What Is Pesto Made Of?

Origins and Variations of Pesto

Pesto is a popular Italian sauce that has been enjoyed for centuries. The word “pesto” comes from the Italian word “pestare,” which means to crush or pound, referring to the traditional method of preparing the sauce.

While the most well-known type of pesto is the classic Genovese pesto made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil, there are actually many variations of pesto that are enjoyed throughout Italy and around the world.

In Liguria, the birthplace of pesto, they also make a version with walnuts instead of pine nuts, and sometimes add potatoes or green beans to the sauce. In Sicily, they make a pesto with tomatoes and almonds, while in Calabria they use hot peppers and pecorino cheese.

Outside of Italy, pesto has become a popular sauce for pasta, sandwiches, and more. In the United States, you can find pesto made with kale, arugula, or even avocados. In South America, they use cilantro instead of basil for a unique twist on the classic sauce.

No matter the variation, pesto is a versatile sauce that adds flavor and freshness to any dish.

Traditional Pesto Ingredients and Preparation

Traditional Genovese pesto is made with just a few simple ingredients: fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and extra-virgin olive oil. Here’s how to make it:


  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


  1. Wash the basil leaves and pat them dry with a paper towel.
  2. Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat until they’re lightly browned, stirring occasionally.
  3. Add the basil leaves, pine nuts, and garlic to a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
  4. Add the Parmesan cheese and pulse a few more times.
  5. With the food processor running, slowly pour in the olive oil until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

You can use pesto in many ways, such as stirring it into cooked pasta, spreading it on bread for a sandwich, or using it as a dip for vegetables. Pesto can also be frozen in an airtight container for later use.

Popular Variations of Pesto

While the classic Genovese pesto is the most well-known type of pesto, there are many other popular variations of the sauce. Here are a few:

  1. Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto: Made with sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil, this pesto has a tangy, sweet flavor.

  2. Arugula Pesto: Arugula adds a peppery kick to pesto. This variation is made with arugula, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

  3. Kale Pesto: Kale is a nutritious green that makes a great addition to pesto. This version is made with kale, garlic, almonds, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

  4. Spinach Pesto: Spinach is a milder green that makes a great base for pesto. This version is made with spinach, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

  5. Cilantro Pesto: Cilantro is a popular herb used in Latin American cooking. This version is made with cilantro, garlic, jalapenos, lime juice, and pepitas (pumpkin seeds).

These variations can be used in the same way as traditional pesto, and can add a new dimension of flavor to your dishes. Try them out and see which one becomes your new favorite!

Health Benefits of Pesto

Pesto not only adds flavor to dishes, but it also has some health benefits. Here are a few:

  1. Antioxidants: Pesto contains basil, which is rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals, which can contribute to diseases like cancer and heart disease.

  2. Heart-Healthy Fats: Olive oil, which is a key ingredient in pesto, is high in monounsaturated fats. These fats can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.

  3. Nutrients: Pesto contains nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron, which are important for maintaining good health.

  4. Low in Sugar: Unlike many store-bought sauces, pesto is usually low in sugar. This can be beneficial for those looking to reduce their sugar intake.

While pesto can be a healthy addition to your diet, it’s important to remember that it can also be high in calories due to the oil and cheese. Moderation is key when consuming pesto, and you can also try using less oil or cheese when making it to reduce the calorie count.

Creative Ways to Use Pesto in Your Cooking

Pesto is a versatile sauce that can be used in many different ways. Here are some creative ways to use pesto in your cooking:

  1. Pizza: Spread pesto on a pizza crust instead of tomato sauce for a tasty twist on a classic dish.

  2. Grilled Cheese: Add some pesto to your grilled cheese sandwich for an extra burst of flavor.

  3. Eggs: Drizzle some pesto on your scrambled eggs or omelet for a delicious breakfast.

  4. Roasted Vegetables: Toss your favorite vegetables with some pesto before roasting them for a flavorful side dish.

  5. Salad Dressing: Mix some pesto with a little vinegar and olive oil for a tasty salad dressing.

  6. Dip: Use pesto as a dip for crackers, breadsticks, or vegetables.

  7. Pasta Salad: Toss cooked pasta with some pesto, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and olives for a delicious pasta salad.

  8. Meat Marinade: Use pesto as a marinade for chicken, pork, or beef before grilling or baking.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to using pesto in your cooking. Experiment with different combinations and see what delicious creations you can come up with!

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