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)
538 Calories
41g Fat
36g Carbs
21g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 538
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 41g 52%
Saturated Fat 10g 48%
Cholesterol 22mg 7%
Sodium 303mg 13%
Total Carbohydrate 36g 13%
Dietary Fiber 21g 75%
Protein 21g
Calcium 1270mg 98%
*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 6 months.


  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds (raw, hulled)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (at 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 purée, 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.

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