Pesto originates from Northern Italy—Genoa, to be exact. It is traditionally a thick, uncooked, bright green sauce made of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and grated hard cheese, most often (the real) Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Its name comes from the same Latin root as “pestle” (as in mortar and pestle); both stem from some derivative of the verb “to pound” or “to crush.” While you could certainly go old school and hand-grind your pesto, most folks revert to the blender or food processor these days.
There are a lot of great recipes out there that call for pesto—it’s a great addition to pasta, sandwiches, and canapés (those cute little appetizers you make on crackers or mini baguettes and serve at parties). Many will stipulate for an “X-ounce can/bottle,” but with just a couple extra steps you can easily make your own.
All of the usual perks apply to making your own pesto (the pre-made stuff can come at a pretty penny!), but my favorite part about it is the creativity factor. The flavor of traditional pesto, or pesto Genovese, is a classic and beloved one for sure—but with a little experimentation and imagination you can invent wildly delicious and unorthodox pestos.
Start by substituting other nuts/seeds for pine nuts. I absolutely adore pine nuts, but they aren’t the cheapest, and harvesting your own is downright maddening (which is probably why they cost so much). Different nuts will of course produce different flavors in your pesto, but will blend just as well and yield a similar texture. You’ll be amazed at the tasty creaminess of a sunflower seed pesto. For the best results, soak or toast your nuts first—otherwise, they’ll be mighty stubborn to break down.
Next, try combining basil with another herb or two, or swapping it out altogether. Again, while your flavors will obviously change as you take away those classic pesto building blocks, you’ll be in for a yummy surprise. Any leafy herb can conceivably be ground into a pesto, which makes it a great way to use up a big bunch you bought at the store or freshly harvested from your own supply.
From there, you can experiment with oils other than olive (my sister recently emailed me this fantastic cooking oils chart from Eating Rules, which really deserves a whole post unto its own), dial your garlic level up or down, or add other spices/flavors.
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about the cheese. I’m kind of hesitant to suggest messing with it—folks feel pretty strongly about their cheese, and many would tell you that a pesto without Parmigiano-Reggiano just ain’t pesto. That said, pesto Genovese does sometimes use Pecorino, and other hard cheeses would seem to be worthy substitutes as well, although I’ve never tested it myself. Swiss Sbrinz, Grana Padano or even Mexican Cojita cheese could all be great in pesto.
And if you really want to shake things up, try making a vegan pesto without any cheese at all. This seems simply blasphemous, I know, but when I tried it last week with a pesto made of cilantro and almonds, it actually came out really nice. Was it as rich or creamy or nutty or wonderful as it would’ve been with the good stuff? Of course not. But it did have its own hint of freshness, will last longer, and was happily devoured by many a cheese lover without complaint.
You’ll be glad to know that there isn’t any complicated process to making pesto. Throw ‘yer ingredients into a blender or food processor and puree to your desired consistency. If you want to go all out and grind it by hand, I think you’re awesome. Start with the garlic and nuts and once you’ve got them to a paste, add the herb(s) and cheese. Drizzle in oil as you go to make it easier to mix.
The magic ratios are something like: one part nuts, one part oil (or less, depending on how thick you like it), two parts cheese, two parts fresh herb(s), and a healthy portion of fresh garlic. I usually add a dash of salt as well. Our editor Kimberley offers a recipe for traditional pesto and a video on how it’s made here.