Serving bowl of freshly made basil pesto

Classic Basil Pesto


Pesto is a sauce that many say originated in Genoa, Italy, whose name literally means “to pound” or “to crush”. This is in reference to the original method of preparation where the ingredients were all “crushed” or ground in a mortar using a pestle in a circular motion. 

Mortar and Pestle

So basically, pesto is a generic term for anything that is made by pounding, which is why you see such a variety of recipes today for pesto, including some that are traditional and some that are very modern with some surprising ingredients in them

Here I have a mortar and pestle, the traditional tool that was used for making pesto! Today however most prefer to use a food processor.

Ingredients to make classic basil pesto

Here in the United States, pesto didn’t really become popular until the 1980s and 1990s, but I for one am very glad it did because I love it! However, I prefer the classic Pesto alla Genovese, which is considered the most popular pesto. As shown in the recipe I have provided, it contains crushed garlic, pine nuts, coarse salt, sweet basil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano (parmesan cheese) which is all blended together with some good olive oil.

Cutting fresh basil in the garden

Fresh basil can be expensive when purchasing the leaves at the grocery store which is why I recommend you purchase a basil plant and grow your own.

Basil Plant

I like to grow other herbs in my garden as well, such as rosemary.

Trimming Basil Plant

Then whenever I want to make a batch of fresh pesto, I just head out the garden and harvest as much basil as needed!

Pine Nuts

Pine nuts are also called pinon, pignoli, and pignolia, and come from several varieties of pine trees. The high-fat nut actually come from inside the pinecone, which generally must be heated to facilitate their removal. This labor-intensive process is what makes these nuts so expensive. 

Now sometimes because of the pine nuts expense or availability, other ingredients may have to be used and substituted, such as walnuts, pecans, cashews or even peanuts. For the same reasons, you will also sometimes see mint, spinach, and/or parsley being mixed in with the basil or even replacing it totally. 

Toasted Pine Nuts

Just like other nuts, I like to toast the pine nuts before using them to bring out more of their flavor. I do this in a dry sauté pan over medium heat.

Grated Parmesan

I also like to freshly grate my cheese as I think it has more flavor over the pre-ground cheese you can buy. For my vegan readers out there, you can use the recipe as is and just replace the cheese with things like miso paste or nutritional yeast.

Pureed basil with toasted pine nuts in food processor to make pesto
Grated parmesan ready to be added to pesto

Mix until a paste forms, stopping often to push down the basil. 

Grated parmesan cheese added to food processor

Then add the grated cheese and salt, blend until smooth. The cheese not only adds flavor but helps to thicken the pesto.

Pesto in food processor finished

Once the mixture is smooth and at the right consistency, taste to make sure the seasoning is correct. 

Serving bowl of freshly made basil pesto

Transfer to a small bowl, top with a few drizzles of olive oil, and chill in the refrigerator. Use fresh within a few days or freeze.

Grilled chicken breast that has been coated in basil pesto

Pesto is a great ingredient to have on hand as a staple and can be used in a multitude of ways to whip up a quick meal.
One common way is to stir it into hot pasta or even into a cold pasta salad. You can also serve it over grilled chicken breasts or steaks, or serve it spread on toasted bread which you can add sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.

Here are two of my YouTube videos on the subject of Pesto. One shows you how I make pesto and the other video shows you a few recipes on how you can use pesto in different ways.


Classic Basil Pesto

Chef Colin Roche, PhD, MBA, CEC, CCE, FMP, CHE
Here is my recipe for classic pesto which is based on a Bon Appetit recipe from back in August of 2004
Course Appetizer, Main Course, Salad, Side Dish, Snack
Cuisine Italian
Servings 1 cup


  • 1 Food Processor
  • 1 Cheese Grater


  • 4 cups Fresh Basil Leaves about 3 large bunches
  • 1/2 cup Olive Oil Extra Virgin if possible
  • 1/3 cup Pine Nuts toasted
  • 2 each Garlic Cloves
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan Cheese Freshly grated if possible
  • 1 tsp Salt Coarse salt, like Kosher, recommended


  • Combine first 4 ingredients in a food processor or blender and mix until a paste forms, stopping often to scrape the sides.
  • Add the grated cheese and the salt. Blend until smooth. Taste and correct flavor and consistency if needed.
  • Transfer to a small bowl or container, drizzle olive oil over the surface to keep it from drying out or changing color. Cover and chill in the refrigerator. Use fresh within a few days or freeze.
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