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Italian basil pesto is an easy, versatile summer sauce

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
Classic Basil Pesto
Total time:10 mins
Servings:2 to 8 (makes about 1 cup)
Total time:10 mins
Servings:2 to 8 (makes about 1 cup)

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The last time I wrote about pesto, I got more than a few emails from readers who wanted to set the record straight. “Real pesto is made with basil, and only basil, no other greens,” wrote one newsletter subscriber. “If you want to use other types of greens and nuts in your pesto, good for you,” another reader wrote. “But I’ll be making mine with only basil, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan and garlic.”

The pesto I featured in the newsletter was a gorgeous mustard green and pecan number from cookbook author Julia Turshen. I love it because it’s incredibly adaptable and fairly seasonless.

This genius sauce turns your pasta into a seasonal stunner — no matter the season

But you know what? You all have convinced me: Seasonality is a feature of pesto, not a bug. With my basil growing tall, I pulled out Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Italian Cooking” to see what she had to say about the classic Genoese sauce.

Scale and get a printer-friendly, desktop version of the recipe here.

“Pesto may have become more popular than is good for it,” Hazan wrote, in her matter-of-fact tone. “When I see what goes by that name, and what goes into it, and the bewildering variety of dishes it is slapped on, I wonder how many cooks can still claim acquaintance with pesto.”

Don’t let those fresh herbs rot in your fridge. Make pesto.

In Genoa, the basil that grows in the Italian Riviera is renowned for its cool, clean and lightly peppery, almost sweet flavor. Pesto is an ode to the leafy herb, and named for the process of making it, which is traditionally in a mortar with a pestle: The name of the sauce comes from the Italian verb pestare, meaning to pound.

I’ve made pesto the traditional way, in a large marble mortar with a wooden pestle, and this age-old technique does produce an especially creamy pesto, almost fluffy and very green. Yes, pounding basil into smithereens can be a relaxing activity, but I rarely have the patience for this method.

How to get the most out of your food processor

Fortunately, Hazan offers instructions for both tradition and convenience. For her food processor pesto: Into a food processor bowl goes basil, extra-virgin olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and a pinch of salt. After less than a minute of processing, the dry ingredients have turned into a verdant, velvety dressing. This is poured into a bowl, so you can fold in the grated cheese and, as is traditional, a touch of softened butter. (Here, we’ve made the butter optional, though if you’ve never made it that way, it is worth a try.)

“The beauty of pesto Genovese is that it’s not an exact science. Each family has their secret, their sequence of movements, their balance of flavors,” Roberto Panizza, the World Pesto Champion, told the Italian food importer Gustiamo. Panizza’s recipe is a lot like Hazan’s, except he uses a couple of Italian cheeses that give his pesto more nuance: Vacche Rosse Cheese and Fiore Sardo. Like Hazan, I like Parmesan and a bit of pecorino Romano for additional salinity. You might skip the cheese, which makes the sauce even more versatile.

That’s the beauty of a living cuisine. No matter how much documentation there is, no matter how much respect for tradition, there will always be innovation.

Classic Basil Pesto

What to do with the pesto? The possibilities are almost endless:

For pesto that will stay green in your fridge for a week, blanch the basil first (see NOTE). A quick dip in a boiling water bath sets the herb’s peppery flavor, too. It’s not necessary, but is a nice trick — and one that works with any herb or flavorful leafy green, including parsley, mint, arugula, chard and kale.

Storage: Leftover pesto may be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week. If you’ve blanched the basil (see NOTE), it will stay green; if not, it will gradually turn brown, but will retain its flavor. Pesto may also be frozen, packed airtight, for up to 2 months.

NOTE: To make pesto that will stay green for up to a week, blanch the basil: Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Bring a quart of water and 2 teaspoons of fine sea or table salt to a rolling boil over high heat. Gently stir in the basil, and cook for 45 seconds; it will become deep green and wilted. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the basil to the ice bath. Once it’s cold, strain and use your hands to squeeze out any excess water before proceeding with the recipe.

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Scale and get a printer-friendly, desktop version of the recipe here.


  • 2 cups (2 ounces) packed fresh basil leaves and tender stems
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons (1 ounce) pine nuts, preferably toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 1/2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, or a combination of Parmesan and pecorino Romano
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, very soft but not melted (optional)

Step 1

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the basil (blanched, if desired; see NOTE), olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt. Process until smooth, 30 seconds to 1 minute, stopping to scrape down the bowl, if necessary.

Step 2

Transfer the basil puree to a medium bowl, and stir in the cheese and softened butter, if using. Taste, and add additional salt if desired. Serve or refrigerate until needed.

Nutrition Information

(Per tablespoon)

Calories: 105; Total Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 8 mg; Sodium: 105 mg; Carbohydrates: 1 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 0 g; Protein: 2 g.

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Italian Cooking” (Knopf, 1992).

Tested by G. Daniela Galarza and Ann Maloney; email questions to

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Catch up on this week’s Eat Voraciously newsletter recipes:

Monday: Salmon BLTs

Tuesday: Black Beans With Sauteed Sweet Plantains

Wednesday: Jerk Chicken

The Eat Voraciously newsletter recipe archives