Pesto is one of my favorite condiments to keep on hand. Try these easy, fun pesto recipe variations to brighten pasta, salads, roasted veggies & more!
One of my favorite things about summer is the bounty of fresh herbs that are just outside my doorstep. Fresh herbs make any meal instantly more flavorful and beautiful. My favorite thing to do with all of those fresh herbs (aside from sprinkle them on everything) is to make pesto! It’s especially great for lazy summertime cooking. I like to dollop it on grilled vegetables, pasta, spaghetti squash, salads, eggs, toasted bread, pizza, sandwiches… you get the idea. With just a few easy steps, it makes anything an instant tasty meal, whether you feel like cooking or not.
What is pesto, and how do I make it?
Traditional pesto is a blend of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. With a food processor, it comes together in just a few steps:
- Pulse the nuts, lemon juice, and garlic in the food processor until they’re finely chopped.
- Add the basil and pulse again.
- Next, drizzle in the olive oil with the food processor blade still running.
- Finally, add grated Parmesan cheese and process briefly until combined. For vegan pesto, simply skip the cheese.
That’s it! It’s really simple to make, and it’s easy to vary according to the season or your mood. It will keep for a few days in an airtight container in the fridge, though its surface may start turning brown. As a result, it’s best to cover your pesto with a thin layer of plastic wrap or an extra drizzle of oil before sealing your container. This will keep it fresh and green!
Pesto Recipe Variations
Once you’ve made the classic basil pesto recipe, try changing it up! You can make delicious variations with all sorts of nuts, seeds, veggies, and leafy greens. Here are some of my favorites:
- Swap out the pine nuts for any nut of your choice! I particularly like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.
- Make nut-free pesto by using pepitas or hemp seeds.
- Use a different herb. Try replacing the basil with mint, cilantro, or parsley!
- Or fewer herbs. Replace half the basil with 1 cup arugula, kale, or chopped zucchini. For a punchier twist, pulse in 4 artichoke hearts, a roasted red pepper, or half an avocado instead of half the basil.
- Don’t let your veggie stems go to waste. Blanch 1/2 cup kale stems and blend them into pesto in place of half the basil.
- Punch up the flavor! Add 2 to 4 sun dried tomatoes, a charred jalapeño, nutritional yeast, or a pinch of red pepper flakes.
The possibilities are endless – let me know if you have a favorite variation!
I made pesto! Now what do I do with it?
The obvious choice is tossing pesto with pasta, but your options don’t end there. Spoon it over a Caprese salad, top it onto a grain bowl, scoop it onto spaghetti squash or mac and cheese, or incorporate it into this yummy zucchini casserole. We love it on polenta and homemade pizza, too. It’s even great on scrambled eggs! Do you have a favorite way to use pesto? Let me know in the comments!
Basic Basil Pesto:
- ½ cup toasted pine nuts
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 small garlic clove
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups basil leaves
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for a smoother pesto
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional
- In a food processor, combine the pine nuts, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and pepper and pulse until well chopped.
- Add the basil and pulse until combined.
- With the food processor running, drizzle in the olive oil and pulse until combined. Add the Parmesan cheese, if using, and pulse to briefly combine. For a smoother pesto, add more olive oil.
This recipe is so delicious! I just made it for dinner. I had it over pasta with baby kale and some swiss chard stems that I wanted to use up. I added some pasta water and a touch of cream to a portion of it and used it as a sauce. Then I topped my pasta dish with a dollop of the pesto. Thank you for such a yummy recipe! Quick, easy and versatile!
Sounds fantastic! I’m so glad you enjoyed the pesto.
Do you mean 2 cups of packed basil or loose? I didn’t have enough pine nuts on hand so I added sunflower seeds as well. Yummy!
Hi Patty, we don’t pack the basil tightly into the measuring cup. So glad you enjoyed the pesto!
Thanks for sharing your recipe. I add an additional garlic clove, used toasted walnuts, and more olive oil so that is is smooth. I use fresh lime instead of lemon juice. If you wish to use it over pasta, heat it up and add about 1/2 cup cream. It is divine.
This recipe was PERFECT!!! It was delicious before the parm and even with some parm it was just as delicious. I was ok with about 1/8 c of olive ooo but went with 1/4c anyways which was great because I cooked this on top of salmon in the air fryer. Also used lemon basil. Also bought raw pine nuts and toasted them myself on the pan with no oil
Great recipe! Definitely saving.
Hi Karina, so glad you loved it!
This is the best pesto ever. This is the first time I’ve ever made it from scratch. I’m making a mozzarella and tomato 🍅 pizza 🍕 with some of this sauce for lunch or dinner today. Thanks for sharing this recipe with us.
I’m so glad you loved it!
This was the best pesto sauce I have ever made and ever had!! Thank you! Best. Ever.
I’m so glad you loved it!
I have used this recipe several times and it is delicious every time. Thanks!
I’m so glad you’ve loved it!
After a trip to the fall farmers market and bringing home some gigantic basil I was looking for a traditional recipe. I’ve made all kinds of pesto recipes (kale, arugula, mixes) but not sure I’ve ever added fresh lemon juice. Winner.
I used one portion and froze the rest into ice cube tray sized portions, which came out so cute and now in a freezer bag. Those can now be added as soup or sandwich toppers.
If I substitute walnuts for the pine nuts, do I toast those?
Hi Jen – it works either way, I’ve done both.
Excellent recipe. I tripled the recipe because I had THAT much basil. I didn’t have enough lemon juice on hand so I used half the amount. Still fantastic. I flatten mine out into a large zip lock bag and freeze and then just snap off how much I need. Thanks for the recipe.
I’m glad you loved it! Thanks for the flattening freezing tip – that’s a great idea.
How long does it stay fresh? Do you freeze it too?
Hi Jen, I’d say about 5 days – yes, it freezes well, I like to freeze it in ice cube trays to pop out smaller portions.
doubled thia recipe and it worked out to perfection! Added pizza mozerella instead of the parmesan and it turned out amazingly!!!
I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Love pesto in chicken salad with extra lemon. So good!
Made 30 jars with this recipe ans its Fantastic
Thank you for sharing
Wow, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
This is soooo good. as always!
can you freeze this?
yep! It freezes well.
phenomenal, as always.
My husband is making this now. Smells amazing. I always grow basil and make extra pesto to freeze in ice cube trays. Nothing like a cube of pesto dropped into hot minestrone soup on a cold winter day!
I hope you enjoy it! I love your strategy to freeze some for the winter 🙂
This recipe is great and I’ve made it a ton of times! Tonight though, something weird happened…it didn’t taste as flavorful and the pesto turned black after sitting in the pot with the pasta for maybe 30 minutes. Any idea why this happened?? The last batch stayed green even though the leftovers! Thanks!
Hi Lisa, it might have to do with how fresh your basil was?
This was my first attempt at making pesto from scratch. I had almonds, so toasted and used them. So easy and delicious!
My research in trying to figure out how to use the pesto now that I made it, led to the following: I believe leaving it in the pot was the problem with your black pesto. It doesn’t like heat. The pasta should be in a bowl, not the pot, when you add the pesto and whatever else to toss.
That was one of the best pestos I’ve ever made. Thank you for this delicious recipe. I was able to put my CSA basil to good use!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it!