What Is Pesto?

We read once that pesto was trending. Pesto has been trending for thousands of years: not news. What is new is that you can make pesto with more than just basil. Cilantro and sesame, anyone?

September 03, 2021

Related To:

Pesto Genovese- Zutaten im Mörser (Basilikum, Parmesan, Knoblauch, Pinienkerne)


Pesto Genovese- Zutaten im Mörser (Basilikum, Parmesan, Knoblauch, Pinienkerne)

Photo by: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Translated literally, the Italian word pesto means to pound. As in putting anything in a mortar and pestle and pounding. The pestle is the pounder - not a coincidence that the words are so similar since they are derived from Latin. Pesto can be anything that you pound in a mortar and pestle. Nowadays, chances are you'll be using a food processor to make pesto, which means that you can incorporate herbs or vegetables that may be tougher than basil (think kale) into pesto.

Pasta with pesto and parmesan on a concrete background. View from above.


Pasta with pesto and parmesan on a concrete background. View from above.

Photo by: zefirchik06/Getty Images

zefirchik06/Getty Images

What Is Pesto?

Anything that is pounded in a mortar and pestle can be called a pesto. Pesto alla Genoese is what we typically think of when we think of pesto - the creamy spread made from fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. Genoese because it originated in Genoa, Italy also home to focaccia.

What Is Pesto Made of?

Basil pesto is made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and it's seasoned with salt and pepper. There are variations where swaps are made, such as using walnuts instead of pine nuts, using all or part Romano cheese in place of Parmesan. We’ve got a page with 50 pesto recipes, where we’re pretty sure you’ll find at least one or two that you’ll want to try.

What Does Pesto Taste Like?

Sometimes when you make a recipe with several ingredients it tastes like one thing - take pumpkin pie, for instance. It’s hard to identify every ingredient. Basil pesto tastes like the sum of its parts in that you taste each individual ingredient. You know the basil and garlic are there for sure. Parmesan cheese and olive oil most people could identify. The only one that might trip people up is the pine nuts, because they aren’t that common. The flavors meld because they’re pureed, and they stay separate in a good way because they’re not cooked.

How To Make Pesto

We’re going with the food processor version here, but if you want to make pesto with a mortar and pestle, we’ve got a recipe for you. Our Mortar and Pestle Pesto explains it. For everyone else, follow the steps here - then check out our guide on How to Make Pesto for even more info.

How To Make Vegan Pesto

Start with a basil pesto recipe that looks good to you, and then add extra nuts with a bit of water to keep it saucy and omit the cheese. If you want to swap the Parmesan for a vegan cheese or nutritional yeast, don’t put the cheese or nutritional yeast in the food processor. Stir it into the pesto after you transfer the pesto to a bowl.

Can You Freeze Pesto?

Pesto lasts for up to a week in the refrigerator in an airtight container. However, sometimes you make a big batch of pesto and can’t go through it that quickly. Luckily, pesto freezes excellently. Simply make sure to store it in a completely air-tight container (we like to put it in a resealable freezer bag, squeeze out all the air, then double bag with a second freezer bag), label and date the bag. Alternatively, freeze individual pesto portions in an ice cube tray and then transfer them to an air-tight plastic bag. Stash the frozen stuff for up to six months. Thaw in the fridge overnight before using.

How To Use Pesto

Putting in on hot pasta is the standard, but there are a gazillion ways to use it. Spread some on a prosciutto, mozzarella sandwich. Make puff pastry-pesto pinwheels. Stir it into minestrone soup. When you run out of ideas, head over to 25 Things To Make With Pesto and see some new options. Cooking eggs in a sauté pan with pesto in place of butter is popular: we recommend a non-stick pan and a low heat.

Pesto Recipes 

This is the classic recipe for basil pesto. You might want extra cheese to sprinkle on top.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Cilantro lovers will want to try this pesto with sesame and manchego cheese. Hold some back when putting it on pasta and try it drizzled on nachos.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

You’ll be switching up the cheese and the nuts in this pesto, but the basil remains the same.

This pesto has spinach and mint which, give it a bit of a Greek flair. The pecorino cheese brings the salty sheep flavor of feta to the mix.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

Classic pesto with a twist - adding fresh parsley, oregano and thyme to the mix.

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