How to Turn Any Herb Into Pesto
One simple formula to transform fresh herbs into homemade pesto.
In the early spring, I go a little hog-wild buying packets of seeds. It is a combination of coming out of a long, cold and gray-toned winter in Vermont combined with the cheerful promise of fresh summertime fruits, veggies and herbs illustrated on the seed packets. Before you know it, I have picked out many more types of plants than I could possibly fit in my three raised beds.
Come late June and July, I am a much more laid-back person. I've turned into mellow summertime Katie. That summer version of me is often a little daunted by what has happened in the month since I sowed those optimistic little packets (and packets and packets) of seeds. My garden will be bursting, comically so, with enough herbs for an entire CSA community to share.
Related: Guide to Cooking with Fresh Herbs
One year, I had three full rows (each about 8 feet long) of lemon basil and Thai basil, dill and cilantro. Not to mention the thatch of chives that is always multiplying and is now growing out into the garden walk. I could easily see myself getting lost in a thicket of herbs, and nobody would find me for hours.
I'll admit, my mellow, lazy-days-of-summer self doesn't have the energy to do anything complicated with all of the herbs. I'll leave the whole tying and drying business for another year. My solution is to let the food processor do the work and make pesto!
Pesto is silly-easy, and it's not just for basil, my friends. Basil is just the gateway herb to a world of delicious herbal pesto combinations! Think cilantro and mint with almonds, or sorrel and parsley with walnuts, or dill and lemon basil with pistachios. No matter the herb, I just follow the same basic formula: herbs, nuts, cheese, salt and oil.
Basic Herb Pesto Recipe
Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 10 minutes
To make ahead: Store pesto in a sealed container or jar for up to 1 week or freeze for 2 to 3 months.
Makes: 1½ cups
You will need:
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
2 cups tender herbs, such as parsley, sorrel, tarragon, mint, cilantro, dill, chervil or basil
½ cup nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or pine nuts
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other hard aged cheese
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Step 1: Choose Your Herb
This formula works best with tender herbs like parsley, dill, cilantro, tarragon, chives, chervil, sorrel, mint and basil. You could even use greens such as cress, spinach or arugula too! Woody herbs (those that have woody growth habit and hard stems like thyme, lavender, rosemary or oregano) are very strong in flavor and do not puree as smoothly. They can be overpowering used in the quantities mentioned here.
If you do want to try adding a woody herb, try removing the leaves from the stem, and use just a couple teaspoons leaves per 2 cups worth of tender herbs. Parsley has a neutral flavor and would be a good match.
Make sure you wash the herbs really well. Some herbs (like dill) can have a surprising amount of grit and sand in them. Fit a salad spinner with the basket and fill with cold water. (Alternatively, use a large bowl.) Add the untrimmed herbs and gently swish in the water to allow the sand, grit and dirt to fall to the bottom of the spinner. Lift the herbs (and basket) out of the water, leaving the dirt undisturbed in the bottom of the water. Spin the herbs dry.
Then measure out 2 cups of herbs. You want to pack them into the 2-cup measuring cup, without smashing them. The cool thing is that since these herbs have tender stems, you can include the stems in the pesto, and they taste just fine!
Step 2: Puree the Garlic
Next you'll need to fit your food processor with the S-shaped steel blade attachment. Cover it and turn the motor on. Just drop the peeled garlic through the feed tube and it will be finely chopped within a couple of seconds.
Speaking of garlic, my advice is to not overdo it on the garlic. One clove of raw garlic is plenty for this size batch. Any more than that and the nuances of the other ingredients get lost.
Step 3: Add the Remaining Ingredients
Next you'll add in the 2 cups of clean herbs, and the other elements: nuts, cheese, salt and olive oil.
Everyone knows and loves pine nuts in pesto, but there are so many more options out there! Pistachios, walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts and more! Even sunflower seeds or pepitas (green pumpkin seeds) work for nut-free versions. Just chop larger nuts a little before measuring them into a ½-cup measuring cup to get an accurate amount. If you're feeling ambitious, you can toast and cool the nuts as well for even more flavor.
Parmigiano Reggiano is wonderful in pesto, but so are Asiago, Pecorino and other hard aged cheeses. Grating the cheese into a fine powder will ensure the pesto has the smoothest texture possible. I also add a little salt, because often the pesto is used as the primary seasoning in the final dish and it is meant to be powerfully flavored and highly seasoned. Just ¼ teaspoon salt will do, as the hard cheese also is quite salty.
Once the cheese, herbs and nuts are pureed, that's when you add the oil. The mixture will start to really get going and liquefy at this point. You may need to stop the motor, scrape the sides, and puree again to get it all to a smooth, consistent texture. To make a looser pesto (one that could be drizzled) increase the oil to 2/3 cup.
Before transferring the pesto to a storage container, taste a little bit and adjust it if necessary. Maybe it needs a little bit of chopped chives added in, or you'd like to add a bit of hot chile or lemon zest. Have fun with it!
How to Store Homemade Pesto
To store the pesto, it's best to keep it away from air. The surface of the pesto that's exposed to air will turn very dark green. This color change is harmless, but not so pretty. If that really bothers you, you can press a little square of plastic wrap against the surface. Jars work well for storage, as do resealable containers. This recipe makes 1½ cups, which can be divided into two separate containers for two meals. Refrigerate the pesto for up to a week or freeze it for 2 to 3 months.
Easy No-Recipe Ways to Use Herb Pesto
1. Boil pasta until al dente, but about 2 minutes before the pasta is done add a few handfuls of sugar snap peas into the pasta water. Drain the pasta and peas and mix with sliced grilled sausage and herb pesto. Loosen with a bit of the pasta-cooking liquid if you like.
2. Spread herb pesto on whole-wheat pitas and top with shredded Fontina cheese for an easy vegetarian toaster-oven pesto pizza.
3. Use instead of ketchup for burger night!
4. Mix herb pesto with Greek yogurt and a little mayo for a fresh take on potato salad. Be sure to bulk up the potato salad with lots of colorful chopped vegetables, like yellow peppers, red onion and celery hearts.
5. Thin herb pesto with a little vinegar or lemon juice and use in place of salad dressing on freshly sliced tomatoes or salad greens topped with shredded carrots and sliced hard-boiled eggs.