Homemade pesto sauce is so easy to make and tastes fresher than the purchased kind. This aromatic herb paste is traditionally made with only a handful of simple ingredients: fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil. So how do you make pesto sauce right? Let's take a look.

By Carl Hanson
Updated July 08, 2020
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How to Make Pesto Sauce with Basil

Try this recipe for Pesto Geneovese that Matthew demonstrates in the video above.

Making basil pesto is a simple procedure. You'll start with a few simple pesto ingredients: a few cups of packed fresh basil, 3 or 4 peeled cloves of garlic, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, extra-virgin olive oil, and pine nuts. There's not much prep work involved.

You'll simply blend together the basil, nuts, garlic, and cheese in a food processor (like this bestseller from Cuisinart). And then slowly pour in the olive oil while mixing. Adding salt and pepper at the end to taste. And that's how to make basil pesto sauce. That's essentially all there is to it. There are, of course, tasty variations on this basic recipe.

How to Make Pesto without a Food Processor

Here's how to make pesto at home even if you don't have a food processor or blender: Use a mortar and pestle (you can find them for under $10). In fact, that's how to make true traditional pesto -- after all, folks were making pesto for centuries before the electric food processor.

Why make pesto with a mortar and pestle? Chef John explains: "The intensity of the flavors is beyond compare. Hand making the pesto develops an addictive spiciness. You can taste each ingredient, and yet when smashed together, new and wonderful flavors are released."

How to Store Pesto

Freezing Pesto in Serving Sized Portions
Photo by Meredith

How to Store Pesto in the Fridge

  1. Store pesto in jars or airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week. Another way to store pesto is in the freezer (for about 6 months).

How to Freeze and Reheat Pesto

  1. Make your pesto as usual, and then freeze it in an ice cube tray
  2. Transfer the cubes to a heavy duty plastic freezer bag. (Reserve an ice cube tray for this purpose, as it might discolor and flavor your plastic tray.)Now you have pesto in manageable portion sizes!
  3. Thaw frozen pesto in the refrigerator or in the microwave on medium power just until room temperature.

What to Make with Pesto

So now we know how to make homemade pesto sauce for pasta. And it's true, pesto is most commonly used as a pasta sauce. Because pesto sauce has very concentrated flavor, just a little will do -- so it's not just delicious, healthy, and fresh, it's also budget friendly.

How to Make Pesto With Pasta

light lemon pesto pasta
Light Lemon Pesto Pasta
| Credit: Baking Nana

Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water when you drain the pasta. Return the drained pasta to the hot pan, and add a tablespoonful or so of pesto, adding your reserved pasta water a little bit at a time until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. The starch in the water will help to thicken the sauce and allow it to coat the penne or linguine (or whatever shape you choose).

Serve the pesto pasta as is, or top it with chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh chopped basil, and toasted pine nuts. Add sautéed vegetables and leftover cooked chicken or ham if you like.

More Ways to Use Pesto

Pesto pizza
Photo by Meredith

So that's how to make penne pasta with pesto sauce. Of course, there are so many other things to make with pesto beyond pastas. Yes, here are just some of of places for pesto. Try pesto:

When you have pesto on hand, quick, healthy dinners are within your grasp. Don't miss these 12 Pesto Dinners Ready in 30 Minutes or Less.

Quick FAQs for Making Pesto:

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to how to make your own pesto, from what nuts can you use to make pesto to can you make pesto in a blender to how to store your homemade pesto.

How can I keep pesto from turning brown?

  • Fresh basil is very delicate, and will turn brown if it gets very hot or if it's exposed to air for long periods of time. Here's how to keep basil green when making pesto: Use a little fresh spinach as well as basil in the pesto -- fresh spinach helps pesto maintain its brilliant green color.
  • You can also keep pesto looking fresh and green by covering the top with a thin layer of olive oil or with a sheet of plastic wrap directly on its surface; this will keep it from oxidizing and turning brown. (If your pesto darkens in color, it will still taste good. Only discard it if it has been stored improperly.

How can I make pesto without basil?

Which nut is used to make pesto?

  • Pine nuts are the traditional nut for making pesto.

How do I make pesto without pine nuts?

  • Pine nuts can be pricey. Luckily, there are many pesto recipes that call for other, cheaper nuts (or combinations of nuts). So what nut is used to make pesto can come down to what nut you have on hand. Here's how to make pesto without pine nuts using walnuts instead.

Can you make pesto with almonds?

How to make pesto without nuts?

How can I make pesto without cheese (vegan pesto)?

  • Here's how to make vegan pesto by substituting nutritional yeast in place of the cheese. Another way to make dairy-free pesto is to use Parmesan-flavored soy topping. Otherwise, you'll prepare your vegan pesto just like you would any other pesto.

Can I make pesto with dried basil?

  • Fresh basil creates the essential taste and texture for pesto, which you can't get from dried basil. However, you can certainly make a quick pasta dish featuring traditional pesto ingredients -- slivered or chopped garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, and grated cheese, along with dried basil instead of fresh -- in a deconstructed "pesto" pasta dish that also doesn't require a food processor or mortar and pestle. Here's a related recipe for Elegant Orzo with Wilted Spinach and Pine Nuts, which you could use as a base for experimentation.

Should you wash basil before making pesto?

  • Yes. You don't want sandy grit in your pesto. Wash the basil leaves on their stems in cool or cold water to get any grit off the leaves, then dry thoroughly. Spin your basil in a salad spinner or dry it with a clean cloth or paper towels.

Can you make pesto in a blender?

  • Yes, making pesto in a blender is just as simple as making pesto in the food processor. Pulse the basil, nuts, garlic, and cheese until blended; then slowly add the olive oil through the opening in the lid, blending as you go.

Can you make pesto in a Vitamix?

  • Yes, you can. Vitamix has specific directions for making pesto sauce in the Vitamix. Basically, you'll add the ingredients and begin blending, starting at Variable 1 and gradually increasing the speed to Variable 7, spinning the blades for about 1 minute.

Can you make pesto in a Nutribullet?

  • You bet. Easy to make pesto sauce may be even easier in a contraption like the Nutribullet. As with the Vitamix, you'll add the ingredients to the Nutribullet and blend to the consistency you like.

When should I add pesto to recipes?

  • When mixing pesto with pasta, potatoes, or risotto, stir it in at the last minute, just before serving.

Related: Check out our collection of Pesto Recipes. And for unique variations on traditional pesto, check out 12 Fresh Takes on Basic Homemade Pesto.