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What is Pesto?

Diane Goettel
Updated: Jan 25, 2024

The name "pesto" comes from the same Latin root of "pestle," which is fitting as the sauce, in its simplest form, is made by crushing a few key ingredients together. There are two forms — pesto alla genovese and pesto alla siciliana— and they come from Genoa and Sicily, respectively. While these and other recipes can vary, most include basil.

Pesto alla genoese is made with garlic, salt, extra virgin olive oil, Pecorino Sardo cheese, and Genoese basil. It is important to note that Genoese basil is just one member of the large basil family. The recipe for the Sicilian version is similar, but with tomatoes and less basil. It is widely accepted that the Genoese recipe was the original.

This type of sauce, made with many different ingredients, have been part of Italian cuisines since Roman times. In addition to the two basic recipes, others include red bell peppers, sun dried tomatoes, pine nuts, walnuts, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese. In fact, some sauces are made with arugula instead of basil.

Pesto is a very versatile sauce and can be used as a bruschetta topping, on pasta, on cooked meats, and even in soups. A lovely way to explore these sauces is to buy a few different kinds, and make a platter of bruschetta using each one.

In general, basil is a hearty plant. People who live in a climate that favors these plants may quickly find themselves with a garden full of the aromatic herb. Most basil plants grow year after year and will increase in size if they are planted in nourishing soil. While the herb is delicious to eat fresh from the bush in salads or as a pasta topping, it can also be preserved in a sauce.

This very simple pesto sauce can be prepared, no matter how much fresh basil a cook has on hand:

  • 4 parts fresh basil leaves
  • 1 part Pecorino Sardo cheese
  • 2 parts olive oil
  • 1 part pine nuts
  • 1 part minced fresh garlic

The cook can either mix the ingredients in a food processor or simply crush them together with a mortar and pestle. In order to preserve the sauce for as long as possible, a layer of olive oil should be added on top of the sauce once it has been placed in a jar. It can keep in then refrigerator this way for over a week and can be kept in the freezer for up to three months.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By croydon — On Nov 19, 2012

@anon28561 - You can absolutely use macadamia nuts, and in fact I'd say they are probably one of the better replacements for pine nuts as they have the same high oil count. I've also heard of people using walnuts. Although I think if you were making it from scratch you'd have to make sure to remove the skins from the walnuts which could be annoying. It might be better to just buy pesto.

Macadamia nut pesto sounds amazing, so I would definitely use those if you have them available.

By indigomoth — On Nov 19, 2012

@Mor - While I mostly agree with you, I would add that you should be careful about adding pesto to a hot pan if you're frying something. Garlic doesn't need to be cooked for very long at all, and, while you can get away with a steady heat if it's well distributed, putting garlic on direct heat (like hot oil) can lead to it becoming bitter, particularly if it burns.

So, experiment with pesto, by all means, but keep this in mind.

By Mor — On Nov 18, 2012

@anon66417 - You can add it at several different points depending on what kind of effect you want. If you want to use it like a garnish or a sauce, you can add it at the end, or even just leave a pot of it on the table for people to add it themselves (pesto can be very strong depending on the ingredients, so some people might prefer to go without it).

Or, you can add it during the cooking process, and use it like a seasoning, or to flavor the sauce, or whatever you want, really. It depends on the recipe but I don't really think there's a wrong time to add it. When you look at what ingredients there are in the pesto, you can see that it cooks fast, but shouldn't really overcook if it's mixed with the other ingredients.

Good luck! Fresh pesto is really a delicious thing to add to a meal, it adds a touch of class.

By anon66417 — On Feb 19, 2010

At what point do I add pesto to the mix if I am using chicken, steak or a verity of vegetables.

By anon40443 — On Aug 08, 2009

Basil gets dark in the freezer.

I brought a cookbook back from Italy, in which the author calls pine nuts in pesto an unsuitable digression. I've come to agree. I like it better with just fresh basil, garlic, salt, parmesan, and a good quality olive oil.

By tablogloid — On Mar 19, 2009

As well as roasting the pine nuts or whatever nuts you prefer, I only crush about half of them into a paste. The rest I add whole and/or slightly crushed to the final mix. This adds a variety of nutty textures to the pesto.

By anon28561 — On Mar 18, 2009

Can I use macadamia nuts instead of pine nuts and should I roast the nuts first? cheers, Donna

By tablogloid — On Mar 05, 2009

Here's a little variation I use when making pesto.

I set aside some pine nuts and/or thin slices of garlic and stir them into to the mashed mixture. They add a whole dimension to the pesto experience.

By bestcity — On Jun 11, 2008

To improve and maintain the green color of pesto, it is good to add a little fresh parsley. So, to two cups of basil, add two tablespoons of parsley leaves.

To release the flavors and oils of basil, placing basil in a plastic bag and pounding it with a rolling pin will do the job.

By anon375 — On Apr 23, 2007

Once the pesto is been in the freezer it does get dark on the pasta, why?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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