What Is Pesto and How Do You Make It At Home?

Plus, is it healthy? 

There's something beautiful and simple about freshly made pesto. What's not to love about the vibrant green sauce with the freshest taste imaginable? Here's everything you need to know about eating, making, and appreciating pesto:

What Is Pesto?

Fresh Pesto Genovese in glass
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Pesto, or pesto alla genovese, is a basil-based sauce that originated in Genoa, the capital of Liguria, Italy. Traditional pesto is made with basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt, and Parmesan (or another type of hard Italian cheese, such as Pecorino). You can prepare it with a mortar and pestle (this is the traditional method) or using a blender/food processor.

Types of Italian Pesto

Fusilli pasta with pesto sauce in a white bowl on a light blue slate, stone or concrete background. Top view with copy space.
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Classic pesto alla genovese is made with basil, but the word "pesto" refers to anything made by pounding. Other types of Italian pesto include:

  • Pesto Modenese, which is made with salami, Parmesan, garlic, rosemary or thyme. It's typically found on pizza or bread as opposed to pasta.
  • Pesto alla Trapanese, which is made with basil, tomatoes, almonds, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan.
  • Pesto Rosso, which is made with sun-dried tomatoes, almonds, red pepper flakes, rosemary, olive oil, and garlic.

Is Pesto Healthy?

Ingredients for pesto on white ground
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Pesto is a relatively healthy sauce on it's own. Let's break it down ingredient-by-ingredient:

  • Basil, which has a long history of medicinal use, is a great source of vitamin K and antioxidants. It contains only 1 calorie per two tablespoons.
  • Parmesan is a low-lactose, calcium-rich cheese that may promote bone health. With 22 calories per tablespoon, Parmesan is good for you in moderation.
  • Olive oil contains lots of antioxidants and is rich in healthy fats, which are essential for a healthy lifestyle. It has about 119 calories per tablespoon.
  • Pine nuts are rich in protein, iron, magnesium, and vitamin E. They have about 191 calories per ounce.
  • Garlic is highly nutritious (it's a good source of manganese, vitamins B6 and C, and fiber) and is low in calories (about 4 calories per clove).

When it comes to the healthiness of sauces, you need to consider A.) the foods you're pairing them with — it's unlikely you regularly eat pesto by the spoonful and B.) your health needs. For instance, someone watching their carb intake may want to choose a Pesto Chicken Bake instead of a Pesto Pasta.

How Long Does Pesto Last?

Preserving jar of homemade basil pesto
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It depends on if your pesto is homemade or store-bought. Homemade pesto will generally last about five days if it's stored correctly (in an airtight container in the fridge).

Open jarred pesto may last slightly longer because of added preservatives. When it comes to store-bought sauce, it's best to adhere to the best-by and use-by dates included on the label. Of course, if it smells bad or looks bad, don't eat it — regardless of what it says on the label. When in doubt, throw it out.

Can You Freeze Pesto?

Yes! If you want to keep your pesto for longer than a few days, you may want to consider freezing it. To freeze pesto:

  1. Transfer cool pesto into freezer-safe bags. To make things easier on yourself down the road, freeze it in amounts you'll use in one sitting (1 cup, ½ cup, etc.). This way, you won't have to thaw and refreeze all the pesto every time you use it.
  2. Label the bags with the date and amount. Freeze up to four months.
  3. To thaw: Transfer the bag from the freezer to the fridge and let thaw overnight.

Some people choose to freeze their pesto in ice cube trays, as smaller portions are perfect for stirring into salad dressings or flavoring single meals.

Pesto Substitute

Pesto Spread on Bread

Pesto has such a unique flavor, there's really no substitute for the real thing. If you're in a pinch and don't have time to make a batch, try crushing or finely chopping basil leaves and mixing with olive oil to form a green paste.

How to Make Pesto

Preparing pesto alla genovese with mortar
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You can prepare pesto the modern way (with a blender or food processor) or the traditional way (with a good old-fashioned mortar and pestle). Making pesto is really just a matter of pulverizing and combining fresh ingredients — but you'll need a good recipe to ensure your pesto turns out perfectly every time. Here are a few of our favorites:

Pesto with a Mortar and Pestle

Proper Pesto
Proper Pesto | Photo by Chef John.

"There are lots of recipes people claim taste better if made by hand, but there's no easier case to prove that than pesto," says Chef John. "The intensity of the flavors is beyond compare, and as if by some kind of magic, this gorgeous spread develops an addictive spiciness. You can taste each ingredient, and yet when smashed together, new and wonderful flavors are released."

Get the recipe: Proper Pesto

Pesto with a Blender

Healthy Laura

"Basic pesto, made with basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese," says recipe creator ANDERVAL. "This recipe differs from the classic preparation by the addition of parsley. You can add a little extra Parmesan to the mixture if you like."

Get the recipe: Pesto

Allergy-Friendly Pesto

"I went the nut-free route and this turned out great," says reviewer Soup Loving Nicole. "Garlic scapes were not available so I used two cloves of garlic the submitter mentioned in the notes. This was super fresh tasting and worked great on my sandwich."

Get the recipe: Pesto Sauce (Nut-Free and Dairy-Free)

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