Italian

The Quest for the—Genius, Elusive—World’s Best Pesto Recipe

September  7, 2016

The recipe you see here is the 2008 winner of the World’s Best Pesto—sort of.

It's since become the subject of internet legend. Perhaps you’ve already heard the tales of a young chef Danny Bowien—before every incarnation of Mission Chinese Food, every Jimmy Fallon appearance—beating out 100 other chefs to become the World Pesto Champion.

Here comes the lore: He was only allowed a mortar and pestle, no blenders or food processors! He didn’t even know he’d be competing! And 80% of the chefs he out-pestoed were from Liguria, the region where traditional pesto Genovese was born (and where a consortium now exists to protect it).

Bards Bloggers sing blog of his pesto’s bright, pea-green color, its creamy weightlessness, its delicately layered flavors. We even have this photo of Bowien at a demo in England, making what is clearly a smooth, almost neon-green substance, proving this isn’t just standard-issue internet hyperbole.

But somehow the recipes published under his name look little to nothing like that stuff—instead, they appear to be well-meaning, but fairly normal pestos. Including most of our photos here.

I will say that even the average-looking, editorially-massaged versions of Bowien’s pesto are quite good, and have certain traits in common with his storied wonder-sauce. Foremost, they all tone the garlic way, way down—he stresses this. Bon Appétit's adaptation calls for only one thin slice of garlic; Lucky Peach allows a clove per quart of basil. Garlic can easily run amok, and you want the basil (and yes, the cheese) to carry the flavor.

Speaking of, all the published versions of his recipe use a combination of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses, as Bowien does; the former richer and nuttier, the latter adding a twinge of acidity and a pricklier, extra-salty dimension.

One last Bowien-ism is to add a bit of cold (sometimes iced) water, which helps keep the basil fresher-tasting, and slows it from oxidizing and turning black. (My boss Amanda Hesser pointed out that The London Cookbook, out this October, aims to do the same thing by freezing the food processor blade first, and some Italian cooks are known to chill the entire blender pitcher.)

Too mulchy. This green will not stand.

But the closest I’ve been able to come to Bowien’s legendary texture and color was by following the directions written down in a blog post about that demo from 2013, which I've adapted here. (Yes, I tried to get the chef himself to write down a definitive recipe for me but I was unsuccessful—he must love (Not)Recipes as much as we do!)

What seems to make the difference is allowing the basil to quickly and completely whir into a generous amount of olive oil. The more mulched-up bits of basil that lollygag around getting exposed to air—and the longer they're slashed at by ever-warming blades to get there, the more oxidation there will be (i.e. exposure to oxygen, and deterioration of color and fresh flavor).

See? The green is already fading. (Still tastes pretty great though.)

But by suspending the still-fresh basil in a cushiony coat of oil, almost like a loose, green aioli, you largely cut off its access to air. Oil creates an anaerobic environment, which is why botulism can pose a risk if you keep pesto around in the fridge longer than four days (so don’t do that—freeze it instead). But this also means less oxidation, which means that Bowien's pesto is constantly glowing back at me when I open my fridge, like a perky tub of Ecto cooler.

Yes, you could also blanch the basil leaves, then shock them in an ice bath to stave off oxidizing, but their flavor will be dulled too (we’ve tested it). Of course, if you really want to be the World’s Best, you can attempt this in a mortar and pestle. It won’t be as smooth but might have an even more delicate flavor.

And maybe you’ll even get a reputation on the internet for it.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Marian Bull & Brette Warshaw for this one, who were still employed by Food52 at the time but Genius Tips never die.

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12 Comments

fitzie September 13, 2018
I use Marcella Hazan's recipe, too. Would have tried this recipe but the groundhogs got my basil, all three LARGE pots.
 
Sharon67 September 12, 2016
For an excellent variation on the basic pesto, we used sorrel and kale leaves with pistachio nuts, olive oil and salt. No cheese. It was amazing!
 
Elsie C. September 12, 2016
The only comment I have is that basil has to be freshly picked. It makes a world of difference!
 
Betty September 12, 2016
Living in Europe, I am happy when there are metric measurements given in addition to the standard American cups, teaspoons, etc. However I believe that there must be an error in the equivalents of 1/2 cup cheese in the pesto recipe. 12 grams is way too small. In a brief internet search, I found a lot of variation :( but the consensus seemed to be about 40-50 grams. I fear that people trying the recipe will be disappointed with their results if they use grams.
 
Author Comment
Kristen M. September 12, 2016
Thanks for raising this point—I've actually found that standard conversions for finely grated Parmesan and other hard cheeses are pretty off for me, when using a Microplane, as most people do. They tend to be overly heavy for how fine and fluffy the stuff is that comes out is. These were the weights I used, but I'll clarify in the ingredients list that it's grated using a Microplane.
 
Leel September 11, 2016
The absolute best pesto in my opinion is from Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookibook".
 
Chas373 September 12, 2016
I totally agree. Marcella's version has perfect balance and there's no need to alter her ingredients or method
 
DonnaDonna September 11, 2016
I grow basil so I have quite a bit to harvest. I chop up all the basil in batches with just enough oil oil to form a paste. It is then frozen in ice cube trays and stored in freezer bags. I pop out about 3 cubes per pound and pour hot cooked pasta over them. Then add minced garlic (2 cloves), chopped nuts (quarter cup) , grated Romano cheese (1 cup) and more olive oil to get the right consistency. I also season with salt and pepper. This would all be to your taste and can be adjusted. The color stays great and I always have a supply of basil base in my freezer.
 
Jennifer B. September 11, 2016
When making a pesto with cilantro a few years ago, I realized I needed more body and added spinach. It morphed to a beautiful green and a silky texture, and now I add a handful of spinach to any pesto. It doesn't change the flavor of basil pesto, but brightens the color. The downside (or maybe not, depending on your preference) is that it can make the pesto tighter. Use sparingly to start.
 
neenem September 20, 2016
i too add spinach but i blanche it first to wilt the leaves and squeeze out the excess water, i find this adds a silkiness to the pesto that i don't get with raw leaves
 
Bob R. September 11, 2016
I've been told by several people that my pesto is the best they've ever had. I always tell them that there's no magic to it, and I don't use a recipe. But my proportions are somewhat similar to the recipe you list, except that I use a little more garlic and probably a slightly larger amount of pine nuts, plus no salt. But there's really no magic to it, and no need to search for tricks such as those set forth by some of the people mentioned in the article.
 
GordonW September 11, 2016
You can chill all the ingredients