How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

A vibrant pesto recipe taught to me by my friend Francesca's mother who came to visit from Genoa, Italy. Made with hand-chopped basil, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil and pine nuts. The real deal.

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

If you've ever tasted pesto in Italy you know that the pesto here in the United States just isn't the same. I received a lesson in how to make pesto from a real Italian grandmother last week and now I understand the difference and what makes this pesto recipe so special.
How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

A Special Pesto

My friend Francesca makes the trip from her small town near the pesto-epicenter of Genoa, Italy to San Francisco once or twice a year - this time (lucky for us) she brought her mom and two-year old son Mattia. Her mom makes a beautiful pesto (and perfectly light, potato gnocchi to go along with it) and offered to show me and my friend Jen how it is done. I have to say, it was a complete game-changer. If you love pesto, you really have to try this. Her technique results in an incredibly special version.
A lot of Chopped Basil is the First Step to Pesto

Pesto Technique

Most of the pesto you encounter here in the U.S. is different for a few reasons. First off, most of what you see is made by machine, usually a food processor or hand blender. The cook will pulse into a paste. This holds true even if it is homemade. Don't get me wrong, it usually tastes good, but because the ingredients aren't hand chopped you end up with a texture that is more like like a moist, uniform paste with little to no definition between ingredients. You also might see pesto made with a mortar and pestle. This pesto is something different.

During my lesson I quickly began to realize chopping all the ingredients by hand is key because this prevents the ingredients from becoming a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. When you dress a pasta with a pesto that has been hand chopped the minuscule flecks of basil will separate from the olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese in places. You get definition between ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don't when they've been blended into one.
Fresh Basil Leaves before Being Chopped into Pesto

Video: How to Make Pesto





Choosing The Best Basil for Making Pesto

Genovese pesto is famous in part because it is often made with young, small fresh basil leaves. For us non-Italians it is easy to find Genovese basil in stores and at farmer's markets, particularly in the summer. That said, chances are it wasn't picked young. I wouldn't worry about it too much, simply by hand chopping all your ingredients, you will see a major shift in personality of your pesto.
Close Up Photo of Pesto before Adding Olive Oil

Chop by Hand or Blender?

Per the above, this pesto celebrates hand-chopping. Correspondingly, if you're serious about making good pesto using the hand-chop technique you'll need a sharp (preferably large, single blade) mezzaluna, or a good knife. The sharpness of your blade absolutely matters because you don't want to bruise or tear your basil. Whatever you use to chop, make sure it has a sharp blade or the basil will turn dark. Chopping the ingredients will take twenty minutes or so. Once you chop your ingredients, you'll form them into a cake, pictured above. You add olive oil to this cake, and it's magic.
Pesto Made with a Food Processor or blender

How to Make Pesto with a Blender or Food Processor

We don't always have time to hand chop, I get it! If you want to make pesto using a blender or food processor here's how. Pulse the garlic and pine nuts into a chunky paste. Use the quantities in the recipe below. Add the basil and pulse into a bright green paste. Pulse in the olive oil, adding more if you want a thinner texture. Stir in the grated cheese by hand and season with a bit of salt if needed. Some days, are going to be blender pesto days! 

How to Store Basil

There are a number of great ways to keep basil fresh until you’re ready to use it. If you think you’ll use it within a day or two, keep the basil in a jar of water on your countertop. The way you’d keep a bouquet of flowers. If you think it will be a few days beyond that, treat the basil like you would salad greens. Give the basil a gentle wash, then wrap the leaves in a clean kitchen towel or paper towels, place this in a baggie, and refrigerate until ready to use.

How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother - Finished Pesto in A Jar

Favorite Ways to Use Pesto

What do you eat pesto with? There are so many great ways to use pesto - some traditional, many not. I love a thick slather as the base sauce on a good pizza (this page actually has an extended list of pizza topping ideas). Or, on a tart before adding other toppings. If you have a slab of sourdough coming off the grill, a bit of pesto, some seasonal roasted veggies, and a dusting of cheese makes an easy meal. And because it lends a bolt of flavor, I love to whisk a dollop into scrambled eggs, or an omelette, mashed potatoes, or on baked potatoes.

How to Store Pesto

Generally speaking, store any pesto you might use in the next day or two, refrigerated, under a thin film of olive oil. You can also freeze it in snack-sized baggies. Thaw and toss with whatever gnocchi, ravioli, or other favorite pasta you like - and a good splash of pasta water!

  • How Do I Keep Pesto from Turning Brown? There are a couple ways to keep your pesto bright green. Browning comes from oxidizing. One way to prevent this is to limit exposure to air. Because of this, I like to keep pesto in my narrowest jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top so that no pesto is exposed to air. The other option is to blanch your basil leaves briefly, and proceed with your pesto-making from there. I almost always opt for option one.
  • Can Pesto Be Frozen? Yes! You can absolutely freeze pesto. Any pesto you won’t use within a couple days, transfer to freezer baggies. Freeze flat, and break off chunks of pesto to use whenever you need it. When you need larger quantities defrost the entire bag either in the refrigerator or on your countertop.

Pesto Variations

Don't limit yourself to basil pesto. You can absolutely experiment with a blend of other herbs as well. You can add anything from parsley to marjoram (a favorite!), mint to fresh oregano to your basil base. Or leave the basil out entirely! I like to add citrus zest on occasion, or switch up the type of nuts I use - toasted almonds and walnuts are favorites.

Let me know if you try this and what you think!

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How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother

4.26 from 150 votes

One key to perfect pesto is chopping all the ingredients by hand, preferably with a sharp mezzaluna or knife. This pesto will keep a bit in the refrigerator, but it really hits its peak when served soon after it is made. The technique here is: chop a bit, add some ingredients, chop some more. I think part of the reason she does it this way, instead of chopping everything all at once, is because some things get chopped into oblivion. Other ingredients, not as much. It encourages a spectrum of cut sizes throughout the pesto contributing to the overall texture. All told, the chopping took me a leisurely twenty to thirty minutes, I wasn't in any particular rush. You'll also notice this recipe doesn't have any added salt (just the saltiness from the cheese), make sure your pasta water is well salted if you are going to use this pesto on pasta. If you skip it the overall flavor profile will fall flat. Also, be sure to adjust for seasoning before serving. With food this simple, you need to get the seasoning right. Trust your tastebuds.

Ingredients
  • 1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
  • 3 medium cloves of garlic
  • one small handful of raw pine nuts
  • roughly 3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
  • A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
Special equipment: a mezzaluna for chopping (optional)
Instructions
Chop Ingredients
  1. Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. I scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil "cake" - see the photo up above. Transfer the pesto "cake" to a small bowl (not much bigger than the cake).

Form a Paste
  1. Cover the pesto "cake" with a bit of olive oil. It doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons. At this point, you can set the pesto aside, or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving, give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil. Francesca's mom occasionally thins the pesto with a splash of pasta water for more coverage, but for our gnocchi this wasn't necessary.

Serves
4
Prep Time
20 mins
Total Time
20 mins
 
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Comments

Absolutely the BEST pesto. Yes, takes some chopping effort but the result is more than worth it! I shared your recipe it with my cousin who's grandson adores it. I decimated my six basil plants to make some pesto pasta for a BBQ with friends last weekend, got rave reviews. Thank you! (and the basil will grow back)

Cathy Morris

    So happy to hear it Cathy!

    Heidi Swanson

Making pesto this way is a total game changer for me. I used to always make it in the food processor and by chance I was staying in an RV and found your recipe using just a knife. Wow - what a huge difference in flavor and mouthfeel. I am never going back to using the food processor!

Olivia

    Hi Olivia - fantastic! So happy you liked it!

    Heidi Swanson

How to store basil: Basil will last almost indefinitely in water on the counter. I have tested this all summer. Some of it will even root. Washing it and putting in paper towels will only last a few days. Treat the basil like you would in the garden and cut back those flowers.

dapfel

Yup. This is the stuff you pull out to impress the guests. I always chopped the basil so to limit the need for the food processor, thus reducing potential bitterness. But the process featured here is so intuitive that my feeble mind never quite got wrapped around what should have been obvious. I took a chance and tripled the recipe. I have that wonderful garden blessing of having too much basil to consume between my husband and I. So, I freeze a good bit of pesto in ice trays so we can enjoy it year around. Pine Nuts are my personal favorite for pesto, but one time, I used raw, shelled pistachios. Using pistachios in pesto is an excellent Plan B IMO. Thanks for this. I consider myself a somewhat advanced home cook, but I love to learn new techniques.....This pesto is just fantastic.

Carol Cuevas

    Thanks Carol - so happy you gave it a try!

    Heidi Swanson

This looks fabulous! Could you be more precise about how much basil? "One large bunch" is not useful for those of us who grow our own. And the commentator who recommended "40 leaves" is also not useful because leaves can vary wildly in size. For example, my usual go-to recipe specifies 2 cups of "solidly packed" basil leaves for enough sauce to coat 1 lb of pasta. That recipe is Julia della Croce's Pesto alla Genovese, mortar and pestle method, in her _Pasta Classsica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking_ (Chronicle Books, 1987). Thank you!

Julie L

Hi Heidi - I can’t thank you enough for this recipe. I nursed a beautiful pot of basil from seed. I had to pick it this week because it was getting to big. Once in the kitchen, expecting to whip up some pesto in 10 minutes, I found that my food processor was broken. I frantically turned to the internet to see how pesto was made prior to modern convenience. I was so grateful to find your recipe! I have never tasted such delicious pesto, even at the best restaurants! I’m going to definitely visit your other recipes and can’t wait to get started! Thank you again!!!

Jane

    So happy it saved the day Jane!

    Heidi Swanson

Thanks! Boiling gnocchi now, I hope it turns out!

Chloe

Dear Heidi - Especially This recipe and your gnocchi recipe absolutely rock - but they all inspire me- thank you! My question is about Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. There is so much controversy about EVOO and which certifying agency is real or not, etc... I don’t feel educated/in the field enough to know what is good value and healthy and what isn’t, when it comes to EVOO. Can you please recommend an Organic EVOO brand or two that is pure, and perhaps the healthiest for the money? Unfortunately I can’t spend 25-30$ for 350-500ml. Are there good brands that are more affordable in your opinion? Or am I stuck at that price point if I want unadulterated EVOO?... You know, I think if you sold key ingredients you believe in, there’s business to be had. Thanks so much

Johanna

    Hi Johanna! Thank you! Have a look at the Bariani family extra-virgin olive oils. You can buy a 1000ml for $23. I used to buy direct from them at the San Francisco Farmers' Market. https://www.barianioliveoil.com/product/extra-virgin-olive-oil

    Heidi Swanson

Excellent recipe, made it a few times... I suggest toasting the pine nuts first

Glenn

I just make this recipe using my bolo. Very sharp. I will never use a processor never again. Damn. It turns out to be a perfect pesto.

Hor than

im italian, and since i was a little kid i would spend hours alone in my living room just making pesto with a mortar and pestle as it is originally done- i took a fieldtrip when i was very small to genova and they taught me to make it. this recipe is super traditional yet something we can all do a lot more easily than using the mortar each time! thank you xxx

artkoea

I just made this pesto using my Cutco Santuko knife. I followed this recipe and another blogger who credited her recipe back here. Mmmmmm...I will NEVER use a machine to make pesto again! This is so bright, bursting with bold flavors, and beautiful!! Easy to do- not at all intimidating. Thank you!!!

Karen

    So happy you liked it Karen!

    Heidi Swanson

Just made the pesto. There is A LOT. Can I freeze it? How?

Tina

    You can!

    Heidi Swanson

Thank you for this recipe! It sounds very delicious but I have a question. What can I use to replace Parmesan?

Joshua Howard

    Hi Joshua - there are some suggestions in the comments. You could use an alternative cheese, go the nutritional yeast route. You want something a little creamy, salty.

    Heidi Swanson

Traditional pesto in Genoa is made with a mortar and pestle. The word "pesto" in Italian derives from the verb "pester" which means roughly "to stamp/tread/smash". Many years ago when I lived in Italy I also learned how to make pesto, with a great-grandmother Genovese, using a "mezzaluna" which she considered "more modern"!

Angela

I've been making my pesto this way since you originally posted this. I'm lucky in that fresh basil is almost always in the garden or in the house and this method works and tastes great! Now when I have it the other way (blended smooth), it's like there's something missing. Thanks for enlightening me!

M2

Hi Heidi, I love your recipes, photos and stories. Great recipe; thanks!

Naleśniki

Hello from Argentina!! I am the granddaughter of a wonderful couple of Italians born in Genova (Giovani Battista and Terzilla Olivieri). For me, pesto is a childhood flavour. Wonderful taste, great texture. Just one thing, from my early memories of sunday mornigs, when home made pasta was a must: I understand from your recipe that you chop with a blade; I saw my grandparents use a wooden mortar and pestle. Also, to prevent oxidation of basil (turning black), you can cover the pesto with olive oil, to prevent oxigen from reaching the ingredients. Thanks!!!

Silvana

I found your site through Design*Sponge and have to say I love your site. I bookmarked you and plan on returning later to read your archives!

LeeAnn

Thanks for the tip, it's fabulous! I have always loved Italian food.

SxyPaula

Terrific! There's nothing like a good, fresh pesto. You can also experiment with other ingredients: replace the basil with a couple of roasted red peppers to get a roasted red pepper pesto. You will need a blender in this case, and some seasoning, but it makes an unbelievable pesto, which can also be used as a dip for fresh vegetables. Bon appetito!

Dusty

ubercool!!! I'll try this tonight! (I do cultivate my own basil :-) )

Ken

Hi, I live in Liguria (near Cinque Terre) and I can say that in nearly every household in Liguria pesto is made, nowdays with an electric blender and it tastes very good. I guess what really makes a difference is the basil (young leaves as you said), especially if grown in the area of Genova Pra (for the composition of soil), but also the quality of parmesan (or pecorino) cheese and the pinenuts used. Handchopped? Pesto is traditionally made with mortar and pestle, but I guess every ligurian has few tricks up his or her sleeves to make pesto as wonderful as only it can be. Your version looks pretty inviting and authentic, though : )

Ales

Yes, this is completely true...I was so dissappointed with pesto's across the board (grocery stores, specialty, gourmet) that I also started chopping/mixing all my ingredients (when making pesto) by hand or by mortar and pestle. It makes such a difference for folding/tossing with pasta's but also for light pizza's (made without marinara). Luckily for me my local grocery store has started carrying basil micro-greens...the classic Genovese flavor is even more intense at the seedling stage. Or instead of the balsamic/extra virgin olive oil on top of the fresh mozzarella, tomato salads (I like a little thin sliced red onion rings too) top it with this pesto instead!

tyronebcookin

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