many varieties of basil that you can use. Genovese basil / sweet basil is traditional and most popular, but feel free to use whatever variety of garden basil you have on hand / have access to.
Use fresh, ideally unblemished leaves. Cut off all of the stems before measuring the leaves.
Ideally, you’ll use a chunk of Parmesan cheese that you grate yourself.
Pre-shredded Parmesan is acceptable also... just don’t use the fine crumble stuff you see on tables at pizza restaurants!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
I like to use a lightly coloured/flavoured extra-virgin olive oil, to not overpower the basil flavour.
Also, you can add a little more if you like, depending on your use. As-is, this is great as a spread, or tossed in pasta.
If you’re tossing it on popcorn or dipping bread in it, a little more olive oil will thin it out a bit.
If you’re mixing your pesto into a dough that needs to be rolled out thinly - such just as *in* a pasta dough - I recommend skipping the pine nuts, as they tend to tear the dough when rolled out.
I love pine nuts, I just wish they didn’t cost so much.
Toasting them is optional, I love the roasty flavour it gives them, though.
I’m not one of those people who call for a single clove of garlic - this recipe calls for 8 garlic cloves!
While it might be overkill, but I like to use my Garlic Press before adding the garlic to the food processor, just to ensure it’s *finely* chopped and well distributed.
How to Make Basil Pesto
The actual recipe is at the end of this post, but here’s a pictorial overview for those who like visuals and extra notes / info
If necessary, wash and dry your basil leaves (With a salad spinner or paper towels). Set aside.
If you want a really smooth pesto, you can continue blitzing it until it’s a fine paste - personally, I like a bit of texture.
Season with a little salt and pepper, to taste.
Transfer to an airtight container, store pesto in the fridge.
A Note on Oxidation
Pesto will darken/brown if exposed to air.
If your container has a lot of head space, press a piece of plastic wrap against the pesto before securing the lid.
Alternately, you can spray the top generously with olive oil, or pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto.
Have some leftover pesto, or looking for an easy way to have small amounts of pesto on hand, to add a pop of flavour to your pasta, pasta salad, dressing, potato salad, soup, etc?
Portion some of your fresh basil pesto out into the cavities of an ice cube tray, and freeze it.
Once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes to a proper freezer bag, suck the air out, and seal. Will keep in the freezer for up to 3 months.
While straight pesto one of the easiest - and, arguably, the best way - to use this classic basil pesto recipe is to smother pesto over al dente, hot pasta - there are all kinds of other ways to use this versatile sauce.
A few ideas:
- Use pesto as a sandwich spread, instead of - or in addition to - mayonnaise. It’s great on a classic turkey sandwich, and fabulous in our Pesto Chicken Panini!
- As a pizza sauce. I’ll make a pesto shrimp pizza sometimes - spread the dough generously with pesto, top with shrimp, roasted red pepper, cheese, etc.
- Use it in marinades and homemade salad dressings - it really kicks up the flavour of vinaigrettes.
- Spread on toasted slices of baguette and serve with pasta as an alternative to traditional garlic toast / garlic bread.
... oh, and back to the subject of pesto pasta, a couple more thoughts:
- Add some to your white wine sauce or Alfredo sauce for a quick, creamy basil sauce.
- Don’t stop with traditional pasta!
This traditional pesto alla genovese is also a great recipe to serve over potato gnocchi, zucchini noodles, or - for an incredibly low carb option - Palmini Noodles. See my keto Pesto Shrimp Palmini, on the low carb blog!
As written, this is a very basic, standard, traditional pesto. Don’t let that stop you from playing with it, though - almost any of the main ingredients can be swapped out!
Here are a few ways I’ve varied my pestos:
- Swap Basil Leaves for spinach, kale, or other leafy greens, add a handful of fresh herbs if you like! We especially love this as a bright green sauce for pasta.
- Swap Parmesan Cheese for Asiago, Romano, Pecorino Romano, or Fiore sardo / Pecorino Sardo, any other good quality, flavourful aged cheeses.
- Olive Oil can be swapped out for avocado oil.
- Pine Nuts can be swapped out in favour of almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts. Chop them up a bit before adding them to the food processor, though!
- Roast up a whole garlic bulb, squeeze the softened garlic cloves into your food processor instead or - or along with - the fresh garlic.
Mix and match these subs to come up with something perfect for you - or what you have on hand!
More Seasoning & Condiment Recipes
Looking for some healthy recipes for tasty ways to add a little something extra to your dish? Here are a few ideas:
Canadian Popcorn Seasonings
Chow Chow Relish
Diana Sauces (Replica Recipes)
Homemade Hop Extracts
Homemade Seasoned Salt
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Honey Dill Dipping Sauce
Honey Garlic Cooking Sauce
Hoppy Dill Pickle Relish
How to Make Compound Butters
Montreal Steak Spice & Marinade
Olive Salad for Muffalettas
Porter's Yogurt & Ice Cream Topping
Roasted Beet Ketchup
Smoky Dry Rub for Wings
Sushi Sauce Recipes
Tangerine Thyme Dry Rub
Thai Cilantro Pesto
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Homemade Basil Pesto
- 5 cups Packed Fresh Basil Leaves
- 1 cup Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese
- 1 cup Olive Oil
- ½ cup Pine Nuts
- 8 Garlic cloves peeled and finely chopped
- Salt and Pepper
- If necessary, wash and dry your basil leaves. Set aside.
- Measure pine nuts into a nonstick pan. Toast over medium heat - stirring frequently - until lightly browned and aromatic.
- Measure basil, garlic, cheese, and oil into a food processor, blitz until basil is rough chopped.
- Add pine nuts, blitz until basil and pine nuts are finely chopped.
- Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Transfer to an air tight container, store in fridge.