⠀7 tricks to make your perfect pesto:
“ The pesto is so good I want to drink it! Literally made the most talked about caprese salad ever thanks to this pesto! ” – Jenn, San Fran CA
This recipe is Simple cooking. It uses minimum effort to achieve maximum flavor. The steps are easy to follow and give practical tips to achieve better pesto. The end result is a pesto of mastery level, authentic taste, and worthy of all pesto lovers.
Short Introduction: ⠀⠀Many people think of Pesto as a raw green sauce with very specific ingredients, namely basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and olive oil. The word Pesto is actually the past participle of the Italian word Pestare, which means to pound or crush. The term can apply to any sauce which has crushed herbs in an oil base. Such sauces are traditionally made by hand with a mortar and pestle. In fact, the words pestle and pesto both come from the same Latin word meaning “to crush.” The sauce much of the world thinks of as Pesto, is more accurately called Pesto alla Genovese or Pesto of Genoa, Italy. Originating in Italy, pesto has been made for centuries using fresh basil leaves. But many regions of Italy have a pesto they call their own, using ingredients commonly found in their region.
Tip 1. Perfect Pesto is a balance.
Traditional Basil Pesto alla Genovese doesn’t require many ingredients, just using the correct ingredients and proportions. When in doubt, follow the authentic Italian recipe.
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
- 2 cups fresh basil leaves, preferably small leaves
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 heavy pinch sea salt
- 6 ounces Ligurian extra virgin olive oil
Overall, it is important to add a good bit of salt. The salt essentially cooks the garlic by drawing the moisture out of it. With garlic, less is more. Add 1 clove, or 2 small cloves max. One mastery level tip is knowing that the edges of a garlic clove will be sweeter than the bitter center. You may choose to add just the edges of 2 garlic cloves and leave the centers behind. If you are going for efficiency, just add the 1-2 cloves whole. Next, add a palm full of untoasted pine nuts. The untoasted nut flavor is superior and preferred, you would never toast them in Italian pesto. You may grind in fresh cracked black pepper to your liking, but note that traditional pesto does not contain any pepper. I also break from tradition here, since a food processor gets the job done very well in less time (no mortar and pestle).
Tip 2. Delicious pesto is made with delicious ingredients.
Next, add some extra virgin olive oil. Add enough liquid for the food processor to process its contents. You’ll be able to alter the consistency later when you finish the pesto. I prefer extra virgin olive oil in pesto. The quality extra virgin is produced with stricter guidelines. In pesto, olive oil is the main ingredient, and your taste buds will be rewarded with a first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. The seal gives the oil its freshness and unaltered legendary health benefits. The best olives for pesto are from 100% Ligurian Italian estates; this is the location where pesto originated from. If you can, try to use a lower acidic extra virgin olive oil. Traditional extra virgin olive oil is required to have ≤0.8% acidity which is one of it’s indicators of quality. If you cannot find an oil to use, try using Lucini Italia Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Lucini’s olives are hand picked when ripe and processed on the same day without heat. It’s extra virgin olive oil brings a pepper finish and acidity level of 0.2-0.4% (that’s good). Having tried many extra virgin olive oils this is the one I continually go back to for pesto. It’s peppery finish avoids the need of adding any unnecessary black pepper to your pesto. It has a thicker texture that achieves a wonderful consistency with the pesto. When purchasing olive oil: remember to check the harvested date if available to avoid old bottles that may go rancid. Store your bottle in a cool dark place to enjoy the health benefits of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols of the Mediterranean diet.
Next, add Parmesan cheese (traditionally a ratio of ⅔ Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano and ⅓ Pecorino Romano). Parmigiano-Reggiano is a hard cow’s milk cheese from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. Pecorino Romano is similar expect often made of sheep’s milk and looks lighter in color. Add the same amount of cheese as pine nuts, or more if you like extra protein content and flavor. Everyone loves the cheese in it.. if you add a little bit more, it is okay. The cheese truly bumps the flavor of the pesto and helps it stick to pasta better. The food processor will do the grating for you. Better to buy the best hard-aged-parmesan wedge you can afford–you will use less of it and obtain more flavor. Purchasing cheese in this way, you will also know exactly what you are getting. Please avoid the pre-grated cheese that has been sitting in the store with altered moisture content.
Tip 3. Bright green pesto is made by blending everything but the basil.
Blend until absolutely destroyed. But the secret is not to blend for a long time. Blend and stop, blend and stop. Otherwise the heat of the blender will make the pesto turn dark; the taste will be stronger and less delicate. Add some more olive oil and reblend if needed, but try to keep on-the-side of adding less oil when blending. We do not want to alter the flavor of the extra virgin olive oil with consistent blending; and, we will be adding fresh extra virgin olive oil at the end. Notice we haven’t added any basil yet though. Additional note: Should you want your pesto more traditional, it is not necessary to thoroughly blend. You may leave little chunks of ingredients resembling the half crushed contents with a mortar and pestle. Some Italians prefer a small crunch or bite in their pesto.
Tip 4. Yummy pesto is dependent on salt content to cook the raw garlic.
You get this. Garlicy, oily, nutty, and cheesey. Taste if you wish, but it will be pungent. Your half-done pesto needs to sit for 15 minutes. The salt you added and the salt in the cheese will make the garlic less raw tasting. Again, the salt essentially cooks the garlic by drawing the moisture out of it. Pick your basil leaves in the meantime.
Tip 5. Fresh pesto uses clean, unwashed basil leaves.
Washing basil leaves often removes a lot flavor and essential oils. You won’t see an Italian grandmother washing her basil leaves, in fact, they rarely chop them to keep all the juices inside. Pick clean leaves from a healthy plant. Choose the best leaves for your pesto. Dust off dirty leaves with a clean towel. Do not add leaves with obvious dirt; this avoids adding possible soil-dwelling bacteria. Enjoy the true-clean basil taste of your pesto using this method.
On-the-other-hand, when cooking for a crowd, I always recommend washing your basil leaves. This is necessary, and you would not want to do more harm than good. Here is the best way to wash the plant and preserve its flavor. First, cut the stems of the leaves you wish to use. Second, wash under cold water. Third, hold the stems and shake off excess water. Optional to place the basil inside of a clean towel and shake the towel to remove most of the water. Fourth, place in the sun to dry completely. It’s important to let the leaves dry completely because extra water in your pesto can cause early spoilage, as well as oxidation, the process of turning brown quicker. Think about treating your basil very delicately, and let them recover in the sunlight.
Tip 6. Authentic pesto comes from small basil leaves. The smaller the leaves; the sweeter the taste.
The size of the leaf is important. The first picture shows basil leaves that are big, meaning, they are better for tomato sauce or cooked with heat. The second picture shows basil leaves that are smaller. Smaller leaves make great pesto, they are sweeter in taste. There are two different types of basil: Thai basil and Italian sweet basil. The flavors are completely different. Avoid using Thai basil, the flavor is stronger and tastes more like mint than actual basil. The first picture shows Thai basil, it has a pointier leaf and purple stems. The second picture shows Italian sweet basil, use this type of basil for pesto. Italian basil plants are sun loving annuals with highly aromatic leaves. The flavor will be sweeter, delicate, and more traditional. Again, pick the best leaves for your pesto, which are often from the tops of the plant. Avoid leaves that are wilted, drooping, or spotted, as they may be infected with a fungus. You can see an example of wilted leaves at the bottoms of both plant pictures; these leaves are often discolored and should not be added to pesto. Leave all obvious stems behind, they give a bitter taste.
When you have finished picking your leaves, pack the leaves into the food processor. Just keep pushing them down and pack them in. The next step is to PULSE. PULSE only. Open the food processor, scrape down sides with a rubber spatula and then PULSE again. You don’t want to kill the basil. Do not over blend. Little squares/chunks are okay. This is how the texture will look. Your taste buds will be rewarded by not going too smooth.
Remove your food processor’s blades or transfer to a container for the next step. Here you want to add fresh unblended extra virgin olive oil to loosen. Stir the oil in with a spoon. It is important to use extra virgin olive oil here, the thickness and consistency will be much better. There’s an Italian mindset to adding oil to the pesto: add as much oil as it will take. This means stirring in oil until the oil just begins to sit on top of the pesto and no longer incorporates into the base underneath. To show the consistency you should try to achieve, I’ve made a video. It should be a little bit runny. If you did not want to add this amount of olive oil and wanted more of a paste-like consistency, just add olive oil to the consistency you like. Video below.
Tip 7. Outstanding pesto is finished correctly by removing air, and adding oil.
Transfer your finished pesto to a jar or container for storage. Long and thin jars work best because they have the least amount of air exposure at the top. As you are filling the jar, tap out any trapped air. There are micro air bubbles trapped in between the pesto; place a towel under the jar and tap the base firmly on the contertop to remove the air. This will prevent separation and oxidation. Additionally, to prevent your pesto from turning brown, you will want to add a layer of olive oil on top. The oil allows a protective layer to prevent air and moisture interaction. In Italy, Italians will add 1cm or more of oil on top to keep their pesto bright green and preserved. After this, it’s finished and ready for storage into the refrigerator or into the freezer for another day. Keep in the fridge, but eat at room temperature. Your pesto will taste better 1 hour after making, as the flavors meld. Your homemade pesto will last for 7 days.
The traditional pasta shape pairing is Trofie pasta. This particular pasta originates from Liguria, Italy. They make the twisted shape by rolling the dough around a metal rod and it compliments the pesto beautifully. When making pesto pasta: You never want to heat the pesto because it will turn dark. Instead, boil your pasta and add the pesto at the end. In Genoa, Liguria, Italy the traditional method would be to add the hot pasta into the large mortar and pestle base the pesto was made in, stir together with a little pasta water, and serve. Adjust this method by adding your pesto at the end, keeping the bright green color.
Pesto pairs well with a chilled Italian Pinot Grigio wine.
Smile when you eat your delicious authentic pesto.
My recommendation would be to add it to a dish of homemade pasta..⠀⠀