Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto

Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto

The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 0 mins
Total: 10 mins
Servings: 4 to 6 servings
Nutrition Facts (per serving)
385 Calories
37g Fat
6g Carbs
9g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 385
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 37g 48%
Saturated Fat 9g 43%
Cholesterol 25mg 8%
Sodium 1584mg 69%
Total Carbohydrate 6g 2%
Dietary Fiber 2g 8%
Total Sugars 1g
Protein 9g
Vitamin C 3mg 17%
Calcium 189mg 15%
Iron 2mg 8%
Potassium 264mg 6%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

The word "pesto" in Italian means "pounded," so conceivably anything that is pounded can be considered a pesto. A pesto, in the traditional culinary sense, refers to an uncooked sauce made with fresh basilgarlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

Since this is an uncooked sauce, use good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin oils are smoother and lighter and won't compete with the other ingredients so their flavors will shine through. This pesto sauce recipe gets a little shake-up by substituting sunflower seeds for the pine nuts (which tend to be expensive) and adding butter with the olive oil.

Once made, it is tossed with hot pasta for a quick, vegetarian meal or side dish. This sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated, covered, for up to two weeks. You can also freeze pesto for up to six months.


  • 4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped

  • 1 cup raw sunflower seeds

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto ingredients

    The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

  2. Place basil, sunflower seeds, olive oil, Parmesan, butter, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process to a puree, frequently scraping down the sides.

    Place basil, sunflower seeds, olive oil, Parmesan, butter, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor

    The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

  3. Transfer pesto to a small bowl with a lid. Press a sheet of plastic wrap to the surface of the pesto, then seal with the lid until ready to use.

    pesto in a plastic container covered with plastic wrap

    The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

  4. Let the pesto come to room temperature before tossing with pasta.

    Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto served with pasta

    The Spruce / Eric Kleinberg

Recipe Variations

Alter your pesto in a multitude of ways:

  • Use walnuts in place of pine nuts.
  • Try using Pecorino Romano cheese in place of Parmesan.
  • Substitute baby spinach or arugula for the fresh basil.
  • Add sautéed, poached, or grilled chicken, shrimp, or salmon for a more filling meal for the carnivores in your household.
  • Add 2/3 cup very warm heavy cream to every 3/4 cup of pesto sauce for a creamy pesto sauce.

How to Use Pesto Sauce

When you are combining pasta with a refined sauce like pesto, the best pasta to use is one that has holes or twists and turns that will sop up more of the sauce. Choose penne, fusilli, bucatini, campanelli, cavatelli, ditalini, and others, but don't count out straight pasta like fettuccine if that's all you have.

  • Cook 1 pound of pasta of choice in salted water.

  • When pasta is cooked al dente, remove from the heat and drain.

  • In a large bowl, combine 3/4 cup room-temperature pesto with 2/3 cup hot pasta water. 

  • Add drained pasta to the bowl and toss to combine.

  • Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Toss again and serve immediately.

Recipe Tags: