This article is about basil pesto, the second most famous Italian pasta sauce, of course after tomato sauce.
However, this is not about the traditional way to make “Pesto Genovese” – using a mortar; there are plenty of good resources on that (as greatly summarized on Food Lover’s Odyssey). This article is about the more modern way to make pesto – using a blender, a method which is quite common also in Italy.
Technically the word “pesto” comes from the Italian ‘pestare’, to pound. Therefore, the purists would argue that this sauce should be called differently when made in a blender.
Aside from how it should be called, does the pesto made in a blender taste the same as the traditional one? Absolutely not. But it does get close, and it’s much better than any pesto that I could ever buy in a jar.
But before we start throwing basil leaves into the blender, it’s important to know that chopped basil is prone to oxidation – it turns dark and deteriorates in flavor when in contact with the oxygen in the air. Luckily oxidation can be countered by allowing the basil leaves to dry completely before blending them so that the oil can create a seal around the chopped leaves, keeping the oxygen away.
Basil also deteriorates and changes flavor when heated too much. To help counter this, the blender must be activated in pulses in order to limit the overall blending time and the corresponding friction produced by the blades. It also helps to chill the blender bowl and blade in the freezer before use.
Pesto sauce is traditionally used on trenette, trofie (pictured below), but also on linguini, spaghetti (as in this post’s feature image), and even gnocchi.
- 100 g fresh basil leaves (if you can find it, prefer the Genovese kind)
- 50 g Parmigiano (or a mix of Parmigiano & Pecorino cheese)
- 25 g pine nuts (possibly, from the Mediterranean)
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon of coarse salt
- 1 clove of garlic (optional)
- Gently wash the basil under cold running water and then lay it on a towel and let it dry completely (fig. 1). Do not bend or crush the leaves.
- Meanwhile, put the blender's bowl and blade in the freezer for at least 10 minutes (fig. 2a).
- Pour all of the oil in the blender, then add the crushed garlic (if using it) and the basil. Give it a few pulses until the leaves are roughly chopped up (fig. 2b).
- Add the cheese, grated or cut in small bits, and the salt (fig. 2c). Give it a few more spins.
- Add the whole pine nuts (fig. 2d).
- Give a few last spins and extract from the blender (fig. 3).
If the sauce is not used immediately, it can be preserved in the fridge for up to two to three days. Store it in a tall and narrow container (e.g.: a glass) and top it up with an extra tablespoon of olive oil. Before using it, leave the sauce out of the fridge an hour - don't warm it up, or you'll cause the cheese to lump together and separate from the oil. Pesto can also be frozen, in that case some recommend not to add the cheese until the sauce is thawed.
5 thoughts on “Making Basil Pesto in a Blender”
Happy New Year, Paolo! I love your tip for putting the bowl of the processor in the freezer prior to making the pesto. I’ll have to give that a try. And, I love that you say garlic is optional. As you know, for me, garlic is never an option… When we were in Rome, we noticed that several stores sold pesto with garlic as well as pesto without garlic. So it seems there is a tradition of that.
When I first learned to make pesto from an elderly woman in Vernazza, I told her I couldn’t eat garlic. She told me her husband couldn’t eat it either. She simply made it without and no one missed it! I’ve always gone by that advice. Sadly, to Americans, pesto is only about the garlic —when it’s really about the basil, cheese and delicate pinenuts.
Thanks, David for stopping by! Yes, I prefer pesto without garlic myself. In general, I find this is the case for any uncooked use of the pungent bulb. Although I know that in your case it’s not by choice but because of an allergy. You’re absolutely right – pesto is about the amazing blends of aromas and delicate emulsification of the various fats involved.
Happy New Year, Paolo! I love pesto and make it all the time, but I learned something new today, those little tips about drying the basil and using the pulse function to avoid overheating. Thanks! In all my years of making the stuff (almost always in a food processor, I must admit) I didn’t know about them. It’s those little things that separate OK cooking from truly good cooking, don’t they?
Hi Frank, always a pleasure hearing from you. I’ve always struggled with my blended pesto turning black, so I experimented and researched a solution that worked for me. I know this is a relatively common problem, however. I can see in your 2014 post that you also recommend using the pulse function, and your pesto is bright green in the picture. Thinking over this again, I wonder if my problem simply stems from me omitting the garlic – a natural antioxidant. I never thought of this! I must do more experiments 🙂
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