Every summer I look forward to the time when my basil plants finally grow large enough for my first batch of pesto. It kicks off a cooking season where pesto is incorporated into as many Italian dishes as I can make. Once you master the basic herb + nuts + oil combination, the possibilities are endless.
Classic basil pesto has basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, & parmesan cheese and is mixed in a mortar and pestle. The classics are classic for a reason, but experimenting with pesto recipes is very fun. A few of my favorites are sage & almond pesto as well as mint, Thai basil, & peanut pesto. You can also make small substitutions on the traditional recipe like using walnuts instead of pine nuts or adding some spinach instead of all basil to tone down the spiciness.
I found the best twist on traditional basil pesto is the addition of a bit of lemon juice. Pesto can be overly rich sometimes, so for pesto that can go on literally everything (pizza, pasta, caprese salad, appetizer board, the list goes on and on), add a little lemon juice to keep things light and refreshing.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- 4 cups basil leaves, loosely packed
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Start by prepping and setting out all of your ingredients – peel and roughly chop your garlic cloves, grate and measure out your parmesan cheese, juice your lemon, and remove the stems from your basil. For the pine nuts, you can usually buy them already toasted although sometimes it’s cheaper to buy them untoasted. If yours aren’t toasted, I recommend toasting them! It gives an overall nuttier flavor to the pesto. Just make sure the nuts have sufficiently cooled before blending them in the pesto.
If you’re using basil from your own garden, check out this great article on how to best prune basil. How you prune your herbs really makes all the difference in your yield.
Now that everything is prepped, it’s time to get mixing. I find that using a food processor is the easiest way to get good pesto every time, though you could also use a blender, and if you’re really adventurous could try the mortar and pestle route as well.
Add your basil, garlic cloves, and lemon juice to the food processor and pulse a few times to combine. The liquid from the lemon juice helps everything blend smoothly.
Once the basil, lemon juice, and garlic are combined, add the pine nuts and kosher salt to the food processor. Mix on low for 10-15 seconds to fully incorporate everything. I keep a rubber spatula handy to scrape the sides as needed and make sure everything is evenly mixed.
While the food processor is running on low, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to emulsify. The resulting texture should be creamy, not separated like a vinaigrette.
Finally, add the parmesan cheese and blend on low for 5-10 seconds to combine.
Taste the pesto and adjust any seasonings to your personal preference. This pesto recipe is purposefully on the more neutral side so that it can be used in just about any pesto dish you’d like (including dipped as is on some crunchy baguette). Less garlic than normal keeps it mild and the lemon juice keeps it bright and not too rich.
To store pesto, spoon into an airtight container and squeeze a little lemon juice over the top to slow oxidation. Take a piece of plastic wrap and press it onto the top as well. Seal container and place in refrigerator for 3-5 days.
Classic Basil Pesto
Basil pesto with garlic and a hint of lemon
- 4 cups basil leaves loosely packed
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 garlic cloves roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup pine nuts lightly toasted
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese grated
In a food processor, pulse basil leaves, lemon juice, and garlic cloves to combine.
Add pine nuts and kosher salt and blend on low for 10-15 seconds
While food processor is running on low, drizzle in olive oil slowly to emulsify
Add parmesan cheese and blend on low once more to combine.
Taste and adjust seasonings accordingly