My lemon basil pesto recipe is super easy to make and totally addictive!
Every home cook needs a simple basil pesto recipe in their repertoire, especially in the spring and summer when fresh basil is abundant. With a few simple ingredients, you can have a batch whipped up in about 10 minutes. The only hard thing about making pesto is that you’ll have to resist the urge to eat it by the spoonful!
Pesto means “pounded” because the traditional preparation was to pound and grind the ingredients into a paste using a mortar and pestle. It’s served throughout Italy, especially in the Genoa region where it originated, and basil grows abundantly in the hills. It’s a raw sauce and requires no cooking. The mortar and pestle preparation yields a creamier sauce that is a vibrant bright green color, but it takes time and patience, so most people use a small food processor.
Homemade pesto is infinitely better than store-bought!
Traditional pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. It does not include lemon, but I love the bright, acidic flavor it adds. The lemon also helps keep it green. I only use one tablespoon, so the lemon flavor is mild, and I can still use the pesto in other things.
The recipe is straight forward, but I’ve made this more times than I can count and have learned a few things.
Use the freshest basil you can get. It makes a difference.
The Italians didn’t toast their pine nuts, and I don’t either. Pesto is pungent, and pine nuts are rich, creamy, and buttery. To create a more balanced, rounder-flavored sauce, keep them raw and thank me later.
Two cups packed basil means pack as much as you can into your measuring cup.
Finely grate the Parmesan with a microplane, and stir it in at the end. It gives the sauce texture.
Mince the garlic before adding it to the recipe. No one wants to bite down on a chunk of raw garlic.
Use a good quality Parmesan cheese, and grate it fresh. Never ever use the stuff in the green can.
Remove the stems from the basil, especially the large, thick ones.
Wash the leaves, and make sure to dry them thoroughly. I use a salad spinner.
My lemon basil pesto is low-carb, Keto, and gluten-free!
Some recipes recommend blanching the basil to preserve the bright green color. I’ve tested it countless times and think it dulls the flavor of the basil. The pesto will darken as it sits in the fridge, but there are some things you can do to help.
- Before storing it in the fridge, drizzle a thin layer of olive oil on top. This keeps oxygen away, which helps it stay green.
- Keep everything cold during preparation. The steel blades can warm the ingredients and can start to oxide the basil. While I wash and dry the basil, the bowl and blades of the food processor, the pine nuts, and the lemon juice go into the freezer.
- Work quickly and in stages. Don’t just add everything to the food processor. Add the pine nuts and garlic first, and then add the basil. Again, the less contact the basil has with the blades, the better.
Have fun and get creative! Here are some of my favorite variations.
Add additional herbs and greens. My favorites are parsley and arugula!
Try using roasted garlic instead of raw for a milder garlic flavor.
Swap the pine nuts for cashews, walnuts or pistachios. They each give it a slightly different flavor, and it’s fun to experiment. (pistachios are my fav!) You can also leave the nuts out altogether. It will change the texture, but the sauce will still be bright, fresh, and delicious! If you’re dairy-free, you can leave out the Parmesan, which also makes it Whole30 and Paleo.
25 ways to use fresh basil pesto!
Once you have a batch made up, you’ll want to put it on everything. Here are some ideas:
- Drizzle over a sizzling steak or grilled chicken.
- Toss with tortellini or ravioli.
- Stir it into a creamy dip.
- Serve as a dipping sauce with fries or potato wedges.
- Add additional olive oil and lemon for a pesto vinaigrette.
- Drizzle over and grilled veggies.
- Stir into cooked orzo along with spring veggies.
- Use it in lasagna to kick the flavor up a notch!
- Toss with gnocchi and fresh peas.
- Mix into macaroni and cheese for a big boost of flavor.
- Use on pizza instead of red sauce.
- Spoon over cooked salmon (or any seafood).
- Brush it over corn on the cob – yum!
- Add a spoonful to the top of scrambled eggs or in an omelet.
- Mix into chicken salad.
- It’s delicious on a grilled cheese or quesadilla!
- Impress your guests with pesto potato or pasta salad!
- Brush over grilled kebabs.
- Add a dollop to a bowl of white beans!
- Toss with chicken meatballs and roasted tomatoes.
- Use on sandwiches in place of mayonnaise.
- Stir some into any cream sauce for a pop of herb flavor.
- Mix some into your next batch of guacamole.
- Make a quick creamy pesto salad dressing!
- Stir into cooked rice for a herby side dish everyone will love!
Leftover pesto isn’t a thing in our house, but if it is in yours, store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can also freeze it. If you know this is what you’re going to do in advance, leave out the Parmesan cheese. When you’re ready to use it, stir in the Parmesan after it’s thawed out.
- 2 cups basil leaves, packed
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
- ¼ cup pine nuts, RAW
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Add the pine nuts and garlic to the food processor. Pulse 5 to 10 times or until finely chopped. Scrape down the sides as needed.
- Add the basil and pulse 5 to 10 times or until chopped. Scrape down the sides as needed.
- Pour in the lemon juice and put the lid on.
- With the food processor running, slowly stream in the olive oil until the sauce comes together. Scrape down the sides as needed.
- Add the Parmesan cheese and pulse 2-3 times to just combine.
- Taste and adjust the salt and pepper to your liking.