Please Don't Do This to Your Pesto

July 25, 2017

While researching the least-obtrusive substitute for pine nuts in pesto (I know you can add walnuts, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, pepitas—but I wanted something that would be quiet about its presence), I came across a Serious Eats discussion on the very question.

The forum has no shortage of pesto opinions and information (did you know sunflower seeds produce a grayish pesto?) and I was nodding my head along, amassing ideas, until I got to this answer (reminder of the question: "Pine nuts substitute for pesto?")...

For the purpose of anonymity, I've removed any identifying information for the user.

..."Dude, anything"?! Can anything really be the answer to this question?

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I admire the can-do attitude. I welcome recipe experimentation. I'm all about doing things "any which way" and "subbing in what you've got" (see: my path to this online discussion in the first place; see: this article I wrote a long time ago called "11 Ways to Get Creative with Pesto"; see: the weirdness of every single meal I make for myself))—but within reason.

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Top Comment:
“And garlic!!”
— Louise

Forget about tradition, that's fine (I'm all for bucking tradition! I throw tradition to the wind! I eat lentil bolognese, happily!). But (often more important to the eating experience), don't forget about taste. Personally, I'm having a hard time conceptualizing how candied almonds or oven-roasted peanuts would, you know, taste good blended into a pesto—unless you doctor that pesto in many, many other ways and use it for a completely different application. And at that point, its relationship to pesto is tenuous at best. I'll add walnuts, almonds, even—at the expense of the color—sunflower seeds. But when the substitution completely alters the flavor profile, the texture, the way it can be used, is it still a substitution? (May I remind you of pea guacamole, a controversy stirred up one year ago this month?)

You cannot add honey-roasted peanuts to basil leaves, olive oil, and cheese and expect pesto (same goes for Yahtzee dice or chocolate-covered macadamia nuts).

I ask you: Where does creativity end and madness begin? When have we gone too far? With experimenting and playing and running around, screaming "WOOOOOOOOO!" with our arms in the air, waving wildly back and forth, like we're at some sort of underground rave, adding literally anything to our precious basil leaves?

Could this actually be a very good idea? I invite your opinions in the comments below.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in July of last year. We're republishing it because, well, it's always a good idea to reignite some healthy, vigorous discussion!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • cookycat
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I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


cookycat August 12, 2023
Love pesto, love pine nuts. However, I can no longer eat pine nuts because I get "pine mouth." Yes, it is a real thing. So now sadly I use walnuts which are good but just not the same.
Anonymous July 29, 2023
Commenting only about the cost of pine nuts: Places such as Costco sell it for a very good price. I freeze the nuts (like I do other nuts) till I am ready to use them.
Mandy July 27, 2023
This is probably going to piss someone off, but lately I have been making “pesto” by same process but I use spinach, macadamia nuts, Parmesan cheese, oil, garlic and seasonings. It’s DELICIOUS! I did it once because I had the spinach surplus and other items on hand and it’s become a regular staple.
arielcooks July 25, 2023
Wow! Sarah, you are right about the definitional grounds. But I'd love to know how to make pistachio nuts (undyed) into a pesto, to be used for pesto purposes. Perhaps pounded with a bit of fresh tomato and eggplant? Olive oil, of course. But would the herb(s) be basil and parsley? Feta, maybe? And would it need a squeeze lemon? A squeeze of orange? What?
Ann S. July 26, 2023
I just made pesto with pistachios no cheese…delicious if a bit heftier
Louise July 26, 2023
Pistachios go great with sage. I make a great pizza with pistachio pesto. - pistachios, sage, olive oil, salt and pepper, parmesan. Often chili flakes too. Great on burgers too (delicious made creamy with a spoonful of creme fraiche stirred in!)
Louise July 26, 2023
And garlic!!
Ann S. July 26, 2023
always garlic
Miche July 26, 2023
I have seen recipes with pistachio and basil and recipes with pistachio and mint. Just google, you will find many variations.
arielcooks July 26, 2023
Thanks for the guidance!
arielcooks July 26, 2023
I have to try your pistachio pizza soon! (As soon as this heat dome leaves, I mean.)
Miche July 25, 2023
I'm sort of curious to try a pistachio/mint/lemon zest "pesto" I read about. But it should probably have a different name!
carol July 25, 2023
Reading these comments make me laugh - there's nothing wrong with experimenting and riffing on traditional recipes. I know most Italians would disagree - I'm Italian. I get it.
I'll bet anything this combo would be delicious - but easy on the mint...mint tends to overpower. IMHO.
Culinaryrocktv August 6, 2020
Just don’t call that thin oily green crap “pesto”,Michelin hopefuls! Spooned, dolloped, piped from a bag, I can dig it. Just not drizzled! The boundaries of recipes are found just before goose turd and port salut creme anglaise. We need to get back to the purity of it all. Fusion is abominable now. I mean for goodness sakes! Greek poké?! C’mon!!!!
arielcooks August 6, 2020
I also think of pesto as a method. The best application of the method "outside the box" I ever had, was garlic, walnuts, and olive oil (no herbs) crushed together and eaten with whole-wheat pitas. It was sensational. But it was vaguely the pesto method, rather than the actual pesto itself.
Nicole D. June 11, 2019
I forgot garlic too. Nothing else, don’t make something that is so simple and delicious, fanciful.
Nicole D. June 11, 2019
Pesto is not pesto if you do not use: basil, pine nuts, olive oil, parmagiano reggiano. Stop exchanging basil with kale and pine nuts with walnuts. Stop the fusion cuz real pesto is the besto.
Inditoo June 18, 2019
Actually the dish originates from Romans who would add vinegar on to the base of garlic, nuts, oil & cheese. So even the traditional sauce you speak of is a variation of its original predecessor lost to history. It’s not fusion. Ingredients work together in different ways. Take the variation on caprese at Eleven Madison Park. The ingredients are utterly traditional, tomato, basil, olive oil. But the application is brilliant. Mozzarella ice cream, cherry tomato confit, basil leaves & flowers (actually a far more flavorful part of the plant), and a provencal granola. As long as the flavors work, who cares about the name you give to it? I almost guarantee I can make a Thai pesto as good as its Italian counterpart simply because many similar ingredients translate perfectly in that specific dish.
KitKat84 August 9, 2020
Authentic pesto doesn't need to have Parmigiano-Reggiano in it. According to Donna Klein, author of The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, the Italian households that can't afford cheese don't add it to their pesto.
Miche July 25, 2023
In French, there is pistou, which is just basil, olive oil and garlic, no nuts or cheese.
Inditoo June 10, 2019
Well if reordering ingredients and application makes the relationship to pesto “tenuous at best,” I guess that makes restaurants like Tickets, Werneckhof, Momofuku, Cosme purveyors of “tenuous” cuisine? Our restaurant served a ginger jalapeño sorbet this weekend as part of an entree special. Does that make its relationship to sorbet tenuous? Because we jiggered with traditional ingredients and application? No. Pesto is a name for a sauce that includes nuts, basil, oil & cheese. The great thing about three of those ingredients is precisely the vastness of their application. Just a simple change from traditional basil to Thai sweet basil can totally open up the possibility of the sauce into a new world. Olvera’s broccoli mole is still mole. It contains serrano, pepitas, cinnamon, cumino. There are no boundaries but flavor. Make those work and call it whatever you want. If you can make a crema that has no dairy that looks and acts like a crema call it a crema.
Liz August 10, 2017
I had an excess of Nasturtium leaves and made a pesto with them. Quite tasty.
Liz August 10, 2017
If you want the best Pesto ditch the machine and use a Mortar and Pestle.
The releasing of the Basil and other flavors far more intense when you do it old school. Do this right away.
chezcarol July 30, 2017
My favorite substitution is toasted almonds and half spinach, half basil :)
JIm July 30, 2017
I agree with substituting for the pine nuts. To me, they are not all that flavorful. I also agree with the addition of lemon juice and or zest. I have also omitted nuts altogether at times. It is hard to improve upon basil garlic olive oil and lemon as a combo, but almonds and especially pistachios are my favorites.
WHB July 26, 2017
With nut allergies in the house, I've used toasted sunflower seeds and pepitas. Once (in a pinch, desperate really) I used those roasted soy nuts!
J.D. S. July 30, 2017
Agreed on the toasted sunflower seeds (I use unsalted, and keep them in the fridge to avoid them going rancid) and pepitas (again roasted/toasted.)
Kathy D. July 26, 2017
Frankly, I find these discussions (by "purists") to be a waste of time. Dishes and methods develop and nothing is carved in stone. As far as I'm concerned, a pesto is any mixture with greens, nuts, garlic and oil and "pesto" is really only a definition. If someone puts together a ridiculous mélange, it's obvious. We could have this discussion about polenta (a dish, not an ingredient), for example....with people pontificating that it must be made from such and such corn meal from Italy. But, if you look at it's history, it was made from many basic grains historically: http://www.thekitchn.com/whats-the-difference-between-cornmeal-and-polenta-word-of-mouth-211404 . So, there you go.....
Windischgirl July 26, 2017
After suffering a smackdown last summer for wanting to make a "grilled ratatouille" and being told (by Food52-ers) that it couldn't be done because it didn't follow classical guidelines, I'm voting NO NO NO.
So if it strays from ingredients that traditionally grow in Italy, call it 'herb sauce'. DON'T call it 'pesto'.
BTW, my 'Grilled Vegetable Melange in the Provençal Style' was delicious.
Mark G. September 6, 2018
I have been making a grilled Ratatouille for more than a decade and everyone loves it. It is standard fare at neighborhood gatherings.
Erin A. July 25, 2017
Pesto is a crushed sauce, likely from the Italian "pestare"--to crush. With a mortar and pestle. Traditional may be basil, pine nuts, romano, olive oil, but as with any food that is made frequently, at-hand ingredients will inevitably appear. A sauce is recognizable as pesto when it has the traditional proportions of greens (or reds, like roasted peppers or sun-dried tomatoes), cheese, nuts, and olive oil, and is crushed or blended. The selection of which ingredients to use just requires some forethought into what works together. I've made it with wilted kale and pecans (only available nuts) with a lemon juice addition for brightness, with walnuts or sunflower seeds (toasted, both) when pine nuts were too expensive, etc. No one ever complained it wasn't "pesto," because it was. Trapanese pesto is my absolute favorite, and good for when there isn't quite enough basil in the garden for the all-basil variety. Just try to enjoy food and the generous cooks who make it for you--semantics are interesting but limiting.
arielcooks September 5, 2016
We've also enjoyed a garlic-and-walnut paste served in whole-wheat pitas with shredded lettuce. The cook said it was Middle Eastern. We really loved it!
Kathy D. September 5, 2016
That might be skordalia: http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/5681-skordalia-garlic-walnut-sauce
arielcooks September 5, 2016
It was prepared by an anthropologist who had enjoyed it in the Middle East (can't recall the country). It had no lemon or vinegar, and no breadcrumbs. The NYT skordalia rx looks delicious -- thanks!
Kathy D. September 5, 2016
You're welcome! I first had it with a dish called Mushakan (chicken with lots of onions & sumac)....delicious!!
Maria September 5, 2016
My dad is from Genova and has made pesto since he was a child. He always uses walnuts, which leads me to say that "traditional" Italian food is more about how your family prepared food and enjoying that food with your family and less about sticking to a recipe. So if someone wants to use honeyroasted peanuts, who cares? If they've found a way to make it taste good, regardless of what they have to add to it, good for them. That's their spin, and I will continue to enjoy my family's spin on pesto.
arielcooks September 4, 2016
Roasted peanuts in pesto? Sure, if, instead of olive oil, you use sesame oil, and instead of basil, you add cilantro, and instead of cheese, you throw in some minced chillies. Now employ the result to dress hot or cold Asian noodles. It's not actually "pesto," per se, but it is ... a delicious noodle dressing!
carol September 4, 2016
sounds good to me!