Pesto Basics

Although it’s most famously paired with pasta, pesto goes with just about everything; meat, fish, vegetables, rice…you name it.  So every home cook should have it in his or her repertoire. It’s an easy sauce to make with just a few keys to success.  The real beauty is that you can easily put your own signature on it with just a few tweaks.

Like so many Italian dishes, pesto is simple but delicious. There are only five ingredients in classic pesto: Fresh basil, garlic; olive oil; toasted pine nuts; and some Parmagiano-Reggiano. Puree these items in a food process, season to taste, and you’ve created something that’s out of this world.

What sets one recipe apart from another is largely the ratios of the ingredients. For example, the amount of basil used can significantly impact flavor. Additionally, the garlic in some pesto can be quite subtle, while others are loud and pronounced. It all comes down to your individual tastes.

I developed this version by looking at 9 different recipes from some of my most trusted “taste buds”, including Marcella Hazan, Lidia Bastianich and Domenica Marchetti. From there I calculated an average amount for each of the ingredients, and then tweaked them one by one until I got the balance that’s just right for me. I know that might sound somewhat geeky, but it worked, and I think the resulting recipe is a good starting place for most people.  Give it a try, and do some tweaking of your own until your get to your perfect pesto.

You can also try some substitutions.  Ina Garten likes to combine walnuts and pine nuts. You can also try using pecorino-romano or a domestic parmesan instead of Parmagiano-Reggiano. And if you’re really feeling experimental, try using a combination of basil and flat leaf parsley, or just parsley, and see what you think.

One final note: This recipe uses a food processor for speed and convenience, but if you have a mortar and pestle, I suggest you try grinding the ingredients by hand sometime.  It’s more labor intensive, yes, but you just might be surprised with the results.

Keys to Success:

  • Always start with fresh ingredients; particularly when it comes to basil.  It’s the heart of this dish. Never use old, bruised or darkened leaves.
  • Use a quality olive oil. There is the inexpensive olive oil you will cook with, and then there’s the good stuff. This is one place where you don’t want to be chintzy.
  • Always toast your pine nuts in a heavy-bottom sauce or sauté pan, and be careful they don’t creep up on you.  They can go from done to burnt in a heartbeat. As one of my friends likes to say, pine nuts are for that moment when you look away and then burn.

Classic Basil Pesto

Recipe by David EllisCuisine: ItalianDifficulty: Easy


Total time



This recipe makes enough pesto for a pound of pasta (or about 500 g) and a little left over. Use the extra as a topping for grilled chicken breast. Add a teaspoon or two to a basic vinaigrette, or combine some with aioli or mayonnaise and spread on sandwiches.


  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed

  • 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and cooled

  • 1/4 tsp Kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/3-1/2 cup parmesan cheese, preferably parmigiano reggiano


  • In the bowl of a food processor, add the basil, minced garlic, roasted pine nuts and salt. Process on high for about 15-20 seconds. With the processor still running, slowly pour in the olive oil and continue to puree until smooth.
  • Add the grated parmesan and pulse several times to combine. Finish stirring by hand. Taste for salt and add as needed.
  • Serve immediately over warm pasta or store in an air-tight container and cover with a layer of olive oil to prevent discoloration. Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-5 days. If you would like to freeze the pesto, it will last for up to 3 months, but leave out the parmesan. Add it after the pesto has been thawed, just before use.