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How to Make Any Pesto in 5 Steps

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Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Pesto can be anything you want it to be. Phyllis Grant of Dash and Bella breaks it down with the minimum amount of fuss (and dishes), in under five minutes, and without a recipe.

Pesto on Food52

Something green + cheese + nuts + garlic + oil + salt = pesto. (Also acid, in my pesto.)

It's true that the "something green" part of the equation could be a combination of blanched kale, broccoli, and spinach. You could include garlic confit and preserved lemon and reduced balsamic. Or a range of cheeses from Piave to La Tur to Manchego. You could even splash in some argan or grape seed oil. But let's save all of that insanity for another day. I'm here to tell you how to make pesto with the minimum amount of fuss (and dishes), in under five minutes, and without a recipe. It just involves some flexibility, a bit of play, and lots of tasting.

Pesto is an ever-shifting beast: as you make it, from hour to hour as it sits, and from batch to batch. Too bland? Add more garlic, salt, and acid. Too garlicky? Add more cheese. Too herbaceous? Add more nuts. You're not locked in. Your pesto is alive.

How to Make Any Pesto in 5 Steps

1. I use my mortar and pestle, but you could use a food processor, blender, or the kitchen counter and a chef's knife. Make a paste out of one clove of garlic. 

Pesto on Food52


2. Add a handful of toasted warm nuts (almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, or a combination) and a handful of grated firm cheese (parmesan, asiago, pecorino, or a combination). Blend vigorously with the pestle until it’s almost creamy (a little remaining crunch is fine).

Pesto on Food52


3. Add your herbs or greens (basil, parsley, mint, arugula, or a combination). Blend until you have a thick green paste (again, some chunks are fine).

Pesto on Food52


4. Scrape down the sides. Add a swipe or two of lemon zest, a splash of lemon juice, a drizzle of sherry wine vinegar, a few glugs of olive oil, and a pinch of salt. 

Pesto on Food52


5. Pestle. Taste. Adjust seasoning. If you want, loosen it up with some more olive oil. Taste again. Adjust seasoning. Eat right away or store at room temperature covered by a thin layer of olive oil. It freezes beautifully.

Fun variations: For additional creaminess (particularly good on a sandwich), vigorously mix in some fresh goat cheese or part of a very ripe avocado. Or, for additional umaminess, add an oil-packed anchovy fillet to the garlic paste in step 1.

How to Make Any Pesto from Food52

Still looking for a recipe? Here are a few for inspiration:

• Mint-Pistachio Pesto
Mango Salad with Fennel Frond Pesto
Grilled Bread with Thyme Pesto and Preserved Lemon Cream

We're looking for contributors! Email [email protected] and tell us the dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: not recipes, pesto, sauce, nuts, garlic, oil, salt, cheese, phyllis grant, dashandbella, summer, pasta, how-to & diy

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Comments (23)


3 months ago trampledbygeese

trampledbygeese is a trusted home cook.

I always wanted to love pesto, but the stuff from the store always tasted off somehow, like it had gone rancid.

Today, using this recipe, I made pesto for the first time. It's amazing! What a great recipe. I used almonds for the nuts and mustard greens for the green.

Is there a trick to using the mortar and pestle? It seems that it took longer to make this than it would to find, use and clean my blitzer. I suspect it should have been faster.

How long will the pesto last when stored on the counter with olive oil on top?


6 months ago Dip&Scoop

Definitely try making pesto with Culinary Argan Oil instead. By far our favorite pesto! Also, it's a lot less acidic so it won't give you the pesto heartburn we all hate...


8 months ago Archena

I can do this basic pesto, just looking for a desi spicy pesto cilantro-mint chutney kind of pesto. Would love to try this


over 1 year ago Carolyn Cobb

Yum yum. I use a lot of pesto, this will make it easier to make since I am the only one in the house eating it. I can freeze some large batches, when my garden is producing lots of greens, and do small batches when needed. I just used a pesto made with kale and walnuts. I also use vegan cheese.


over 1 year ago Ellen Francis

I love that this recipe stresses variation and that every variation could be a delicious improvement or a fun taste to try! But what about the elimination of cheese!! Not everyone wants, likes or eats cheese….Take a look at Vegan American Princess Pesto Sauce! It'a wonderful, easy, tastes cheesy but has NO cheese….http://veganamericanprincess...


almost 2 years ago Fred Gehman

most of the pine nuts in America, especially all those imported from China, have gone off, so walnuts might be a better choice.


about 2 years ago robyn ann

WOW thanks for the info on oil and garlic!


about 2 years ago wwojdak

Careful with storing this. Garlic in oil is a recipe for botulism. Google "garlic in oil safety"


about 2 years ago walkie74

Hmmm...I admit, I like making huge amounts of stuff in my food processor. I need to scheme with my green veggies...


about 2 years ago Emily Parr-Guerrero

I agree w/ @HappyBee. I always think of making pesto as an ordeal that culminates with cleaning the food processor. Small batches made w/ mortar & pestle are MUCH more doable.


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant

i hate cleaning my food processor. i love cleaning my mortar and pestle.


about 2 years ago robyn ann

I make mine with cilantro and parsley in equal amounts, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. NO NUTS.. it is so yummy with grilled steak


about 2 years ago cathy

as good as it is on steak, I am Italian and pesto is to be used with pasta al dente.


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant

oh how i wish i had some strong culinary traditions in my family. i'm just playing around and discovering combinations that make me smile. but i hear you. pasta al dente topped with pesto is genius and not to be messed with.


about 2 years ago Arthur in the Garden!

Wonderful! Better than that stuff in a jar.


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant



about 2 years ago HapppyBee

I love how easy this is. I usually make the big batches in the food processor and it turns into an ordeal. This is perfect for a small batch of whatever herb is on hand. Perhaps we need a mortar and pestle in Provisions now? Lovely--thank you!


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant

i'm in love with my mortar and pestle.


about 2 years ago Marian Bull

Ditto what kenzi said. I've started making my own pesto regularly, and it has legitimately changed my life. Last week I tried adding mustard greens -- it was a worthy experiment.


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant

i often look at mustard greens and wonder what the heck to do with them. i'll throw some in my pesto. who knew.


about 2 years ago Kenzi Wilbur

Kenzi is the Managing Editor of Food52.

We do this for office lunches every now and then, and I love how each one comes out just a bit different than the last.


about 2 years ago Phyllis Grant

yes. the variety is wonderful.


about 2 years ago Jestei