The best pesto sauce

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Skip the store-bought sauces and whip up a fast and fresh recipe for the best basil pesto perfect for serving with your favorite noodles.

I first shared this recipe for basil pesto way back in 2009. And after recently featuring it in my Instagram Stories, I decided it was about time this ol’ post got a makeover. The recipe is still the tried and true classic. But the photos have gotten some much needed nipping and tucking. (My Nikon and I have come a long way in the past 8 years!)

Basil pesto is one of my earliest childhood food memories, all thanks to my mom Noni, who made this recipe a staple in our home decades ago. The sauce is rich in flavor (and how about that color!), yet it stars seemingly few ingredients, allowing the fresh basil to take on the starring role.

Its garlicky without being overwhelming, and it leaves the door wide open for customizations when it comes to nuts. Pine nuts are, of course, the most traditional option. But I’ve followed this exact recipe and substituted in nearly every nut variety with success, from pistachios and walnuts to almonds and even as one reader noted below, macadamia nuts.

And speaking of versatility, this basil pesto can be used in many a ways beyond a bowl of noodles. Try stirring a tablespoon or two into mayonnaise for a flavor-packed sandwich spread or French fry dip, or use it as the base for a seriously herbacious salad dressing.

No matter what way you blend it or use it, one thing is certain: Homemade basil pesto beats the store-bought stuff every time. And if you’re staring down any leftovers, pour it into an ice cube tray then freeze it. Pesto craving? POp out a cube, stir it into piping hot pasta and devour!

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The Best Basil Pesto Pasta

Prep: 25 minutes Cook: 5 minutes Yield: 1 cup

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried thoroughly
  • 2 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and cooled
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

In a food processor or blender, combine the basil leaves, Parmesan cheese, garlic, toasted pine nuts, kosher salt and pepper. Pulse the ingredients together until well blended.

While the food processor or blender is running, drizzle in the olive oil and continue blending, scraping down the sides as needed, until the pesto is puréed. Taste and season it with salt and pepper then serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to serve.

★ Did you make this recipe? Don’t forget to give it a star rating below!

Nutrition Facts The Best Basil Pesto Pasta Amount Per Serving Calories 534 Calories from Fat 504 % Daily Value* Fat 56g86% Saturated Fat 9g56% Cholesterol 8mg3% Sodium 1318mg57% Potassium 36mg1% Carbohydrates 3g1% Protein 4g8% Vitamin A 85IU2% Vitamin C 2.8mg3% Calcium 127mg13% Iron 0.3mg2% * Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet. ×

6 Best Pesto Sauce Brands to Enjoy Pasta Salads Differently

The Pesto is a wonderful sauce, which is often made with basil, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, as well as pine nuts. All these ingredients are beneficial to health that can be part of a well-balanced and healthier diet. The ingredients like olive oil and the pine nuts can be found higher in the calories, because of their high-fat content. However, it is considered “healthy” because of its unsaturated fat. When it is consumed in moderation, it can contribute to improving cholesterol levels and also reducing inflammation in the body. It is good to reduce inflammation because it is linked to the high risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many other diseases related to the aging process. There are many best pesto sauce brands, and if you do not know much about it, this guide tells you many things about pesto sauce.

Table of Contents

Best Pesto Sauce Brands:

Here is the list of some of the best pesto sauce brands to enjoy your favorite pasta and salad dishes:

1. Knorr Pesto Sauce Mix

It is a pack of 12 packages of 0.5 ounces, making it total of six ounces.

It is great for different dishes such as seafood, chicken, pasta and vegetables also.

The dry mixture contains Parmesan, basil, garlic, spinach and also parsley for creating the pesto sauce quickly.

2. Barilla Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Sauce

This traditional sun dried tomato pesto sauce is the most popular pesto sauce of Italy.

Its jar is good for three servings of this sauce per jar.

It is made by using sun dried tomatoes, capers, oregano, basil and capers and also sunflower oil.

It is light and clean red pesto which not only on sandwiches, pizzas, pastas but also on fish and lean proteins etc.

3. Classico Traditional Basil Pesto Sauce

It has the flawless combination along with freshness of Romano Cheese and Basil which is sealed in the sauce and it has great aroma and delicious taste.

It isn’t only served with Pasta but is also enjoyed with the bread.

The perfect blend of spice along with the cheese sauce makes it a great sauce for your daily meals to enjoy.

4. Giusto Sapore Basil Pesto Spread

This authentic sauce can taste great with different dishes such as; pizza, pasta, sauces, salads, the vegetable sautees, the soups and more.

It has an exciting flavor as it is made by using garlic, the fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil and a hard cheese.

These are crushed together to make a thicker paste.

This can also be used different ways such as by adding with the fresh tomatoes along with the generous slice of mozzarella and then a spoonful of this pesto to be drizzled on the top along with the extra virgin olive oil.

5. The Gracious Gourmet Hatch Chile Pesto

This sauce enhances flavor of pasta, the salad dressings, sandwiches, cold pasta salads and dips.

It has many uses such as you can stir into the risotto or pasta, it can be used as the marinade and also for finish grilled meats.

It comes as a set of two jars which are 7 oz per jar.

6. Filippo Berio Classic Basil Pesto

It contains ingredients like basil, cashews, the pine nuts, the Pecorino Romano cheese, the Grana Padano cheese along with Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil also.

This sauce is perfect for perking up the pasta salads, pastas, sandwiches, dips, sandwiches, soups and more.

It is free from GMO.

Pesto Sauce vs Marinara Sauce:

Is pesto or marinara sauce a more suitable choice when used on pastas? Both of them contain veggies which provide the required micronutrients, but their dietary components, by the way, are somewhat different.

Pesto Sauce:

Traditionally, pesto is made from basil, pine nuts, the olive oil, the grated cheese and garlic. This versatile sauce can be enjoyed in many different ways, such as in dipping, on the sandwiches, in pizza and also for pasta sauces. It is loaded with monounsaturated fats which are healthy for heart, helping to lower bad cholesterol levels and reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and also strokes according to the American Heart Association 2015. Basil contains many plant-based chemicals, which work as antioxidants to combat cell damage and that can reduce the heart disease and other chronic conditions. Garlic is beneficial to your wellbeing as well and can help reduce cholesterol, maintain blood pressure while slowing down slow atherosclerosis, according to Anne 2018. In general, the ingredients in pesto vitamins A, E, as well as K, help your nutrition.

Marinara Sauce:

Marinara sauce is based on tomatoes and generally contains different spices, such as garlic, oregano as well as salt. It has its own benefits. Eating Marinara helps in providing the daily required adult servings of vegetables and contains plenty of micronutrients, from niacin, vitamins A, E and K, to lycopene, lutein as well as zeaxanthin. The lycopene is an antioxidant that combats carcinogenic free radicals in the cells, while the lutein and the zeaxanthin contribute to health of the eye (Bruso). One-half a cup of the marinara sauce is merely about 70 calories, containing five calories from the fat.

Homemade Pesto Sauce:

It can be prepared at home if you have the right ingredients:

Simply take a cup of fresh basil leaves, pine nuts (three tablespoons), cloves garlic (three peeled), One third cup of grated Parmesan, other things you need are black pepper (freshly ground) and also Kosher salt for the taste, and 1/3 cup of the olive oil.

Here are the instructions:

First you should combine basil, the pine nuts, garlic along with Parmesan into the food processor bowl. Add some seasoning to it such as; pepper and salt for taste. Then, start the motor and add the olive oil in the slow stream till it is emulsified and set aside after that. Then store in the container which is airtight and store in the refrigerator for a week.

Conclusion:

So you learned about some of the best pesto sauce brands in this article. If you have any questions, please do ask.

The ultimate standby sauce, pesto can instantly transform a tired pasta pot into a taste sensation and can give chicken dishes and comforting soups a new lease of life. Just a few small spoonfuls can unleash a gargantuan taste, meaning a small amount can go a long way. Always with a sealed jar in the cupboard, I’ve committed to giving homemade a try. Slightly skeptical it can’t possibly be improved upon, I put both to the test.

The cost


Cost of shop-bought classic green pesto:
Supermarket own brand – £1.50 (190g jar)

Cost of ingredients for homemade green pesto:
Ingredients – £4.50 (approx 260g)

The pesto recipe I used:
Classic pesto

The recipe I followed yielded more pesto than I got in the shop-bought jar, but the cost of pricey ingredients such as pine nuts and parmesan meant it wasn’t better value to make my own.

Tip:
If you have a bit of garlic and olive oil in your storecupboard and your own basil plants this would bring the cost of the ingredients down to about £2.25. Don’t forget to make the most of any leftovers. Scatter a few pine nuts over pasta dishes, grate parmesan over creamy chicken and use basil to garnish your finished plates.

The making:

With just one step between my small huddle of ingredients and my very own pesto sauce, I was still pleasantly surprised as to how easy this was to make. It even reconnected me with my previously underused food processor, though the good old-fashioned pestle and mortar method would have done the trick with a little effort.

Tip:
Some of the comments at the bottom of the recipe really intrigued me – suggestions of using cashews or walnuts instead of pine nuts and adding a bit of spice with some chopped chilli definitely sound like they’re worth a try!

The taste:


Before even tasting it, the delightful smell of the homemade pesto was incomparable to shop-bought. I hadn’t divulged I was making my own, but everyone recognised a difference in taste, texture and aroma. When I first tried it, the most notable flavour was the garlic, making me wonder if a little more basil and just one clove would provide a more balanced taste. There were no complaints though – homemade was a unanimous hit!

The verdict:

I was so surprised by how easy, quick and delicious the homemade pesto was. All the possibilities for different combinations and substitutions really appeals to me and I will definitely make my own again. Saying that, I can’t imagine I’ll be a devout pesto maker, the jar in the cupboard still has its place, for convenience and cost if nothing else.

Fancy having a go at making your own? Try the pesto recipe I used, or try a different version with almonds.

What are your top tips for making pesto? Do you prefer making your own or buying it in?

It is easy to imagine that pesto has been around for ever. In fact, Sacla’s jarred version of this basil sauce – the first mass-produced pesto distributed in the UK – only appeared on supermarket shelves in 1991. Even in Italy itself, pesto is a relatively modern creation. Historically, the Roman sauces agliata and moretum combined garlic with nuts or oil and cheese, and there are old Georgian walnut-and-oil sauces that possibly influenced the seafaring home of pesto, Liguria, where preserving basil leaves in olive oil was commonplace. But the pesto alla Genovese we know today – named after the region’s capital, Genoa, made with pine nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano – only became a “thing” in the 19th century. (Possibly because greenhouses had belatedly made the industrial production of small basil leaves practical. Bigger ones can taste unsuitably minty and lemony.)

An instant hit, the original fresh, pestle-pounded pestos were light and grassy, made using mild, buttery Ligurian olive oils and modest amounts of parmesan and Sardinian pecorino. Jarred versions have always been comparatively salty and deeply savoury, a great wallop of flavour. Still the UK’s best seller in this £38m-a-year market, Sacla’s pesto is no exception to that (190g, about £2.30; 5/10). However, that bullishness has not inhibited pesto’s success – nor has brands incorporating cheaper ingredients such as cashews, grana padano cheese and sunflower oil (including Sacla). The sauce is now ubiquitous, whether dressing pasta or jazzing up everything from soups to potato salads. But are any of the supermarket own-brands better than Sacla’s? And are the fresh, chiller-cabinet pestos worth the extra expense?

Mattarello pesto, Ocado.

Ocado
Mattarello basil pesto

Fresh, 150g, £2.75

The Fresh Pasta Company, which owns the Mattarello brand, makes an ostensibly superior, very expensive pesto (using Genovese basil; 130g, £5.49), also available through Ocado. It has an incredible colour (think: algae on an Amazonian pond) but this far cheaper pesto is still vibrant and much better. It has a good chunky texture and, while it tastes predominantly of salty grana padano and garlic – the basil is more a diaphanous presence – it does so in a way that is smooth and bold. It leaves most jarred pestos for dead. 9/10

Finest* Pesto Alla Genovese.

Tesco
Finest* pesto alla Genovese

190g, £2

This pesto gives it the big ’un (50% Ligurian basil, extra virgin olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and, erm, added bamboo fibre) but conspicuously fails to deliver. It has a good fragrance but a loose, oily, slightly gummy consistency. The basil has been pulped into mulch that carries such scant flavour you could be chewing wet grass. Like so many jarred pestos, this tastes neutered and cheap. Its cheese flavour is discernible, but skulks around and shrinks beneath a dominant, unpalatably acidic top note. 4/10

Waitrose 1 Pesto Genovese

Waitrose
Waitrose 1 pesto Genovese

Fresh, 145g, £2.99

As mesmerisingly green as the baize on a newly installed pub pool table, this looks fantastic, but tastes flat. It sets you up for a great gust of basil and aged parmesan that never quite happens. Likewise, the promising toasted pine nuts bobbing in there fail to assert themselves. Sure, it is significantly more rounded and interesting than the jarred Waitrose 1 pesto but, for a fresh sauce, it is relatively bland and dogged by some curiously astringent, prickly flavour compounds that flash in its wake. 6/10

The Best Pesto Alla Genovese, Morrisons.

Morrison’s
The Best pesto alla Genovese

190g, £1.33

The smell leaps out – not necessarily in a good way. It is like inhaling from an overgrown pot of flabby, fleshy basil surrounded by sweating cheese rinds. The flavour is better if muddled. It tastes foremost of extra virgin olive oil (counterintuitively, innocuous sunflower oil is often a better base), parmesan and, trailing in third place, basil. The texture is the usual jarred, silty mush, but it is not overly salty or harsh and at least the basil features, albeit in a supporting role. Basically, it is OK. 6/10

Baresa, Lidl.

Lidl
Baresa pesto alla Genovese

190g, 99p

This looks terrible. Instead of a smooth verdant emulsion, the pesto has apparently split in the jar. Dark green oil swims above pale, milky coagulate. Vigorous shaking sorts it out, but why bother? It is an oily concoction and the basil has all the flavour of hedge trimmings. Apart from salt, bland nuttiness and a distinctive late sour tang, it tastes of little. With its meagre pecorino and pine nut content (1.5% and 1% respectively), this pesto is doing the bare minimum to fulfil its brief. 2/10

Extra Special pesto, Asda.

Sainsbury’s
Italian green pesto

Fresh, 150g, £2

Trendsetting Sainsbury’s introduced its first fresh pesto way back in 1991. Yet this unattractively green-and-white-speckled creation still tastes like a work in progress. It smells great and it has a big, full flavour, but that flavour is all rich and salty, savoury umami body (from an unidentified “medium-fat hard cheese”), with lemon and pecorino making peppy interventions around that. The basil is a peripheral presence. True, the Italians happily play around with pesto’s ingredient ratios, but such a heavily cheese-focused pesto seems, while not unpleasant, slightly odd. 7/10

Asda
Extra Special pesto alla Genovese

190g, £1.95

This is anchored by a ripe, tangy cheesiness, edged with quieter, almost sour metallic notes. In its complexity, it is reminiscent of eating right up to the rind on a piece of parmesan. In that regard, this is, arguably, a less salty and more interesting pesto than Sacla’s. But it has two significant flaws: the pine nuts have been pounded into undetectable smithereens; and the basil, a generous 50% of the total ingredients, is dull and tired. I spat out several chewy, fibrous bits. 5/10

Loved by Us green pesto, Co-Op

Co-op
Loved by Us green pesto

190g, £1.19

Like Lidl’s Baresa, this looks terrible in the jar – a lumpy, pallid mass topped with vivid green oil. But open it and, in both its aroma and flavour, it has genuinely expressive basil character; one cradled (rather than steamrollered) by grana padano’s baseline savouriness and punctuated, if a little clumsily, by a faintly lemony sharpness. That is achieved by pecorino, despite it being a mere 1% of the ingredients. The texture is better, too – the nuts, mainly cashews, have not been blitzed into a slurry. 8/10

In our new column “Fake It or Make It” we test a homemade dish against its prepackaged counterpart to find out what’s really worth cooking from scratch.

Photograph by Liz Gunnison*

My first-ever day in a restaurant kitchen, I learned two life lessons. The first is that by professional standards, my knives are embarrassingly dull. Second, most restaurant cooks make everything from scratch: six different kinds of stock, ricotta, jams, pickles, bread crumbs, the graham crackers that will become a crushed graham cracker tart crust. You name it, they make it.

That’s all well and good when you have an army of pros working around the clock. But for the rest of us–civilians with day jobs, children, and reality TV addictions–it’s not realistic. So I got to thinking: Should I make the pasta and buy the sauce, or vice versa? Does it pay to spend twenty minutes on homemade mayonnaise for sandwiches, or better to use that time baking the bread? In short, which food items deserve the homemade treatment, and which can be store bought with little or no loss of quality?

I’ll do the legwork so that you don’t have to, pitting homemade against store-bought. Then a panel of hungry testers (we’ll call them The Foodie, The Dude, The Health Nut, and The Kid) will weigh in.

Today’s topic? Pesto.

The Contenders
Bon Appetit’s Classic Pesto vs. Buitoni Pesto Sauce with Basil

**Pestois usually made from basil, Parmesan cheese, oliveoil, garlic, and pine nuts. Nowadays we whir it all together in a foodprocessor, but it was originally made by pestata–pounding–hencethe name. Pesto can technically be made with other green vegetables(like ramps, nettles, and arugula) and nuts (walnuts, cashews, etc.),but the classic combo is basil and pine nuts.It’s most common partner is pasta, but pesto is very versatile. Try itas sauce for meat or vegetables, a spread for toast, bruschetta, orsandwiches, or a filling for omelets.

Relative Costs
Abouteven. I paid $5.49 for a 3/4 cup container of the Buitoni onPeapod.com, and made 1.5 cups of homemade out of about $10 worth ofingredients.

Relative Healthfulness
Also abouteven. Buitoni’s pesto sauce contains no preservatives, and the onlymajor difference in ingredients is that canola oil is also used in theBuitoni, compared to pure olive oil in the homemade.

Time Commitment
The homemade pesto took me 40 minutes to make; 15 minutes were spent cleaning very, very sandy basil.

Best Green Pesto

When it comes to store cupboard stand ins, they don’t come more handy than a trusty jar of green basil pesto. Italia! put a selection of the classic sauce to the test

There are countless classic basil pestos available on our supermarket shelves, but there are many variations on the authentic recipe on offer too. The Italia! taste team decided to limit the options and take a look at the traditional range of basil pestos widely available for shoppers.

Pesto originally hails from Genoa, where pesto alla genovese is considered the only recipe to abide by. Named after the verb pestare, meaning to grind, the sauce takes its name from the important procedure of grinding the ingredients by hand to release the aromas of the individual components of the sauce. The traditional sauce is made from Ligurian olive oil, blended with genovese basil, garlic, pine nuts and a combination of parmesan and pecorino sardo. Although not all the following pestos have abided by this age-old recipe, we were happy to discover a very palatable range.

Among our selection were spicy ones, cheesy ones, nuttier-than-normal ones and oily ones – who would have thought there would be so much variety in store? So spruce up your pasta, or add a dollop to some crushed boiled potatoes, the options for this tasty staple are as varied as your imagination.

Tideford Organic Foods Hey Pesto! Basil Pesto

From Ocado

Price £3.80 for 150g

Rarely are five stars awarded to the runner-up, but Tideford Organic Foods Hey Pesto! only just fell short of the top spot. Who would have guessed that such a wonderful version of such a quintessentially Italian sauce could come out of Devon? We found it certainly got its ratios right when creating this recipe. While many of the other pestos were salty, Hey Pesto hits the nail on the head with a perfect degree of sweetness. One of our tasters did comment that “it could do with a little more zing”, while another said “I thought it tasted homemade; nice and chunky.” It may have been “quite mild” but the hint of garlic was discreet and not pungent like other samples. You could still taste the cheese too.

Verdict 5/5

This is good and chunky just like mamma used to make. This authentic pesto sauce was a very close call for editor’s choice.

Sacla Italia Organic Basil Pesto

From All major supermarkets

Price £2.40 for 190g (at Tesco)

You can’t beat a spot of blind-tasting for destroying all the prejudices held against well-known brands – tasters can really say what they think about the product, regardless of preconceptions. In among some of the higher-end pestos, we slipped in Sacla’s Organic Green Pesto, and it did really well. With its ”herby texture” and “added bite”, Sacla was definitely on to a winner. One judge felt that it reminded her too much of pizza flavouring – something she evidently wasn’t in the mood for. Criticisms also highlighted a “more bitter taste” and the lack of any noticeable hint of parmesan cheese in the recipe. The consistency was, however, perfect for using on pasta, with enough olive oil to lavishly coat each piece.

Verdict 4/5

This was our bargain buy and it perfectly demonstrated that something doesn’t have to be costly to be on the money.

Carluccio’s Pesto Alla Genovese

From www.carluccios.com

Price £4.25 for 180g

It looks and smells like pesto, but it tastes like salt diluted in olive oil. Carluccio’s has a mixed bag of products in its stores and this one clearly fails to live up to the standards one would expect from one of the most popular Italian delis in the UK. The rich, gooey texture was considered “unappealing” by some, while others were put off by the finesse of the chopped herb. When it came to the taste verdict, the result was dismal; beyond saltiness, there were no flavours to be discerned.

Verdict 1/5

Unfortunately, this is one pesto that should be avoided, particularly if you are watching your salt intake.

Jamie Oliver Green Pesto

From Waitrose

Price £1.53 for 100g

It’s hard to imagine that Jamie Oliver actually sits in a factory churning out industrial loads of pesto, but he put his name to this concoction, which must count for something. The texture here is more that of a paste than some of the others, which have a great deal more olive oil in them, so this was quite versatile, as you can add additional olive oil to achieve the consistency you are after. Jamie claims that it ‘is really tasty’, and many on the panel concurred. Others felt a little short changed by the lack of the luscious oil.

Oil or no oil, the taste was still “rich” and zingy despite being a “little heavy on the salt”. The colour was a pleasing vibrant green, no doubt contributing to the aromatic bouquet that greeted us on popping open the jar. If you are after a smooth, verdant pesto, Jamie’s is a good choice, and it’s pretty cheap too.

Verdict 4/5

A versatile spread, with a stiffer consistency that the other contenders, which has a rich, appealing taste and aroma.

Tags: basil, Buy Italia, food, Green Pesto, Italy, italy magazine, Magazine, Pesto, Products

In my experience, it’s difficult to find good pre-made pesto without parmesan cheese in it. However, this vegan pesto by Le Grand totally changed my perceptions and is so easy to use in recipes this summer. It’s pre-made in a packet with a squeeze top, so you can easily spread it onto bread for a killer sandwich. Not all of their products are vegan; be sure to buy the garden version, which is certifiably vegan.

The Brand

Allison Curley

“Artisans of the Third Millenium” is the motto that Le Grand lives by. They make delicious products, “harnessing the power of plants” and healthy eating. On their main page, they post facts about the benefits of healthy eating, especially eating mostly plants as in a vegetarian style diet. It’s nice to know about the goals of their products because it encourages healthy eating, and buying their products will set you up to do so. They also use simple and fresh ingredients, which is always better than chemicals and preservatives.

What’s It Made Of?

Allison Curley

By using only fresh basil and parsley, canola oil, sea salt, lemon juice, and garlic, this is 100% vegan pesto and uses simple, fresh ingredients to bring out the best flavor. It’s really nice to read a food label without being unable to pronounce or understand half the ingredients. It’s dairy-free and animal product-free, making it the perfect solution to eating well for yourself and for the planet, without sacrificing taste.

Recipe Ideas

Allison Curley

I love pesto, especially this particular type that has the added benefit of being vegan. I put it on pasta, on sandwiches, and on crackers. Le Grand’s vegan pesto is great to eat in these simple ways because it doesn’t need a lot to back up its flavor. I even put it on chickpeas, which I also ate with crackers.

This is way healthier than a lot of other spreads you could put on crackers; at only 100 calories and made with fresh herbs, it’s a great alternative to other pestos that have unhealthy ingredients like cheese and chemicals. Be sure to also check out the Le Grand website for their recipe ideas.

Prepared Pesto

How we tested

We like basil pesto tossed with pasta or roasted potatoes, spooned over grilled chicken, and as a flavorful spread on pizza and sandwiches. When fresh basil is in season, it’s easy enough to make pesto from scratch. But for a quick weeknight meal, especially in the colder months, store-bought pesto is a tempting option. We scooped up seven traditional basil pestos (also called pesto Genovese), priced from $2.99 to $11.49 per container, including shelf-stable glass jars, a shelf-stable squeezable tube, and a refrigerated tub. We sampled each pesto plain and tossed with hot pasta.

Packaged Pestos Are Generally Disappointing

We’ll cut to the chase: Most samples were subpar. Traditional pesto Genovese is made from just basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, and olive oil. But several products in our lineup had long lists of ingredients that included outliers like yeast extract, potato flakes, and cashews. One brand bulked up the basil with cheaper spinach, a move our tasters emphatically disapproved of. And even if the pestos had the classic ingredients, too much salt or garlic could overwhelm the basil flavor. Worst of all, many of the products also had odd musty, bitter, and sour off-flavors. In fact, just one of the pestos earned our full approval. It didn’t have the same concentrated basil flavor as homemade, but its thick, creamy texture and pronounced cheesy flavor (it contains both Parmesan and Romano) made it the clear favorite in both of our tastings.

Why Do So Many of Them Taste Oddly Sour?

After confirming that none of the products was near its expiration date, we started searching for something to explain those off-flavors. Nuts and olive oil go rancid quickly when exposed to light or air (a process called oxidation), and basil’s flavor starts to fade once its leaves are chopped. Any of these ingredients can go bad before packaging and may develop off-flavors over time in the jar. As a result, many manufacturers rely on preservatives like lactic acid and acetic acid. Although they’re intended to ensure freshness, they have the unfortunate side effect of adding noticeable sourness.

Our Favorite Prepared Pesto Products

The best product was the only refrigerated pesto, one of just two products that lack preservatives. The other, our runner-up, was a cheese-free, shelf-stable pesto sold in a glass jar. They both use primarily olive oil, which is slower to oxidize and go rancid than vegetable oils. But the jarred pesto, although it was our runner-up, was polarizing. Many tasters missed the sharp, creamy bite of Italian cheese; others liked that the “nutty,” buttery flavor of cashews and pine nuts stood out. As a result, we can only recommend it with reservations. The top prepared pesto, Buitoni Pesto with Basil ($6.29 for an 11-oz tub), was our clear favorite.

Editor’s Note: The brands use a variety of serving sizes. We converted all to 60 grams, which equates to roughly ¼ cup.

Pesto is among the best-known sauces to come out of Italy, and when most of us think of pesto we think of the Genovese recipe, which boasts several ingredients that are hallmarks of Italian cuisine; sweet basil, hard salty cheeses, olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts.

A consortium of restaurateurs and food producers in Genoa established an “official” recipe for their pesto that calls for young basil leaves to be ground in a mortar and pestle with salt and garlic (one clove for every thirty leaves). Pine nuts, grated Parmesan and Pecorino cheeses, and extra virgin olive oil are added until the desired balance and consistency are achieved.

This pesto genovese is made quickly and served fresh, while its flavors are bright and strong. The pesto is never heated, only warmed through when tossed with fresh-cooked pasta. The Genovese consortium calls this the only true pesto, and insists that it always be made with basil grown in the region.

Yet pesto is familiar in homes far beyond the port city of Genoa and the coastal towns of Liguria, and jars of green pesto are a familiar sight on supermarket shelves. The good burghers of Genoa may look down their noses at these other pestos, but the popularity of their sauce has made it one of the city’s greatest exports since a fellow named Christopher Columbus.

The first recorded recipe for Genovese pesto comes from a late 19th century cookery book, La Cuciniera Genovese, by Giovanni Battista Ratto. The recipe was not one that would satisfy purists today—Ratto suggested using a little butter in addition to olive oil; marjoram or parsley if one couldn’t get basil; and Dutch cheese mixed in with the Parmesan—yet all the essential elements of modern Genovese pesto were present.

Before Ratto’s pesto, there were other Italian sauces and spreads, dating back as far as Roman times, with broadly similar ingredients, such as moretum, made with garlic and cheese, and agliata, made with garlic and nuts. The missing ingredient in all this was basil, which is not actually native to Italy. Alexander the Great is credited with first bringing the herb west from Asia. Centuries later it would find a new home in rich Ligurian soil and became one of the definitive flavors in Italian cooking.

Pesto genovese is not the only authentic Italian pesto. Pesto rosso is made with sun-dried tomatoes and almonds, while versions from Southern Italy favor sweet red peppers or cherry tomatoes. (If you want to experiment with your own pesto variations, we can show you how!) What all traditional pestos have in common, and what defines a pesto as a pesto is that the ingredients are crushed with a mortar and pestle.

The mortar and pestle are so essential that it’s right there in the name: “pesto” comes from the same root word for “pound” as “pestle.” Crushing ingredients like basil leaves yields maximum flavor and gives sauce a pleasingly uneven texture. Using a mortar and pestle also creates a more stable emulsion between the crushed ingredients and the olive oil. When making pesto genovese, some cooks choose to quickly blanch and shock basil by plunging it in boiling water and then ice water, to deactivate the enzymes in the leaf so that the pesto holds its bright green color.

Of course, there isn’t a mortar or pestle big enough to generate the amounts of pesto sold through supermarkets. Pesto in a jar is typically made by an industrial-scale mechanical processor, and low-grade basil is often used because the process won’t retain any of the delicacy of the herb. The product is stabilized for the shelf with oil, salt, and acid, resulting in a less fragrant pesto with a uniform texture.

Commercial pesto often contains ingredients that even Giovanni Battista Ratto never allowed for— cashew nuts are commonly used instead of or in addition to pine nuts, no doubt because pine nuts are more expensive. (One popular brand I came across didn’t contain any nuts or seeds at all.) Many brands use Italian-style cheeses such as generic parmesan or romano. If the label names Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano as ingredients, those are protected designations that may suggest a quality product, while words like “traditional,” “classic,” or “Genovese” on a label are no guarantee of quality.

A jar of pesto should be stored in the refrigerator after opening and lasts for two to three weeks, but it may start to lose flavor from the moment you open the jar. If you can find it, frozen pesto offers the closest commercial approximation of home-made pesto’s freshness, because freezing halts the deterioration of the highly volatile aromatics, particularly basil, that give pesto much of its vibrancy.

The popularity of commercial pesto genovese has led to the arrival of other jarred pesto variations on supermarket shelves, with sun-dried tomato pesto that mimics pesto rosso perhaps the most ubiquitous in the U.S. (It may or may not contain almonds.) Other pesto sauces use parsley or spinach in place of basil, hot peppers or eggplants, or ricotta cheese in lieu of hard cheese.

Whatever the ingredients, pesto is primarily thought of as a pasta sauce. In its native Liguria, it’s traditionally paired with little twists of dense noodle called trofie, or long flat noodles called trenette, and served with green beans and potatoes that are boiled in the same water as the noodles. Ligurians also use pesto as a flavor booster for minestrone soup, so you could take that as an endorsement for using pesto as a condiment. (The French do the same thing with their version of pesto, pistou, which is broadly the same but without the pine nuts.)

Pesto in vinaigrette makes for a fresh and lively salad. Pesto can also be used in place of a tomato sauce in recipes for lasagna or pizza, or as a perfect complement to the subtle flavors of chicken, potato, or white fish. Try it baked on cod, mixed with mayo in a chicken sandwich, or tossed into a potato salad, and it’s like springtime on your palette. We can’t all be lucky enough to live on the Italian coast. A little taste of Genoa in a jar might be as close as many of us get.

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