Pesto is a traditional sauce originating in the Liguria region of northern Italy, traditionally consisting of fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. The name ‘pesto’ derives from the Italian word ‘pestare’, which means to ‘pound’ or to ‘crush’.
Pesto was traditionally made with a pestle and mortar, but nowadays it is often made in a food processor. Although this is the traditional pesto, many other sauces exist that are made in a similar way with similar ingredients.
In opposition to the likewise Italian Alfredo Sauce, Pesto is widely known and enjoyed by the locals, rather than just a dish popular among tourists.
Types of Pesto
Because pesto has now become a generic term for any sauce made with herbs and nuts, the original pesto is now known in Italy as pesto alla Genovese, as this is the region in Liguria where pesto actually comes from. Pistou is a similar sauce to pesto, and this is a regional sauce made in Provence, usually from herbs, garlic, and the olive oil only; cheese and nuts are not usually added.
The most famous recipe will use Genovese basil, a plant that actually stems from North Africa and tropical Asia, more exactly: India.
There is also a variation that uses pecorino cheese which gives a more peppery taste compared to the original classic. Is used in the Italian regions where pecorino is more available (i.e. Sardegna). To make it, simply follow the original recipe, but use pecorino instead of parmesan. You can also mix the two cheeses to your own taste.
Red pesto (pesto rosso)
There is a red form of Pesto, too. This Pesto rosso stems from Sicily in Southern Italy and will use sun-dried tomatoes and maybe red bell peppers for its preparation. All forms will make use of extra virgin olive oil, a very high-quality oil.
Read more about the typical Pesto ingredients here.
Green pestos are the most traditional type, but red pestos are equally as delicious — they simply include the tomatoes (usually sun-dried or sun-blushed), as well as the usual herbs, nuts, cheese, and olive oil. However, peppers can also be used, as can charred sweet chilies. Black olives are also sometimes used, as is rocket and lemon juice.
Other variations of pesto may contain tomato paste and ricotta or olive paste. Basil is sometimes replaced with mint, and pine nuts with walnuts. For a stronger taste, the nuts are toasted briefly in a dry pan.
Commercial pesto is commonly available in supermarkets either in its green form (pesto alla Genovese) or as the red one (with sun-dried tomatoes or red bell peppers).
Usually, the main ingredient should be extra virgin olive oil, but cheap products might replace it with other, cheaper, oils (sometimes even sunflower oil might be used). While there is no harm in this, it is not the best pesto experience you can get and you should search for it.
Also, be aware of lower quality cheese, sometimes merchandised in stores as Parmesan. Sometimes, Pesto containing a certain quantity of sugar has been observed, or the usage of citric acid instead of lemon juice. The usage of nuts sauce instead pine nuts might be another point where some industrial pesto products will deliver you a poorer culinary experience than you deserve.
Commercialized pesto sauce might have even other ingredients that can change the taste. So we will advise you to take a closer look at the ingredients before buying. The best choice, however, is still the homemade Pesto. If you prefer to get some ready to use sauces, we will work on a small collection we recommend when you want to buy Pesto online.
Pesto Nutrition Facts
The pesto that you buy at the grocery store or online usually has around 430 calories per 100 grams (that would be some 3.5 oz). If you get a really good pesto based on traditional ingredients, you should be lucky and consider Pesto a healthy dish: pine nuts have the highest concentrations of any seeds when it comes to proteins: they contain not less than 31 grams per 100 grams.
Moreover, they feature a high concentration of monounsaturated fat, just as olive oil, which adds to its list of benefits and also a lot of antioxidative substances.
Homemade pesto will keep in a jar in the refrigerator for about a week. It is used to season salads, pasta, pizzas, and meat. And why not put it on your sandwich instead of mayonnaise or ketchup?
Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. This should stay fresh for 2 – 3 days in the refrigerator but can also be frozen if you want to keep it longer.
How to make pesto
Now, let me teach you how to make Basil Pesto:
- 2 bunches of basil (60 g)
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 200 ml of olive oil
- 100 g of pine nuts
- 100 g grated parmesan
- salt and pepper
The traditional way
According to some, the Pesto has to be prepared using a marble mortar and a wooden pestle for best results, however, in the modern world we often prefer to use a blender or food processor.
To make pesto with mortar and pestle, add the basil, garlic, salt, and pine nuts to the mortar and grind them to a paste.
Then add the cheese to the mortar and continue pounding (in a circular motion). Finally, whisk in the olive oil until you have the desired consistency, and puree a batch in a matter of minutes.
Using a food processor
When using a food processor or blender, first add the garlic and mince. Next add the basil leaves, pine nuts, and some salt and pepper to the bowl of the processor. While the processor is running, slowly drizzle in virgin olive oil until all the ingredients are pureed.
Remember to pause the processor as needed to scrape down the sides with a spoon or spatula so as to keep all the sauce at the bottom of the container. Finally, add the grated Parmesan cheese and blend it into the sauce. If your pesto sauce is too thick, you can add a tablespoon of water.
Although most recipes state that a food processor should be used, you could always use a pestle and mortar to make your pesto or if your knife skills are particularly good you can chop all of the ingredients very finely before mixing with the olive oil.
Pesto and pine nuts
Some pesto variations ask for nuts. In my opinion, toasted pine nuts are the best option because they and richness and creaminess to the sauceorget what you read about substituting walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts. Pine nuts are is the only ingredient that provides the creamy texture that binds this sauce.
Miscellaneous Pesto Notes
When cut basil is exposed to oxygen, it eventually blackens. If you must make the pesto ahead of time, cover the top of the batch with a light layer of olive oil and press a piece of plastic wrap evenly over the surface. Refrigerate. Leave the pesto out to reach room temperature before adding it to a recipe.
If you are fanatical, water the plant a few hours before picking it to perk up the leaves. Use only fresh basil from a plant that has not yet gone to seed. The leaves are at their sweetest before flowering. Pick just before preparation, bathe tenderly in cold water, and dry by gently blotting between layers of paper towel or dishtowels.
Other pesto tips include:
- Never heat pesto sauce – the basil will turn black and taste bitter.
- Never use dried basil or you’re in for a rude surprise.
- Experiment with pesto – add it to soups, soft cheese, sandwiches, and life.
- Does your pesto taste a tad flat? Add 1/4 teaspoon of high-quality balsamic vinegar to round it out.
Cooking with Pesto – Pesto Dishes and Recipes
For Italians, Pesto means, first of all, a sauce they serve with any kind of pasta. But much more than this: pesto can be prepared and served with other kinds of dishes, too. I tried it even with shrimp recipes. The results were wonderful.
The internationalized kitchen contributed just as much as Italian innovations to a growing stock of pesto recipes with different ingredients and flavors.