Basil Pesto

Pesto is a bright flavorful sauce made from lots of fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts. The word "pesto" derives from the fact that it is traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. While you can use a food processor steps in to speed up the process, a mortar and pestle will still give you the best results.

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A spoonful of basil pesto being lifted out of a stone mortar.

What is Pesto?

A pesto is basically a simple sauce made of blended flavorful greens, cheese, nuts and olive oil. Basil pesto is the most commonly made and most often served as a sauce for pasta. In fact, it’s one of the easiest pasta sauces to make and simply tossing some pesto with warm spaghetti, a little pasta water and perhaps another glug of olive oil can be a very satisfying meal. The word “pesto” is derived from the Italian word for “pound” or “crush” and the sauce was traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. Although many people prefer to make pesto in a food processor for the sake of prep time, I still think using a mortar and pestle is the best way to go, making a smooth, delicious sauce with no bitter bite. 

Ingredients for pesto on a board surrounding a stone mortar and pestle - basil, pinenuts, garlic, parmesan cheese, lemon, salt, pepper and olive oil.

How to Make Pesto

The basic ingredients for basil pesto are fresh basil (and a lot of it!), pinenuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil and salt. Lemon is an extra ingredient that does brighten it up a little, but it is optional. Start by pounding the garlic clove in the mortar with just a pinch of salt. You’ll see that the garlic can be crushed into a smooth paste. You won’t get this same result in a food processor, which will instead just chop the garlic into tiny pieces. Once the garlic is smooth, add the pinenuts and crush them into a paste with the pestle. Then start adding the basil, a handful at a time, and pound to break down the leaves. It takes a little time, but pounding the basil this way lets the oils release naturally and the flavor is smoother as a result. Once all the basil is pounded, add the cheese and the oil, continuing to pound. It will emulsify into a beautiful pesto. Seasoning with salt, pepper and perhaps lemon juice is the only thing you have left to do.

Two images of garlic in a mortar. The first shows the garlic clove whole and the second shows the paste you can make out of the garlic with a pestle.

Pesto Variations

If basil is not the flavor you are looking for, there are endless varieties of pesto that you can make. You can read about some options here in this cooking school article, or check out my sun-dried tomato pesto recipe as an example of what you can do to mix things up a little.

Hands smashing basil pesto with a pestle in a mortar.

How to Use Pesto

While basil pesto is most traditionally used as a sauce for pasta, it really can go on so many different foods, from sandwiches, to pizza, to grilled fish or chicken or even to top a baked potato or an omelet. One of the reasons I always try to make a thicker pesto is because I might want to stir it into mayonnaise or spread it on ciabatta for a sandwich and I need it spreadable. I thin the pesto with a little more olive oil if I’m going to use it for pasta or to toss with vegetables. 

A stone mortar and pestle with basil pesto inside on a cutting board with some parm, a lemon and some basil.

How to Store Pesto

Sadly the bright green color of pesto will fade over time. This is inevitable, but it will still taste great. You can store pesto in a container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, with a piece of plastic wrap pressed right down on the pesto to help lesson the color fading. For longer storage, fill an ice cube tray with pesto and freeze the cubes. Then, remove the cubes and store in an air-tight bag or container. Then, you’ll have a pasta sauce at your fingertips for those quick weeknight meals.

Spaghetti with basil pesto on a white plate with bread and two leaves of basil.

Featured Recipe Techniques

More about the skills used in this recipe.

Cooking School
How to Make Pesto

Pesto traditionally refers to the basil based sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy, but you don't have to stick to...View Technique

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Basil Pesto

  • Prep Time: 15 m
  • Total Time: 15 m
  • Servings:
    Makes ½ cup


  • 1 clove garlic
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup pine nuts
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup more if needed
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • freshly ground black pepper


  1. Using a food processor, running with the lid on, drop the garlic and Parmesan cheese down the feed tube and process. Add the pine nuts and process again. Add the basil leaves. Drizzle in the olive oil slowly and process until everything comes together and the pesto is the consistency you’re looking for. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Set aside.
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Comments (7)Post a Reply

    1. You can use different nuts for pesto. It will alter the taste, but you can try different variations on traditional pesto.

  1. Your pesto recipe is pretty standard, not a bad thing. I’ve been using this recipe for years. The last time I made it, a week ago, it was bitter tasting:(((( Researching this I leaned that if you over process the basil and olive oil in a food processor, this is the reason.

    Next time I’m going to stir in the olive oil to see if it helps. Don’t want bitter pesto:((((
    What do you have to say?

    Thank you.
    P.S. I love Loulou & Hazel:)))))

    1. Over processing in a food processor can make the pesto bitter. Make sure you add each ingredient one at a time and process the garlic, cheese, and pine nuts before you add the basil. Only process the basil for 2 minutes. If the pesto does become bitter, you can add additional parmesan cheese or a little sugar to balance the taste.

  2. 5 stars
    Love making BJC Pesto. The recipe is so versatile, fresh and delish. We make a thick version for wraps with fresh veggies for hot sumner eats. Appreciate her knowledge and encouragement to experiment with different nuts ( almonds are my fav) and thickness for so many different uses.

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