Classic Basil Pesto Sauce Recipe

Classic basil pesto sauce in a small white bowl
The Spruce
Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 0 mins
Total: 10 mins
Servings: 5 servings
Yields: 1 1/4 cups

Traditionally, pesto is a sauce made of fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and aged hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and/or Pecorino Sardo.

And strictly speaking, that's what it still is. To a certain extent, however, the notion of pesto has become more fluid and, some might say, creatively imagined. Its meaning has expanded to encompass any preparation involving a puree of some leafy green along with garlic, olive oil, nuts, and cheese. Sometimes alternate pesto definition includes things such as parsley, mint, arugula, kale, or even peas.

There are endless ways to use pesto. You can toss cooked pasta directly with the pesto. Or, if you want to thin out the pesto sauce a little, add a spoonful or two of the hot pasta water to the pesto, then toss with the cooked pasta and serve right away. Garnish with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Pesto also works well as a base for pizza (instead of tomato sauce), whisked into scrambled eggs, thinned out with mayonnaise for a french fry dip, added to sour cream for a chip dip, or spread on crusty bread for a sandwich. Pesto is very versatile.

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Ingredients

  • 2 cups basil leaves

  • 3 clove cloves garlic

  • 1/2 cup pine nuts

  • 1/4 tsp kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 3/4 cup freshly grated hard cheese (such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino-Romano cheese, or a combo of the two)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

    Ingredients for classic basil pesto sauce
    The Spruce  
  2. Combine all the ingredients except the oil and cheeses in a food processor.

    Basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor for pesto

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  3. Pulse until the pesto is blended into a slightly coarse paste.​

    Pesto sauce blended into a paste in a food processor

    The Spruce

  4. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the oil and cheeses.​

    Pesto in a bowl with cheese and oil

    The Spruce

  5. Enjoy!

    Classic basil pesto sauce in a white bowl

    The Spruce

How Can You Make Pesto Taste Better?

Sometimes pesto can taste bitter. Extra-virgin olive oil contains relatively large amounts of chemical compounds called polyphenols, which usually remain trapped within the fat molecules of the oil. But when those fat droplets are broken up by the blades of a blender or food processor, the polyphenols, which have a bitter flavor, are released into the emulsion. Thus, the more the oil is blended, the more bitter it can become.


The solution? Puree the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in the blender, then stir in the cheese and oil by hand. An alternate solution is to instead use pure olive oil, which has been refined, and therefore most of its polyphenols have been removed. It won't be as bitter, but it might also be kind of bland.


Another benefit to adding the olive oil at the end also allows you to control the consistency. If you're planning to use the pesto for pasta or gnocchi, you might want it a bit thinner. For a dip or spread, use less oil and it'll be thicker.

Pesto Variations

  • Walnuts are often substituted for pine nuts, which aren't exactly cheap. But you can also use cashews, pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds or, even pumpkin seeds (but make sure they have the hulls removed).
  • As for the cheese, it's best to use a hard cheese such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, or Pecorino Sardo, the latter of which can be difficult to find. You can also experiment with other aged hard cheeses, including ones made from sheep's milk.

How to Store Pesto

Pesto tastes best when you use it as soon as you make it. Anything you don't use immediately you can refrigerate in a sealed container and it's good for 4 to 5 days. It may thicken in the fridge and discolor, but if you stir it and add a little oil it will come back to the right consistency and color.


You can also freeze pesto. A great trick is to spoon it into ice cube trays, freeze it, then crack them out into a zip-close bag so that you can use them whenever you want. (This is especially good in the middle of winter.)