How to Make Pesto: Beyond Basil and Pine Nuts

With the abundant greens and fresh herbs of summer, now's an ideal time to talk about how to make pesto. Mix and match ingredients to suit your tastes.

With the abundant greens and fresh herbs of summer, now’s an ideal time to talk about how to make pesto, how to use it, and how to mix and match ingredients to suit your tastes and use what you have on hand. While basil pesto, with Parmesan cheese and pine nuts in addition to olive oil and garlic, is perhaps the most traditional version, it’s not the only way to make pesto.

We love the way Bon Appetit approaches pesto: as a loose formula rather than a strict recipe. Plus, pesto doesn’t have to be so expensive if you substitute more economical ingredients.

How to Make Pesto

The loose formula for pesto includes greens, nuts and cheese, along with oil and garlic. But as you’ll see in the recipes below, even these components are somewhat negotiable.

You can use some greens raw, such as tender fresh herbs like basil or baby greens. Blanch other greens first, or even sauté them, like kale and broccoli. Toast nuts in the oven or on the stove to help bring out their flavor. Instead of pine nuts, which Bon Appetit says are “priced for hedge fund managers,” try walnuts, almonds or pecans. Finally, hard aged cheeses work best in pesto — try Romano or Asiago as an alternative to Parmesan.

If you want to make pesto the easy way, use a food processor. You can also go the old fashioned route and use a mortar and pestle.

How to Use Pesto

Now that you’re brimming with creative ideas for new pesto recipes, how will you use all of that green goodness? Any way you want. Think of pesto as a condiment that’s even more versatile than ketchup. Toss it with pasta, use it as a sauce for pizza, or spread it on sandwiches. For other ways to use pesto, BBC Good Food offers even more delicious suggestions.

Pesto Recipes

If you’d rather try someone else’s alt pesto recipe first, we’ve got you covered there too. In fact, you might be pleasantly surprised to see how varied pesto can get.

Fresh Basil Pesto
Let’s start with a basic basil pesto recipe, like this one from Simply Recipes. You’ll find suggested substitutions even in a classic recipe, such as replacing half the basil with spinach to help mellow the flavor, or using walnuts instead of pine nuts.

4 Ways to Make Pesto Without Basil
We’re eyeing all four of these recipes on Oh My Veggies: cilantro, sun-dried tomatoes, beets and parsley are the four different “greens,” and the rest of the ingredients include some nice surprises such as capers and cashews.

Spinach Parsley Pesto
We can’t get over the bright color of this pesto. This recipe does include pine nuts, but you can swap them out if you like. It might also be tasty to wilt or sauté the spinach first, though this may affect the color of the finished pesto.

5 Minute Vegan Kale Pesto
Don’t let the words “vegan” or “kale” dissuade you: this pesto is worth trying. Combine kale and parsley in whatever proportion you like, and feel free to toss in some cheese too. Or keep it vegan and shake in some nutritional yeast, a beloved ingredient in vegan circles that offers a similar sharp, salty taste.

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