Vegan Pesto: Yes, You Can

May 30, 2013

Every other Thursday, Gena Hamshaw of the blog Choosing Raw shares satisfying, flavorful recipes that also happen to be vegan.

Today: Yes, you can make vegan pesto. Just grab yourself some nutritional yeast, and you'll be a believer.

vegan pesto

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In my home, the advent of summer is always marked by an abundance of fresh pesto. It crowds my fridge, and soon after that, it starts to crowd my freezer. Pesto is such a staple in my kitchen that I sometimes forget that not all pesto is created vegan: the classic recipe, of course, contains Parmesan cheese. If you’re experimenting with vegan recipes but you love pesto as dearly as I do, fear not. Vegan pesto is within your reach.

The trick to a perfect vegan pesto is nutritional yeast. This magical ingredient is a staple of vegan diets (vegans lovingly refer to it as “nooch”), but it’s often ignored by everyone else. This is a shame, because nutritional yeast is versatile and nutritious. It also has a cheesy, nutty flavor that makes a great substitute for Parmesan cheese.


I love nutritional yeast so much that I’ve been known to eat it by the spoonful, but it has more sophisticated uses: it’s great sprinkled on pasta or warm grains, mixed into cashew cream for a “cheesy” vegan pasta sauce, or as a topping for popcorn. 

If none of those ideas strike your fancy, trust me when I say that nutritional yeast in vegan pesto is a game changer. I use the following vegan pesto in potato salads, pasta dishes, and spread on sandwiches or in wraps. It’s always a tremendous hit. And if the idea of any food nicknamed “nooch” freaks you out, don’t worry -- lots of pesto recipes, including this delicious Mint-Pistachio Pesto, are naturally vegan. Just make sure they’re dairy-free!

vegan pesto

Simple Vegan Pesto

Makes 1 generous cup

2 cups tightly packed fresh basil
1/2 cup walnuts or pine nuts
1 to 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped (to taste)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by James Ransom

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cel Wise
    Cel Wise
  • franneh
  • Lisa Hammer
    Lisa Hammer
  • Katie @ Produce On Parade
    Katie @ Produce On Parade
  • Olivia Sinton
    Olivia Sinton
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


Cel W. September 5, 2022
Just made this with my garden basil and it's incredible! Thanks for an easy-to-follow recipe that is so versatile! I used basil, pepitas, and the nooch with bottled lemon juice and a healthy amount of salt... With our family's allergies (nuts and dairy), we've never had good pesto before. Can't wait to use it this week!
franneh March 24, 2015
This is perfect! I use a similar recipe by Jamie Oliver but with Gruyere cheese instead of nutritional yeast. This will be a healthier substitute that I won't feel guilty about. Thanks for sharing :-)
Lisa H. June 27, 2014
I didn't have any basil, so I used spinach and basil infused olive oil...YUM! Couldn't even tell the difference. By the way, Olivia, I use NOW Nutritional Yeast Flakes. They are certified non-GMO and taste great. I also eat it by the spoonful!;-)))))
Katie @. February 24, 2014
Vegan pesto is so good :)I'd love to make a chickweed one this summer!
Olivia S. January 25, 2014
Have you found a certified GMO free nutritional yeast? Because in my search to find one I have discovered that the yeast is grown using GMO sugar beets. I have not found a U S company that can certify their nutritional yeast as being GMO free. I did purchase a nutritional yeast from a company in Canada that imported the yeast from Europe but it cost a fortune and tasted like baking yeast!
Jessica M. September 23, 2013
Any trick for freezing ? Ice cube tray ?
rachel W. August 15, 2013
I just made this with all the basil growing like a weed on my porch...steamed some farmer's market veggies (mushrooms, kale, wax beans, summer squash) and tossed w/quinoa. DELISH! Thanks Gena for another fab idea!!
Jessica S. August 9, 2013
We use suneflower seeds instead of walnuts or pine nuts due to allergies and the expense of pine nuts. It works great and no one notices the difference.
Shayna T. July 21, 2013
"new" vegan(ish)'s not noted to soak the walnuts or pine nuts. Is it not needed for those nuts? Or just not needed in this recipe? or is it assumed we already know to soak them? LOVING your recipes Gena!
Marian B. July 22, 2013
you don't have to soak them!
Marya July 12, 2013
This recipe is a life-saver. I always look forward to tons of basil pesto in the summer, but, after finding out I have a diary allergy last fall, I was worried that I couldn't find an adequate substitute for the parm. While I would not say that this recipe tastes exactly like regular basil pesto, it is close and, hands down, tastes delicious. This is much better than the many vegan pesto recipes I've seen online that just take out the cheese without a replacement. I'm so relieved to know that I can still enjoy pesto and not end up with hives. ;-)
JayKayTee June 29, 2013
I don't know which vegan/vegetarian blog I got this recipe from but I like it as a sub for parm and I've used it successfully in basil and asparagus pesto (crostini, soups & risotto too but don't expect any melting)
In a food processor, grind 1 cup raw cashews or almonds, 1/2 cup nutritional yeast and 1 Tbsp of salt-free seasoning (I use salt), until a powdery mixture is achieved. If you like it more chunky, process less.
Cat B. June 19, 2013
Do you think it would preserve well? I have an abundance of summer herbs and would love to make pesto and preserve it
carswell June 27, 2013
I always freeze my pesto - and I make it without cheese to do so.
JayKayTee June 29, 2013
Cat, I've kept pesto for a ridiculously long time in the refrigerator, just keep it covered with a layer of olive oil.
Jaime S. April 19, 2016
Do you have to leave the nutritional yeast out in order to be able to freeze?
Louise G. June 8, 2013
Actually, there is a book on which features recipes for making all sorts of vegan cheeses. I am not sure if any of the recipes feature cashews as one of the ingredients. Somewhere in my "Favorites" list on my computer is a recipe for vegan blue cheese. It is unfortunate that when a shopper goes to the local market, be it Whole Foods or someother place, including my local co-op, there is not the variety of vegan cheeses from which to select. I believe that the meat substitutes are very tasteworthy to any palate, even carnivores. However, unfortunately, the cheese substitutes have a long way to go. If there is an entrepreneur out there somewhere, there is a real opportunity here. Sorry for yakking so much. I guess my cheese light is on!!!!!
Seeemilyplay August 8, 2013
I think tofu cheese is pretty good especially for pizza. Bled tofu, cashews, a bit of oil, a bit of soymilk (or any other kind you like), lemon and then whatever herbs you like. I usually prefer basil. I'm sure you could even bled the tofu with the vegan pesto. You blend it so it's got a kind of crumbly texture. Make sure it doesn't get to smooth.
Louise G. June 2, 2013
Vegan pesto is indeed possible. I have nutritional yeast in an unlabeled bag in my fridge. But I have not been able to determing which bag is the yeast and which is the garbanzo flour. I guess that I could always taste it.... But as a vegan, I do not miss meat or milk. It's the cheese that I miss. They have created a great soy milk, meat subs, soy creamer, soy ice cream. But the soy cheese and all of the ones I have tried-they suck!!! Even my dog turns his nose up at the
vegan cheeses. They do have a vegan parm which could be added to a vegan pesto?
thirteenJ June 8, 2013
But I haven't tried it..because so many cheese subs are made with cashews..and I'm allergic to nuts!
Nancy February 26, 2014
Try daiya It is delish on pizza, tortilla's etc. I only like the mozzarella though. But it as close to real taste of cheese as you can get. It melts differently but not bad. I am allergic to dairy and searched for non dairy cheese for over 20 years! Try it
fithealthyhot May 31, 2013
I can't wait to make this. I love a simple ingredient list! I also love nutritional yeast. As I type this, I'm eating it mixed in with some brown rice. Such an awesome ingredient for vegans.
Gena H. May 31, 2013
Thanks Jenni! Enjoy :)
jim.corcoran.7 May 31, 2013
Delicious vegan food, and this pesto is great, is one reason why the number of vegans has doubled in less than 3 years. Here are two uplifting videos that will help people understand just some of the implications of this lifestyle: and
Marian B. May 30, 2013
I love this, made sort of chunky, simply spread on toast -- I've been eating it all week!
cupcakemuffin May 30, 2013
Yum! I've actually often made pesto without the cheese - maybe adding a few more nuts - and it still turns out really delicious. Will have to give this variation a spin!
Edible B. May 30, 2013
I love pesto! I made a version the other day with cilantro/parsley/sunflower seed/rice bran oil/oregano/garlic/nutritional yeast and tossed it with brown rice pasta.
ChefJune May 30, 2013
I've never made it with yeast, and it's truly delicious without cheese. Plenty of other full flavored ingredients it's not missed.