This classic Italian basil pesto with pine nuts is the only recipe you’ll ever need! The secret? Chill your olive oil. Use small Genovese basil leaves. Blend in batches. What a difference!
Truth be told: I’ve always struggled with basil pesto. Sometimes it was black. Other times, it was too garlicky. And more often than I’d like to admit, my prized homegrown basil leaves tasted like licorice! Why?
Curiosity lured me to the book Liguria by Laurel Evans, revealing clever tips and tricks I never knew before. For example: chilling the olive oil helps to keep the pesto bright green. Did you you know that? And choosing small, baby basil leaves instead of the big, gigantor ones are ideal for best color and flavor.
So, while most basil pesto recipes seem similar by nature, this version dives deeper emphasizing the importance of ingredient selection and method which sets it apart from the rest (wait until you read the tips!). Making classic Italian basil pesto is not just blending everything together like a smoothie. It’s an art.
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Pesto can be any blended “no- cook” sauce. For example: arugula + almonds + garlic + olive oil = arugula pesto. Swap the arugula for basil, throw in some tomatoes and now you have Pesto alla Trapanese (Sicilian Pesto). But the most famous pesto, the one we all know and love is Pesto alla Genovese.
What Is Pesto alla Genovese?
Originating from Genoa, the capital city of Liguria Italy, Pesto alla Genovese is made with fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, olive oil and hard cheese, traditionally Pecorino and Parmesan. It comes together quickly in a blender or food processor, while traditionalists might pound it by hand with a mortar and pestle- I am horrible at this.
Either way, this classic basil pesto recipe lasts up to 1 week in the fridge with a slick of olive oil on top to prevent browning. My Dad adds a lemon slice (genius). Serve with fresh homemade pasta and gnocchi, or on grilled sourdough bread with fresh mozzarella. I love it dolloped on minestrone soup too.
Want Bright Green Pesto?
The biggest problem with homemade basil pesto is oxidation. And life’s too short for swampy brown pesto, wouldn’t you agree? The following tips come from Liguria by way of Enrica Monzani, a finalist at the World Pesto Championship. They are excellent!
- Chill the bowl and blade (food processor or blender). This prevents oxidation. Pesto can turn brown pretty quickly from the mechanical heat of the blades. Chill for at least 30 minutes (I actually freeze them).
- Chill your olive oil! Again, this helps with oxidation. 30 minutes in the fridge is sufficient.
- Blend in batches. The final texture is better this way. You’ll see.
- Use small basil leaves. Not the big ones that smell like mint! They’re too strong.
- Do you wash your basil? This removes some of its aromatic, essential oils (I didn’t know this). If doing so, use cold water and wash quickly. Do not soak for ages. Dry thoroughly in a salad spinner, and then lay flat on a clean kitchen towel to dry further. The leaves cannot be wet. PS: make sure to remove the stems too. They contain a lot of water.
Basil Pesto Ingredients: You Will Need
- Fresh basil
- Pine Nuts
- Olive oil
- Pecorino & Parmesan Cheese
Fresh Basil: Choose small, baby, round-leafed basil leaves (Genovese variety) for best flavor. The smaller the leaves, the sweeter the taste. I cannot stress how important this is. The aroma is mild and delicate, and the color is bright and fresh. Look for small leaves that curl under like spoons- this is key.
If using older, more mature basil of a different variety the flavor will be completely different and possibly too strong like licorice (this was my initial problem with pesto). Purchase small basil bunches at the farmer’s markets or opt for potted plants instead. That’s what I do. Trader Joe’s carries excellent basil plants when in season.
Garlic: This needs to young and fresh. Look for tight garlic heads without those skinny green stems poking through. Too strong. Also: smell it. If the aroma is potent like garlic powder, it’s too old.
Pine Nuts: Their nutty, waxy texture adds the best creaminess to pesto, which I love. However, pine nuts are expensive (Trader Joe’s has the best price) and should be stored in the freezer (they spoil quickly due to its high fat content). I typically don’t recommend pine nut substitutions, because it changes the flavor. But in a pinch, use walnuts.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Is your pesto too bitter? Too dark in color? Or both? You’re most likely using the wrong olive oil. You’ll need a light and delicate extra virgin olive oil for basil pesto. I recommend the following brands you can easily find at the store: Lucini, California Olive Ranch and La Tourangelle. Comparatively speaking, a strong, peppery olive oil will wreck the sauce.
Cheese: The traditional cheese for classic basil pesto is Pecorino Fiore Sardo, a rich, sheep’s milk cheese with a subtle smoky taste. But this cheese is hard to find. Most recipes use a blend of Pecorino Romano and Parmesan cheese instead. The combo is delicious.
Salt: Go easy here because the cheese is salty. Just a pinch of sea salt will do. Always taste first.
Classic Italian Basil Pesto Pairs Well With:
More Pasta Sauce Recipes To Try!
TIP: For the ultimate experience, serve fresh basil pesto with Trofie pasta (pictured below) which are cute mini twists that grab the sauce. It’s a Ligurian classic!
This post contains affiliate links. Photo credit & styling: Melina Hammer.
- 70 g (appx. 2 1/2 – 3 cups), small, basil leaves (see note)
- 1 fresh garlic clove, smashed and roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp. pine nuts
- 1/2 cup olive oil, divided, plus more as needed
- 6 tbsp. (packed) grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tbsp. (packed) grated Pecorino cheese
- Pinch fine sea salt
Pesto Notes & Tips:
- For the basil: choose small, baby basil leaves (Genovese variety). This is key. Grab a few potted plants if you cannot find this basil in bunches. The leaves should be small and curl under. They are tender and delicious!
- For the olive oil: Light and delicate extra virgin olive oil is a must! Ligurian olive oil is excellent for pesto. It’s mild, fruity and it doesn’t overpower. Problem is, you won’t be able to find it in the store. Sub with a good-quality mild oil that’s not peppery or dark green in color (the flavor will be too strong, and the color will be too dark). I recommend: Lucini, California Olive Ranch and La Tourangelle.
- Blend the pesto in batches, per the recipe. Doing so, paired with chilling the food processor or blender bowl, blade and olive oil, helps to prevent the basil from bruising and turning black. You’ll also achieve the best texture and flavor.
Before you begin: Freeze the bowl and blade of your food processor (or blender) for 30 minutes. Refrigerate the olive oil for 30 minutes. This will prevent the basil from oxidizing.
- Add the garlic, pine nuts and 2 tbsp. of oil to the food processor. Pulse a few times until minced. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the basil leaves and another 2 tbsp. of oil. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the cheeses.
- With the machine running, slowly stream in the rest of the olive oil and blend until creamy. Scrape the pesto into a bowl.
- Taste, and adjust seasoning with salt (if needed). Stir in more olive oil to loosen the texture (if needed). It shouldn’t look like a thick glob.
- To store: transfer pesto to a small jar. Top with a layer of olive oil to prevent browning. Refrigerate until ready to use. It should last up to 1 week.
Note: if serving pesto with pasta, thin the pesto with a little bit of the pasta cooking water first. Otherwise, it won’t coat the pasta correctly- it will be too thick.
Keywords: Italian, pesto, basil pesto, classic, recipe, pesto alla Genovese, Trofie pasta, Pecorino, Parmesan cheese