How to Make Vegan Basil Pesto

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This classic basil pesto couldn’t be simpler and adds flavor to any meal. Use it as a pasta sauce, sandwich spread, turn it into a salad dressing, or dollop over roasted vegetables or grain bowls. If you’re planning to serve the pesto later and/or keep leftovers for several days, blanching the basil can help preserve its green color for longer by slowing down the browning. 
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 6 mins
Total Time: 16 mins

How to make basil pesto but vegan!

As a food blogger, my dinners often consist of leftovers from recipe testing. Which is fabulous. Because I love my recipes (sorry, but sometimes a girl needs to pat herself on her own back). But, when I am organized and have my life together, I also like to do some batch cooking and meal prep.

Over the last few years, I’ve moved away from batch cooking the same meal (I get tired after the first two days, which results in both dollars and food wasted). Instead, I like to meal prep a few different categories of food: primarily, proteins, grains, and sauces or condiments.

[PS: If you want to see this type of meal prep in action and how to do it with just 8 wholesome ingredients, check out my meal prep for winter Youtube video!]

The sauces/condiments is my favorite piece of the meal prep because that’s where all the flavor comes in. You can take some simple baked tofu and quinoa and turn it from meh to delicious with a great sauce or condiment. The three sauces I make the most frequently include: (1) cashew cream and variations (check out this video), (2) tahini-based sauces, and (3) pestos!

If you haven’t seen my Youtube video on how to make pesto and variations, you can check it out here! Today’s post is going to be all about how to make Classic Basil Pesto (but vegan).

 

How to Make Vegan Basil Pesto

Equipment needed to make pesto

Basil pesto hails from the northern Italian state of Genoa (it’s called pesto alla Genovese in Italy), and it’s traditionally made with a mortar and pestle.

I made it this way the first time I made homemade pesto during an Italian cooking class in college. However, since most people (including myself) do not have a large enough mortar and pestle to make pesto, I rely on the food processor, which is the more common tool used in modern pesto recipes.

When using a food processor, it’s best to (1) pre-chop any larger ingredients (e.g., garlic) and (2) to pulse the tougher ingredients first (e.g., nuts and garlic) first before adding the other ingredients. This ensures the best possible texture.

basil pesto blended in a food processor

Ingredients in Classic Basil Pesto

Pasta alla Genovese contains basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and salt. Obviously, parmesan cheese is not vegan, but everything else is vegan, so it’s really quite easy to make vegan pesto.

Basil. You can find fresh basil at supermarkets year-round, but of course your pesto will be the most fragrant in summer, during the height of basil season. Luckily, you can make pesto during the summertime when basil is abundant, freeze it, and enjoy it through the year. More on freezing pesto below.

Pine Nuts. Pine nuts (aka pignolias) are the second main ingredient in a traditional basil pesto. Their buttery texture is smooth enough that they can be easily pounded with a mortar and pestle (not as easy with almonds or pistachios).

As you may have noticed, pine nuts are very pricy! If you want to make classic pesto alla Genovese, pine nuts are a must. But, if you’re okay with a little alteration (I assume you are since vegan pesto doesn’t contain parmesan cheese!), my favorite pine nut substitutions are walnuts or pistachios in this recipe.

That said, you also use cashews or almonds, or to keep it nut-free, pumpkin or sunflower seeds. Or, you can go split the difference and use half pine nuts and half walnuts.

Olive Oil. A good-quality extra virgin olive oil is a must in basil pesto. Pesto is raw, so the quality and taste of the olive oil will shine through. Which means this is the time to use your pricy extra virgin olive oil with fruity, grassy notes (not the inexpensive regular or light olive oil, which you should use for actual cooking).

Garlic. Fresh garlic is key in any good pesto. Raw garlic brings a punchy sharp flavor and zippy kick. That said, raw garlic can be overpowering and you don’t want your pesto to be spicy from too much garlic. Since garlic cloves vary in size, start slowly. Then taste it and add more as needed.

Salt. Pesto needs salt, obviously! If you want your pesto to flavor, you need salt in order to draw out the basil flavor from the basil or the cilantro flavor from the cilantro. Plus, salt helps break down the herbs/greens. I use kosher salt or sea salt to avoid the slight metallic taste from regular table salt.

Lemon. Some classic basil recipes contain lemon juice, some do not. I always include lemon juice and just as importantly, lemon zest, which brings a welcome fresh zing to the pesto. Traditional pesto can be a bit heavy, with the generous amount of oil and cheese, so the lemon adds a nice brightness and fresh flavor.

Cheese. Traditionally, basil pesto is made with lots of parmesan cheese, which is not vegan. But I find that if you make pesto with really good-quality ingredients (in-season basil + a nice fruity extra virgin olive oil + toasted nuts), you won’t even miss the cheese.

But, if you do want to try and replicate the parmesan cheese, a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast helps mimic those umami notes.

Vegan Basil Petso in a jar with spoon

Tips for Making Vegan Basil Pesto

Texture + Equipment

Basil pesto hails from the northern Italian state of Genoa (it’s called pesto alla Genovese in Italy), and it’s traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. I made it this way the first time I made homemade pesto during an Italian cooking class in college. Pesto made in a mortar and pestle typically produces a silkier texture than pesto made in a food processor (at least according to Serious Eats).

However, since most people (including myself) do not have a large enough mortar and pestle to make pesto and because it requires more work, I rely on the food processor, which is the more common tool used in modern pesto recipes.

To get the best possible texture for pesto using a food processor,

When using a food processor, it’s best to (1) pre-chop any larger ingredients (e.g., garlic) and (2) to pulse the tougher ingredients first (e.g., nuts and garlic) first before adding the other ingredients. This ensures the best possible texture.

How to Keep Pesto Sauce Green

If you’ve made basil pesto before and noticed it turned brown after a day or two, that’s because when basil is exposed to air, it oxidizes and browns. To extend the refrigerator life of pesto so that it stays green for at least 3-4 days, you can blanch your basil leaves in boiling water for 5-15 seconds. As soon as it’s done boiling, immediately transfer the basil to an ice bath or rinse under cold water to stop cooking.

Benefits of blanching: smoother sauce + pesto will stay greener for longer (one caveat: I have noticed that pesto made with very fresh, in-season basil stays green longer than pesto made with out-of-season supermarket basil (unsurprising)).

Drawbacks of blanching: raw basil has a heavenly aroma and intense fragrance, but you lose some of that when you blanch the basil.

Deciding factor: when are you consuming the basil?

  1. Consuming all of the pesto on the same day you make it (e.g., cooking for a few people, making a big pot of pasta, etc.): use raw basil.

  2. Storing leftover pesto in fridge and using it for several days: blanch the basil. It will extend the shelf life and green color.

Another way to slow down the browning process of pesto is to pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto before covering and refrigerating.

Vegan Basil Pesto with pasta and cherry tomatoes

Toast the Nuts 

To maximize the flavor of your pesto, always toast your nuts. Toasting releases the nuts’ volatile oils and awakens otherwise dormant flavors (like those rich nutty flavors). I usually toast a large batch of nuts at once and store them separately so I have them on hand for future use.

You can toast pine nuts on the stovetop in a dry pan, or in a pan in the oven.

  • Stovetop: add pine nuts to a dry pan over medium heat and toast for 3-4 minutes, until fragrant and golden brown, tossing occasionally. Remove immediately from heat.

  • Oven: Preheat to 350°F/175°C. Add pine nuts to a sheet pan in a single layer and toast in the oven for 5-7 minutes, stirring once in the middle.

Pesto is Not Oil-Free

Sorry, folks, pesto is fairly oil-rich. Many recipes online try to make pesto “healthier” by using just a tiny bit of oil (or none at all) and adding water instead. That’s fine if you have a specific health condition where you can’t consume oil, or if you don’t care about having the best possible pesto.

But, my job is to teach you how to make the best possible vegan pesto, so I recommend using the amount of oil called for in the recipe. My recipe uses slightly less oil than many classic pesto recipes, but it certainly doesn’t skimp on it because it’s a necessary ingredient.

I do mention in the recipes that, if you get your pesto to the oiliness that you like but it’s not quite smooth enough, you can add a spoon of water to help bring things together. But I’m talking just a spoon or two of water because pesto should be thick, saucy, and oily, not watery.

vegan basil pesto on sliced toast with heirloom tomatoes

How to Store Basil Pesto

To slow down the browning process of pesto, pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto before covering and refrigerating. Also, as mentioned above, if you’re making basil pesto, you can also blanch the basil to slow down the oxidization process.

To store pesto for longer than 5ish days, store it in the freezer (up to 6 months). The best way to freeze pesto is to pour it into ice cube trays, freeze; once frozen, transfer the pesto cubes to a ziptop bag or container. When you’re ready to cook, there’s no need to defrost them; just add a cube to a hot dish while it’s cooking, and the heat will thaw it pretty quickly.

vegan basil pesto in a jar

How to Use Vegan Basil Pesto: 10 Ideas!

  1. Pesto pasta (the obvious choice)! See the recipe below.

  2. As a sandwich spread (tastier and better-for-you than mayo). I love topping my pesto bread with heirloom tomatoes, chickpeas smashed with lemon and salt, and sliced avocado.

  3. As a dip with crudités or crackers. Particularly good with carrots and thinly sliced fennel.

  4. Spread pesto onto flatbread/wraps, top with chickpeas or lentils and veggies for an easy lunch (check out meal #3 in this post).

  5. Drizzle onto grain bowls, roasted vegetables, or your favorite protein.

  6. Thin out pesto with lemon juice for a pesto salad dressing.

  7. In a vegan grilled cheese sandwich! Like this one.

  8. Use it as a pizza sauce as an alternative to a traditional marinara.

  9. Mix it into other dips, especially creamy dips or sauces (e.g., cashew cream or vegan yogurt-based dips).

  10. Drizzle it over stuffed baked sweet potatoes for an instant flavor booster (check out meal #2 in this post) or smear it over crispy smashed potatoes.

vegan basil pesto pasta with cherry tomatoes

Classic Vegan Basil Pesto

5 from 2 votes
This classic basil pesto couldn’t be simpler and adds flavor to any meal. Use it as a pasta sauce, sandwich spread, turn it into a salad dressing, or dollop over roasted vegetables or grain bowls. If you’re planning to serve the pesto later and/or keep leftovers for several days, blanching the basil can help preserve its green color for longer by slowing down the browning. 
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 6 mins
Total Time: 16 mins
Course: Condiment
Cuisine: American
Diet Vegan
Keyword: basil, pasta, pesto
Serving size: 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 3 cups loosely packed basil (~35g)
  • 1/3 cup (45-50g) pine nuts*, toasted
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/2 – 1 medium lemon, zested and then juiced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon nutritional yeast, plus more to taste (optional)
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-3 tablespoons water, as needed

Instructions

  • Optional – blanch the basil (see Tip above): Bring a few cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add the basil leaves. Cook for 5-10 seconds, then immediately drain the leaves and rinse under cold water until no longer hot, or use a slotted spoon to grab the basil from the hot water and transfer them to an ice bath. Dry the basil well before using.
  • To toast pine nuts: Heat a skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the pine nuts and toss occasionally to prevent burning, until they are golden and release a nutty aroma, about 4-6 minutes.
  • Add the toasted pine nuts to a food processor and blitz until you have a fine crumb. Add the basil (blanched or raw), garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, black pepper to taste, and nutritional yeast (if using). Blend until a paste forms, scraping down the sides as you go along.
  • With the motor running, stream in the extra virgin olive oil to start to form a sauce. Scrape down the sides again, and stream in more oil as needed until you have a smooth yet thick texture. If the pesto is still not smooth enough but you don’t want to add more oil, add a spoon of water at a time until the sauce comes together. Taste for seasonings, adding more salt, lemon, garlic, or nutritional yeast as needed.
  • Store in an airtight glass jar in the fridge for 5 days, or freeze up to 6 months.

Notes

* For alternatives to pine nuts, read the section called “Ingredients in Classic Basil Pesto.”

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1 comment on How to Make Vegan Basil Pesto

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