Tips & Techniques

Why it Might Be Time to Stop Using Nuts in Your Pesto

October 19, 2015

Before I'm even able to complete my thought, Google does it for me. As soon as I type, "How much water does it take," it finishes my sentence: "to grow one almond?"

We already know that almonds are a major contributor to California's drought—by some estimates almond growers use 10 percent of the state's water (at 1.1 gallon of water to yield one almond, this number starts to make sense). But there's another nut that may be worth cutting back on—and it's not for lack of water this time.

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If you've ever made pesto—the bright green, Parmesan-laden sauce that graces late-summer and fall tables when basil's at its peak—you know to expect a kick in the wallet for one of its main ingredients: pine nuts. This makes sense, you reason—they're in high-demand, take years to mature, and are difficult to harvest. But that's only half of the story. The New York Times reported this morning that the demand for pesto has grown to the point where pine nuts have been outsourced from traditional producers (pinyon pines in North America and Italian stone pines) to the less-expensive Korean pine tree of Northeast Russia. This brings the price of pine nuts down, but at a much greater cost to the ecosystem. 

Would you believe this pesto doesn't use any nuts—or basil?

More: Here are 11 ways to get creative with your pesto.

Biologist Jonathan C. Slaght reports that in Russia, the Korean pine tree is a keystone species. Without it, the entire ecosystem—from the chipmunks who eat the pinenuts off the forest floor to the endangered Siberian tigers who eat the chipmunks' prey—are at risk. And collectors who rake the forest floor for fallen cones are making it entirely possible that the key nutrients will no longer be available to the animals who rely on them. One solution? Get the nutty component in pesto from seeds (or, hold the nuts and seeds altogether!). Pumpkin seeds (leftover from carving?) and sunflower seeds both make for rich pestos with the nuttiness of pine nuts—and a much better footprint. 

Swiss Chard Stalk Pesto with Pepitas

Makes 1 pint

6 ounces Swiss chard stalks (from about 1 pound of Swiss chard)
1 cup pepitas
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
3 to 4 medium garlic cloves
3/4 cup packed parsley leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste
Zest of 1/2 lemon, grated on a Microplane

See the entire recipe (and save and print it!) here.

Do you feel that traditional pesto is irreplaceable? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • gudbrandsdalen
  • lisa123
  • Ginger Wroot
    Ginger Wroot
  • anne
  • heatheranne
I eat everything.


gudbrandsdalen November 6, 2015
Or you could try locally sourced nuts. I am fortunate to live under two 100-year old pecan trees and always use them in my pesto. I don't miss the pine nuts at all. But, this is an important story. The NY Times story estimates that 1/4 of Russia's endangered species live in this small (~1% land area) section of forest where the Korean pine is harvested.
lisa123 October 25, 2015
I have decided not to worry about how much water anything takes to grow and just concentrate on not wasting any food that I do buy. Nothing grows without water.
Ginger W. October 20, 2015
Walnuts make an excellent substitute for pine nuts.
Leslie S. October 20, 2015
Yes they're delicious in pesto, but unfortunately take roughly 5 gallons of water to produce per walnut, so it may be a pick your battles sort of situation
anne October 20, 2015
I use walnuts in my pesto
heatheranne October 20, 2015
I just leave the nuts out all together and do basil, oil and parm. I'm not a huge fan of pine nuts and I love the taste of my garden basil coming through more prominently. My partner's zia has been making loads of pesto for years and she doesn't put the nuts in it either (that's why I stopped - her's was the best pesto I'd ever tasted!).
betsyinchicago October 19, 2015
Thanks for this thoughtful piece!
Margaret October 19, 2015
I've been doing that! It's a great alternative, and the seeds are a bit creamier than the almonds I was using.
zenpilgrim October 19, 2015
A friend made pesto once and replaced the pine nuts with flax seed. It was great.
Leslie S. October 20, 2015
I'll have to try that!
mizerychik October 20, 2015
Oh wow, that's a brilliant idea. I'm allergic to tree nuts, so I always leave them out of my pestos. I was curious about this post overall, because I'm all for anything that makes it more likely that I'll be able to eat someone else's pesto.