This might come as a surprise, but the basics of pesto math are pretty simple. There’s no rule about always using basil, parmesan cheese, or even pine nuts for that matter.
It’s a fairly simple equation: Greens + Nuts + Cheese + Garlic + Oil + Citrus.
We say always keep the garlic, oil (we prefer olive, but you can sub in a neutral oil if you’d like a milder flavor) and citrus, but the greens, nuts and cheese are variables that can change when whipping up pesto. And a food processor makes easy work of blending it all together.
Best Greens for Pesto
Move aside basil, we’re using other herbs or even leafy greens in our pestos. Your choice of greens will have the greatest effect on your finished sauce, but don’t be too worried, almost any greens work here and combining a few isn’t a bad idea (we actually encourage it!).
- Parsley: While still bright, it can be a milder flavor and lets the nuts and cheese really shine.
- Cilantro: Assuming you don’t have the gene that makes cilantro taste like soap, it makes a fresh-tasting sauce—add a pepper with a kick to lean into the Mexican flavor profile.
- Arugula: Makes a more pungent, peppery paste.
- Broccoli Rabe: A bit more bold and bitter in flavor.
- Carrot Tops/Greens: Don’t toss ‘em, use them for a light carrot-flavored sauce.
- Garlic Scapes: Very, very garlicky and pungent, packs tons of flavor in a small bite.
- Kale: Heartier, a hint of bitterness to it.
Substitutes for Pine Nuts in Pesto
Don’t get us wrong, we love a classic pesto with pine nuts, but we sometimes it’s nice to branch out and experiment with other types of nuts. Just remember to toast any nut lightly to ensure that the full nutty flavor comes through.
- Almonds: Adds a slight buttery taste and gives it an added crunch.
- Walnuts: Makes for an earthy addition to the sauce.
- Pecans: Slight sweetness comes through.
- Pumpkin or Sunflower Seeds: Earthy and light (pumpkin seeds pair nicely with cilantro pesto).
Best Cheeses for Pesto
Technically, the cheese can be left out if you want to make a dairy-free pesto. If you’re going full dairy, parm isn’t the only option out there. Any hard cheese that is aged and salty will do wonders in pesto.
- Manchego: Gives a a nutty, tanginess to the pesto.
- Gouda: Adds some creaminess and sweetness.
- Asiago: Brings some sharp, creaminess.
- Pecorino Romano: Parm’s cousin, a salty, sharp addition.
Basic Pesto Recipe
To make pesto at home, follow this recipe, though pesto is pretty forgiving if you fudge some of the measurements.
Recipe adapted from Love and Lemons
For 1 cup of pesto, you will need:
- 2 big handfuls of greens
- ¼ cup of nuts
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 garlic clove
- ¼-½ cup olive oil
- Salt & Pepper to taste
When you’ve picked your variables, add all ingredients, except for the oil, to a food processor. Drizzle in the olive oil as you’re processing. Use more oil if you like your pesto more runny.
Learn how long pesto and other sauces last in the fridge, plus try your hand at homemade salad dressing and bolognese sauce.