How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

Tips on how to make vegan pesto so that it tastes just as delicious as the classic, plus a formula for pesto so you can make flavor variations. And three incredible vegan pesto recipes, including Classic Basil Pesto, Thai-Inspired Pesto, and Carrot Top Pesto! One of my absolute favorite things to make are condiments and…

Tips on how to make vegan pesto so that it tastes just as delicious as the classic, plus a formula for pesto so you can make flavor variations. And three incredible vegan pesto recipes, including Classic Basil Pesto, Thai-Inspired Pesto, and Carrot Top Pesto!

One of my absolute favorite things to make are condiments and sauces. Because a good condiment can take a meal over the top. It can transform simple ingredients like beans and grains into elevated, flavor-packed meals. Which is why I always have at least two homemade condiments/sauces in my fridge at any given time.

And one of those favorite condiments is PESTO! I have made pesto at least once a week this summer because basil is at its peak freshness and flavor, and I can get an enormous amount for $4 at the farmers market.

While basil is used in classic Italian pesto, it’s not the only fresh herb you can use to make pesto. Especially in the colder months, when basil is not at its freshest and most fragrant, I gravitate towards other herbs like cilantro, parsley, and even non-herb ingredients like kale and the greens from carrots, beets, and radishes.

And today I’m going to share my tips for making vegan pesto, along with three flavor-packed vegan pesto recipes: Classic Basil Pesto, Thai-Inspired Pesto, and Carrot Top Pesto.

And for more pesto tips and ideas, check out my Youtube video on it!


pesto jar 3 (1 of 1).jpg

How to Make Pesto

Equipment needed to make pesto

Basil pesto originated in the northern Italian state of Genoa (it’s called pasta alla Genovese) and it’s traditionally made with a mortar and pestle. I learned these tidbits in an Italian cooking class I took in college, and the first recipe we made was a classic Italian pesto.

In order to make pesto the traditional way, you need a large mortar and pestle to fit all the ingredients (and a decent amount of arm strength). Since I only have a tiny mortar and pestle and tiny arm muscles, I rely on the food processor, which is the more common tool used in modern pesto recipes.

Classic Pesto: Ingredients

Pasta alla Genovese contains basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, parmesan cheese, and salt.

Obviously, parmesan is not vegan (technically, it’s not even vegetarian because it contains rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach lining of cows or goats), but everything else is vegan, so it’s really quite easy to make vegan pesto.

To replicate the cheesy umami notes from parmesan cheese, I typically add a bit of nutritional yeast to the pesto, though it’s not essential, especially if you’re using in-season basil and good-quality extra virgin olive oil.

Also, I always add lemon (both zest and juice) to my pesto because I love the fresh zing it brings.


3 Vegan Instant Pot Recipes for Summer. Vegan instant pot corn chowder. Vegan corn chowder. instant pot corn chowder.

Formula for making pesto variations

As I mention in the Youtube video, I think of pesto more as a formula than a hard-and-fast recipe. Sure, your Italian nonna might be rolling her eyes at this, but there’s a reason the title of this blog post isn’t “Authentic Italian Pesto.” I love the concept of pesto—a condiment made with herbs, nuts, and oil—and use it as inspiration to develop new iterations, based on what’s in season and the ingredients I have available.

Here are the main categories of ingredients you need to make variations of pesto. With most recipes, you can just substitute these ideas for a classic pesto recipe in a 1:1 ratio, though sometimes there are certain things to keep in mind (e.g., you can use raw basil or cilantro, but you should blanch carrot tops).

Soft Herbs or Greens

  • Basil is classic and certainly my go-to during summer, but it’s only a starting point.

  • Other soft herb options: cilantro (as in my Thai-inspired pesto recipe below), Thai basil, parsley, dill, tarragon

  • Greens: kale (as used in this meal prep video/blog post), arugula (as used in Monday’s lunch in this video), spinach, or watercress.

  • Vegetable tops: greens/tops from carrots (as in my Carrot top pesto recipe below), beets, or radishes.

Considerations: some herbs or greens can be bitter (e.g., arugula, watercress), spicy (e.g., radish greens) or sweet (e.g., tarragon tastes like anise). I typically like to combine these ingredients with other milder, more neutral herbs or greens for balance (e.g., arugula with buttery avocado or slightly sweet pecans, radish greens with basil, tarragon with parsley, etc.).

Nuts or Seeds

  • Pine nuts are classic and I love their buttery creaminess, but again, they are only a starting point. And since they’re pricey, it’s nice to be able to substitute them or replace half of the amount with a less expensive nut/seed.

  • Other nuts: walnuts and pistachios are my go-tos, but you could also use cashews (a good sub in my Thai-inspired pesto recipe), pecans (buttery mouthfeel) or almonds (slightly crunchy).

  • Seeds: If you are allergic to nuts, you can try using sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds!

Considerations: I always recommend toasting or roasting your nuts before using them in pesto (more below in the Tips section). If you are using store-bought roasted and salted nuts, add less salt and taste as you go.


How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

Oil

  • Extra virgin olive oil is classic, but if you are making a variation based on a cuisine that doesn’t commonly use olive oil (i.e., Asian cuisines), you can use a neutral-flavored oil. For instance, in my Thai-inspired pesto, I use a mixture of grapeseed oil (neutral flavor) and toasted sesame oil (intensely nutty flavor).

Considerations: When using olive oil, always use a good-quality extra virgin olive oil. Pesto is raw, so the quality and taste of the olive oil will shine through. This is the time to use that bougie olive oil with beautiful fruity, grassy notes (not the industrial-size jug from Costco; save that for cooked food). One of my favorite high-quality yet affordable olive oils is from Carapelli.

Citrus

  • 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.

  • As with the oil, if you are making a variation based on a different cuisine (e.g., Asian or Latin cuisines), you can use lime juice/zest instead of lemon juice/zest.

Garlic

  • 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, taste, and add more as needed.

Salt

  • Pesto needs salt, duh! 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.


How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

Tips for Making Pesto

Texture Matters

A traditional pesto sauce made in a mortar and pestle typically produces a silkier texture than pesto made in a food processor (at least according to Serious Eats), but since (1) it requires more work and (2) most people (including myself) don’t have a large enough mortar and pestle to make pesto, we’ll be sticking to a food processor. So, here are a few tips to help get the best possible texture for pesto using a food processor.

First, blitz your nuts before adding the other ingredients. Buttery pine nuts need less time than hard almonds, but in either case, you want the nuts to be anywhere from tiny pieces to a fine crumb before adding the rest of the ingredients.

Second, chop the tougher ingredients before adding them to the food processor. This includes garlic cloves, as well as herbs or greens that aren’t as soft as basil (e.g., the mint in my Thai-inspired pesto).

Third, if you choose to blanch your basil, it will yield a slightly smoother texture than raw basil (more on that in the next tip).

Finally, while blending the pesto, be sure to scrape down the sides periodically to ensure all the ingredients get evenly blended together.

To Blanch or Not Blanch

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?

If you are making a big pot of pasta or cooking for more than a few people and plan to consume all the pesto on the same day (or even the next day), use raw basil.

If you plan to keep the pesto in the fridge for many days and use the pesto throughout the week, blanch the basil to extend its shelf life and green color (nobody likes brown basil).

For tougher greens like carrot tops, blanching is also necessary to help soften them.


How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes


How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

Toast the Nuts

To maximize the flavor of your pesto, always toast your nuts (or seeds). Toasting nuts releases their 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 nuts on the stovetop in a dry pan, or in a pan in the oven. The exact time will depend on the variety of nut used, but generally speaking, here’s what works. (1) Stovetop – medium heat for 4-6 minutes, toss occasionally. (2) Oven – 350F/175C for 7-10 minutes.

To Cheese or Not?

Classic basil pesto is made with lots of parmesan cheese, which as I mentioned above, is not even vegetarian let alone vegan. I find that if you make pesto with really good-quality ingredients (in-season summer 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 replicate those umami notes.

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 recipes use slightly less oil than many classic pesto recipes, but they don’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.

How to Store 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.


How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

How to Make Vegan Pesto: Vegan Basil Pesto

5 from 2 votes
A classic basil pesto made vegan! This easy homemade 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.
Tip: 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 oxidization (browning) process in the fridge.
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 6 mins
Total Time: 16 mins
Course: Sauce
Cuisine: American
Diet Vegan
Keyword: gluten-free, soy-free
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.

Thai-Inspired Vegan Pesto

5 from 2 votes
A Thai-inspired spin on classic pesto! With cilantro and mint instead of basil, roasted peanuts instead of pine nuts, and packed with flavor from ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. Perfect over noodles or as a dipping sauce.
If you have access to Thai basil, feel free to substitute the cilantro with Thai basil or use half cilantro-half Thai basil. If you’re allergic to peanuts, replace them with roasted cashews.
Prep Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 15 mins
Course: Condiment, Sauce
Cuisine: Thai-Inspired
Diet Vegan
Keyword: gluten-free, pesto
Serving size: 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup (75g) dry-roasted peanuts
  • 3 cups (36g) fresh cilantro (leaves and tender stems)
  • 1/2 cup (~15g) fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1/2- inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 small Serrano chili pepper, roughly chopped
  • Zest of 1/2 large lime
  • Juice of 1 large lime
  • 2 teaspoons tamari, or soy sauce*
  • ¼ cup neutral-tasting oil such as grapeseed oil, plus more as needed
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1-3 tablespoons water, plus more as needed

Instructions

  • Add the roasted peanuts to a food processor and blitz until in small pieces. Add the cilantro, mint, garlic, ginger, chili pepper, lime zest, lime juice, and tamari or soy sauce. Blend until a paste forms, scraping down the sides as you go along.
  • Mix together the sesame oil and grapeseed oil.
  • With the motor running, stream in the oil mixture 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.
  • Store in an airtight glass jar in the fridge for 5 days, or freeze up to 6 months.

Notes

*Soy sauce is not gluten-free. If using reduced-sodium tamari or soy sauce, you might need a splash more.

Vegan Carrot Top Pesto

5 from 2 votes
Stop throwing away those carrot tops and reduce your food waste with this Carrot Top Pesto! It’s a fun spin on classic pesto that uses carrot tops instead of basil and pistachios instead of pine nuts, but it’s just as delicious as the original. Serve it with roasted carrots for a zero-waste meal, or use its a pasta sauce, sandwich spread, or grain bowl topper.
Carrot tops are tougher than basil or cilantro, so you need to blanch them for a few minutes. If you don’t have pistachios, you can substitute with pine nuts, walnuts, or for a nut-free version, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds.
Prep Time: 10 mins
Cook Time: 5 mins
Total Time: 15 mins
Course: Condiment, Sauce
Cuisine: American
Diet Vegan
Keyword: gluten-free, soy-free
Serving size: 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 2 cups (30g) carrot leaves/tops (the tops from 1 really large bunch of carrots)
  • 1/3 cup (40-45g) shelled pistachios, roasted*
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 medium lemon, zested and then juiced
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
  • 1 ½ tablespoons nutritional yeast, plus more to taste (optional)
  • 1/4 cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-3 tablespoons water, as needed

Instructions

  • Blanch the carrot tops. Bring a few cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Strip the leafy tops from one very large bunch of carrots (or 2 small ones) until you get about 2 cups. Wash the leaves thoroughly, removing the thick middle stem. Add the carrot tops to the boiling water and cook for 2 1/2 minutes, 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 carrot tops well before using.
  • Add the pistachios to a food processor and blitz until in small pieces. Add the blanched carrot tops, 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

*If using store-bought roasted pistachios that are also salted, go easy on the added salt and adjust to taste. To roast raw shelled pistachios, spread pistachios out on a baking sheet and place in a preheated oven at 350°F/175°C for 6-8 minutes, or until lightly browned and fragrant.

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1 comment on How to Make Vegan Pesto + Three Vegan Pesto Recipes

  1. Peggy Guerin

    I’m not even a practicing vegan and I absolutely love your recipes! These pesto variations (without parmesan cheese) are terrific. I’m especially keen on the carrots greens. Hate to waste such an interesting ingredient. Keep up the great work!

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