Basil Pesto: Do I need to use pine nuts? Are walnuts okay? Can I skip the nuts altogether?
I make pesto quite a bit and I always leave out the nuts. It had me wondering lately if it really mattered whether or not you used pine nuts. Could you use walnuts? Does leaving out the nuts altogether make a big impact on taste?
Italian Cooking Class Using Walnuts
When we lived in Barcelona we took a trip to Rome where we did a pasta cooking class with a professional chef. One of the dishes we made was handmade cavatelli pasta with handmade pesto. The chef said that you didn’t need to use pine nuts, particularly since they are so expensive. You can use walnuts as a substitute. This is one of the reasons why I don’t use pine nuts when I make pesto. He convinced me that pine nuts were not necessary, and I often just leave out the nuts altogether.
Pesto Nut Experiment
I wanted to put the pine nut-walnut-no nut question the test. I made three batches of pesto, with everything being the same except that 1 batch had pine nuts, 1 batch had walnuts, and 1 batch had no nuts.
Further below I have included my recipe for pesto. Though I typically don't measure the ingredients. I usually go by taste, testing along the way.
What I learned from the Basil Pesto: Pine Nuts vs. Walnuts vs. Without Nuts Experiment:
Without Nuts is My Preference
They are all good, but my preference is making pesto without any nuts at all. The texture is smoother and creamier, and it’s just less expensive and less effort, without really sacrificing flavor.
Pine Nuts vs. Walnuts: Choose Pine Nuts
If choosing between pine nuts and walnuts, pine nuts is my preference. The nuts are softer and more subtle in flavor. They add a little bit of texture and a little bit of flavor. Pesto with pine nuts is really good, but pine nuts are also really expensive. So, it’s not something that we will likely buy or keep in the house.
One work around is to buy a small packet of pine nuts from Amazon. You can get about ½ cup of pine nuts for around $5-6, rather than a large expensive bag, and you really only need ¼ cup for 1 batch of pesto. It’s just the right amount.
The pesto using walnuts was also good, but walnuts have a stronger earthier flavor, and when I have pesto, I really want the basil and the cheese to stand out. So pesto with walnuts is at the bottom of my list. Though this all comes down to personal preference.
Making Pesto at Home
Pesto takes very little time to put together. I always make pesto by hand because we do not have a food processor (though we do have a blender which my husband uses sometimes to make pesto and its great). Even using a knife and chopping the basil by hand it only takes 5 minutes, 10 at the absolute max. Throw the pesto over some high-quality pasta, toss in some fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and dinner is ready in about 20 minutes.
Using a Food Processor or Blender
If using a food processor to mince the basil, add 1-2 ice cubes. This is a trick that we learned in our cooking class in Rome. The spinning of the food processor blade will actually burn the leaves of the basil, impacting the taste. Add a couple of ice cubes to cool it down.
When it comes to the cheese, I prefer a parmesan cheese that is pretty mild so that the basil stands out yet you still get the richness of the cheese. I also want a lot of parmesan, another reason why having a mild parmesan helps to not overpower the basil.
I buy parmesan cheese from Trader Joe’s, its rich, but not super strong in flavor. It’s also important to use freshly grated parmesan cheese (i.e. grate it yourself don’t buy the container of pre-grated cheese).
Using really fresh basil makes a difference. If at all possible, use the basil the same day that you buy it. You can smell the difference between basil you bought and put in the fridge a few days ago to fresh same day store bought basil. The fresher the basil the sweeter the taste and the less bitter it is. Though you can’t always make this work, and that’s okay too.
I love to make pesto from basil in our garden in the summer. Using basil from your own garden allows you to better control how sweet vs. bitter the basil leaves are.
Garlic in Pesto
I also usually skip adding garlic to the pesto. Raw garlic has a really, really strong taste, and I find that it takes away from the taste of the sweet basil. It’s also simpler to skip it.
If you do want to use garlic, one workaround to avoid the intense taste of raw garlic is to cut the clove of garlic down the middle and remove the middle piece that looks like a stem. This part of the garlic clove is the most intense in flavor, and removing it gives you a milder garlic flavor when minced and added to the pesto.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
I highly recommend using good quality extra virgin olive oil. It goes directly in the pesto without any cooking so it is a big part of the flavor of the pesto.
Look for extra virgin olive oil that is sold in a dark green bottle. Olive oil degrades as it gets older (see the interview of a wine and olive oil producer here on the topic). Olive oil is better used sooner than later, unlike wine. Look for olive oil that came from one place, rather than a mixture of several locations or countries. Lastly, stick with one that you like, not necessarily something more expensive.
I am partial to olive oil from Spain, having lived there for two years, and meeting Spanish olive oil producers and learning about their process. Often Spain has excellent olive oil, to the extent that it'll be exported it to Italy and included in Italian olive oils. Though there are plenty of great olive oil producers around the world.
- 4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1½ cups good quality extra virgin olive oil
- 5-10 cranks salt
- 1 clove garlic, stem removed and minced optional
- ¼ cup pine nuts, minced optional
- Wash the basil and pat dry with a kitchen towel. Using a large kitchen knife, mince the basil. Grate the parmesan cheese on the smallest grate on a cheese grater.
- Combine the basil and parmesan cheese in a medium sized bowl. Add the garlic and pine nuts if using. Add 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil and mix to combine. Continue adding extra virgin olive oil until you have the desired consistency, up to ½ cup more. Add salt to taste about 5-10 cranks of a salt grinder.
- Alternatively you can add the basil to a food processor or blender along with an ice cube (to prevent the blades from burning the basil leaves), then add the cheese and the olive oil slowly - start with 1 cup, then add additional olive oil to get your desired consistency. Add salt to taste about 5-10 cranks of a salt grinder.
- Finally, if not using immediately, top the bowl with a lick of olive oil. This will prevent the basil from being exposed to the air and oxidizing.