Pesto is a simple and delicious summer staple. Without it, think of all the basil that would go to waste! But the trouble with this sauce it doesn’t always go so well. Here are 12 tips for how you can make your most perfect pesto.
1. Clean your greens
Always, always, always be sure your basil is washed really well before you begin. You don’t want any gritty dirt in your pesto. Wash your basil using cold water — never warm. Warm water wilts greens. Use a salad spinner to get your leaves really dry or gently pat them between layers of kitchen towels to remove all of the moisture.
2. Make it a mix
Don’t think you have to stick to just basil. You can add other leafy greens to give your basil a distinct flavor. Replace some of your basil with parsley instead for a lighter flavor, or try arugula or kale.
3. Pinenuts or not
Traditional pesto is made with pine nuts, but they can be pretty pricey. For a cost-saving alternative, try walnuts, pecans or even almonds. Whichever nut you choose, make sure to toast them on medium-low heat first. (About 5-7 minutes at 350ºF.) They’re sufficiently roasted when you can smell them.
4. All about olive oil
Pay attention to the taste of different olive oils you bring home. If you don’t like the taste of your olive oil, you’re probably not going to like it much in your pesto either. Choose an olive oil that you would enjoy snacking on with some bread and wine before dinner at any fancy restaurant. That will give you a good step up for making your most delicious pesto possible.
5. chop, chop, chop
Don’t just toss everything in a food processor and call it a day. Too much mixing will cause basil leaves to bruise and brown, and nuts can get extra oily causing your basil to resemble more of a paste than a sauce. Chop up all ingredients really well first, before adding them to a food processor along with garlic, oil, salt, and pepper — sure it’s more work, but it’s definitely worth it.
6. Get your garlic ready
Consider how much garlic you want to add. If a recipe calls for 1-2 cloves, know that the second is probably for people who really love a good garlic zing. Pesto can be really garlicky, or less so, depending on your taste. Only trial and error will tell you what works best, but use your usual tolerance as a guide the first time. When you decide how much you want to add, grate it (or press it) before adding it to the food processor. It distributes through the recipe much better this way than if you were to just toss in the whole clove.
7. Add spinach for color
You don’t need to blanch the basil for color unless you really want bright green pesto for some reason. An easier trick: add a few spinach leaves. It won’t really change the flavor, but you’ll be surprised at the color boost just a few leaves give.
8. Choose your weapon
You can make pesto in a food processor or in a blender, but you’ll notice a difference in texture if you were to compare. Classic pesto is somewhat chunky, so if you go overboard in a blender, you’ll notice a much smoother sauce. The flavor is pretty much the same, but if you like lots of texture, go for the processor or be very light on the blender button.
9. Hold the cheese, please
Sure, we all like a healthy dose of Parmesan in our pesto, but don’t add it in until after you’ve processed the other ingredients.
10. A salty pop
Once you’ve chopped and processed your other ingredients, it’s time for the cheese. You don’t have to stick with Parmesan. Make a mix or go with something else entirely. Just make sure it’s a hard, salty cheese. Brie and mozzarella just won’t do here. Grant Padano or Pecorino Romano for a slight variation.
11. Better with butter
Add a tablespoon or so of unsalted butter in the bowl with the pesto before you add your pasta and splash of pasta water and toss. The butter will help mellow out the flavors so you’ll get a smooth, even taste of all of the earthy, salty, garlicky, flavors without one dominating the rest. And just flat out, what isn’t better with butter?
12. Storing pesto
Pesto stores really well. Fill an ice cube tray with leftover pesto and freeze. Once frozen, pop out the cubes and store in an airtight freezer bag. Toss a few cubes in with your cooked pasta for easy individual dinner portions, or use them all at once. The small size means you won’t have to struggle forever getting them to melt in the sauce pan.
If you’re going to use it all within the next 4-5 days, you don’t have to bother freezing it. Pour a little extra olive oil on top to help it from turning brown, or store it in a guac keeper — the same principles apply here. Keeping the air away from your precious pesto will help it keep its color longer.
Also try this Turkey and cheese pesto panini.
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