Cooking

Do It Right: Making Pesto

The best techniques for making pesto at home
Basil Pesto
Photo: Tasting Table

The Task
A bowl of pesto-slicked pasta is one of life's great culinary pleasures, but if you're enjoying Italy's famous basil-based sauce only on spaghetti, you're missing out. Pesto makes an excellent marinade for any fish or meat, Gavin Kaysen, chef and owner of Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, says. It's also wonderful on polenta or alongside grilled vegetables, Jenn Louis, chef and owner of Portland's Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern, notes.

However you use pesto, you definitely want to make your own. Pesto requires few ingredients and comes together in about 10 minutes. It's also flexible, inviting you to play with the flavors and textures to create your own perfect version.

The Recipe
Classic pesto includes basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan and salt, but taste should always trump tradition, so think of that as just a jumping-off point. Use the freshest basil possible and look for small, tender leaves, Tandy Wilson, chef/owner of Nashville's City House, says. Don't let the garlic overpower the basil, Louis warns, and grate the cloves first to avoid chunks. Pine nuts are often toasted, but it's fine to use them raw if that's the flavor you're after, Louis says. Wilson skips the pine nuts altogether, preferring peanuts, because they're cultivated closer to home.

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To amp up the pepperiness, Kaysen swaps pecorino for Parmesan and even adds a bit of arugula. Lemon zest or juice is another common addition. The nuts, oil and cheese soak up a lot of flavor, so be liberal with citrus, as well as salt, and trust your palate to create something bright and zingy, Jessica Koslow, chef/owner of Los Angeles's Sqirl, advises. The overall goal is balance—pesto should be very flavorful, Wilson says, but no one ingredient should dominate.

Pesto is ripe for even looser interpretation. Koslow makes a stripped-down nut- and cheese-free sorrel pesto, while Kaysen's favorite features kale. Wilson makes a version with walnuts, garlic, rosemary and pecorino, and Louis favors a cilantro pesto, which she uses for sandwiches, pasta, clams and grilled pork.

The Technique: Food Processor
Louis makes pesto in a food processor, because it's easier, faster and more consistent. If you're following suit, make sure your blade is super sharp—delicate basil bruises easily, and clean cuts are the secret to pesto that's bright green, Louis says. She works gradually and typically starts with the nuts and basil, followed by the oil, garlic, cheese and salt, but the order of ingredients isn't important. It's about adding, pulsing and tasting as you go. Constant blending is fine, Koslow says, but pulsing offers more control, and you definitely want to pulse at the end when finalizing the texture. Koslow recommends scraping the bowl several times throughout the process and notes that though a blender will do the trick, the food processor's wide bowl makes the process much easier.

The Technique: Mortar and Pestle
Using a mortar and pestle creates a more rustic, chunky pesto with visual and edible differences in texture, Kaysen explains. Start by creating a paste with the nuts, garlic and salt, then add the basil, cheese and olive oil, and work gradually to create a consistency you like. "Don't be afraid to use some muscle," Koslow insists. It should be obvious that there are nuts and leaves in pesto, but you do want to create some smoothness. The final product is really up to you. "No matter the texture," Koslow says, "it's going to be delicious."

Storage
Fresh pesto will always be better, but you can make it ahead of time. Cover pesto with a thin layer of olive oil and store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few days, Louis says. Alternately, freeze pesto in ice cube trays, then place the cubes in freezer bags and freeze for up to one month.

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