I Tried Making Pesto 3 Ways—The Best Was the Most Basic
Don't let that farm-fresh basil go to waste!
Pesto is a Northern Italian sauce that captures the spirit of its homeland: rich, green, and ancient. Not only does it push basil to its awesome potential, it has endless versatility. Its components can be swapped and shuffled. Unconventional ingredients like lemon rind and walnuts can upgrade pesto in a pinch, or in a sunny rush of farmers’ market inspiration. The sauce’s applications are just as open-ended, limited only by what its maker can dream: pasta, sandwiches, salad dressings, breads, marinades, and so on. Like so many of the world’s great simple foods, pesto is complex. Making it begins in the garden, market, or wherever you can get just-clipped herbs. (Nope, you don’t need to use the baby basil preferred in its home city of Genoa.) Once you’ve gotten the greens, you need the best approach to them. We tried three. We found the one.
Method #1: Classic blended pesto with cooked basil
This traditional recipe departs from Ligurian tradition slightly by using cooked basil. Whole leaves get a boiling bath for 10 seconds before they are shocked in cold water, arresting the cooking as it begins. The sauce that results is a good one: vibrant and flavorful, bright green and photogenic, close to what you think of when you think of pesto. It will surely satisfy a craving for the Ligurian sauce. A traditionalist, however, might point out that pesto is part of an Italian food category called battuto, a class of raw food. In a way, cooking basil lifts pesto out of battuto. That doesn’t matter all that much, as pesto is made to be remixed, but the heat also gives the sauce a cooked-spinach echo, moving a half-step from the garden sharpness that powers a great raw pesto. Using a blender makes it easy to blend the ingredients, but I'm curious how the flavor will compare to my methods to follow.
The verdict: Loses something of the garden, but gains color and new richness.
Method #2: Using mint
Pesto has plenty of room for improvisation. You shouldn’t hesitate to experiment in the hopes of better tailoring it to your culinary purposes. One of the best ways to elevate the sauce is to incorporate herbs beyond standard basil—maybe another varietal like cinnamon basil, maybe another herb like lemon thyme. Consider mint. The pairing may seem unconventional, but mint and basil come from the same botanical family, making them a natural fit. Cutting in some mint can give your pesto a wild quality. I blended a batch of two-thirds basil and one-third mint. The result didn’t taste anything like toothpaste or a dental square of gum, as might be the worry, but a sauce far more interesting. The mint shaped the pesto on the edges, giving it something of the land, of wild plants and grasses shifting in the summer wind.
The verdict: Jazzing pesto with other herbs can be surprising. If they're fresh from the garden, even better.
Method #3: The Old Way
Before blenders, before internet recipes and electricity, basil was crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle. If you have time, the ancient way remains the best way, even in the modern age. Why? There are many reasons. Smashing first the garlic and salt, then the pine nuts, then the cheese, and finally the basil takes you on an aromatic tour pesto as you make it, a fresh smell accompanying each step. Pounding the leaves seems to release more of their inner, herbaceous essence in a way that steel blades don’t. Repeatedly smashing the thin leaves over 10, 20 minutes gives pesto a lush creaminess. If you add the oil slowly by degrees, just like you add the basil a large pinch at a time, the sauce will emulsify nicely. The final pesto will be baroque and silky, coursing with the herb’s spirit.
The verdict: Going rustic makes for the most refined pesto. It's creamy, delicious, and tastes like basil's best version of itself. The winner, without question.