Basil pesto is a classic Italian sauce bursting with fresh herb-y flavor. It’s simple, raw, and requires only a few ingredients. I love it not only for its simplicity, but also its pungent flavor – loads of fresh basil, raw garlic, rich nuts, and cheesy nutritional yeast. However, my husband Tanner used to hate it. He’s not fond of garlic, finds fresh basil much too strong, and thinks the green color is, well, too healthy-looking.
I’ve made dozens of different pesto recipes over the years – avocado pesto, sun-dried tomato pesto, hemp seeds pesto with spinach, kale pesto – but none of them were something Tanner enjoyed eating. I don’t usually mind if Tanner doesn’t like certain food, but when it’s one of my favorite foods, well. . .
It’s just no fun cooking if I know nobody else will be eating it with me. That’s why I tried so many different pesto recipes. I secretly hoped that one of them would become also Tanner’s favorite. Enter the Basil Pesto with Charred Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s the charred tomatoes, or the sweet baby basil leaves, or the milder, rounder flavors of the pricey Lingurian olive oil. Whatever it is, this vegan Basil Pesto is a keeper. Funny enough, it’s also the easiest and most classic pesto variation out there.
Despite its simplicity, there are several things to pay attention to when making this pesto.
How To Make the Perfect Vegan Basil Pesto
Use sweet basil – while there are many types of basil, the sweet basil leaves tend to be the most recommended for pesto. The Genovese variety of sweet basil is the most flavorful with a floral, delicate aroma. You might not always find fresh baby Genovese basil leaves in your local grocery store, so the best thing to do (if you use basil on a regular basis), is to grow it yourself.
Choose high-quality olive oil – it’s not surprising that high-quality olive oil can be pretty pricey. The Ligurian Taggiasca olive oil is what many consider to be the best extra virgin olive oil. The Taggiasca olives are highly flavorsome with fruity undertones, which give off the impression of decisive sweetness. These olives are perhaps the most delicate in the world and are often used in high-end gastronomy. However, as chef Daniel Gritzer admits, “as long as you’re using a decent, somewhat mild olive oil, your pesto is going to be just fine”.
Create a cheesy flavor – no, there’s no cheese in this vegan pesto. However, there are other foods that can imitate the cheesy flavor, nutritional yeast being one of them. Nutritional yeast has a savory, umami-like flavor that’s cheesy and nutty. It’s relatively strong and pungent so a little bit goes a long way. Think of it as a seasoning – if you use too much, you’ll overpower the entire dish.
Toast the pine nuts – if you want your pesto to be completely raw, skip the toasting. I actually prefer the taste of raw pine nuts. However, many chefs recommend toasting the pine nuts first to draw out their essential oils and deepen their flavor. So if you want to add a subtle nuttiness to your pesto, toast the pine nuts in a 350° F oven until golden brown. Be sure to keep an eye on them, as they can burn quickly.
Add lemon to the pesto – fresh lemon juice brightens up the pesto flavor and adds a great acidic balance to the olive oil, nutritional yeast, and pine nuts.
Use mortar and pestle – I shouldn’t call this a “classic” basil pesto, otherwise I would be making it in my mortar and pestle. Using a food processor is one of the shortcuts most people make with pesto. Is it an acceptable shortcut? It depends. Chefs tend to have varying opinions on whether there’s any noticeable difference in taste and texture when using the two methods. However, they tend to agree on two things.
Texture: the food processor essentially minces all the ingredients into a million uniform tiny pieces, creating a brighter green pesto with a uniform appearance.
Flavor: the pestle and mortar grinds and pounds all the ingredients, causing the cell walls to burst and release an intense amount of fragrance (and hence flavor).
Another thing to consider is time. After spending 5 minutes with the food processor and 30 minutes with the mortar and pestle, I can say that pestled pesto is very labor- and time-intensive. But then again, using the mortar and pestle over a blender definitely produces a more flavorful sauce.
Add water to the pesto – when combining pesto with pasta, mix a few tablespoons of the cooking water into the pesto just before adding the noodles. The water dilutes the concentrated sauce and helps it adhere to the pasta.
Can you tell that this pesto is vegan? No, not really because of the majority of the ingredients is vegan anyway. Also, making pesto is not an exact science. It’s intuitive. It’s flexible.
You can make a vegan pesto from any combination of fresh herbs – both parsley and cilantro go together with fresh basil really well. If pine nuts are out of your budget, try walnuts or even sunflower seeds. Not a fan of olive oil? Blend some navy beans into your pesto for extra creaminess or sub the oil for vegetable broth.
As always, don’t forget to comment below if you try this recipe and let me know what you think.