Explore the flavor possibilities when you ring the changes with this favorite sauce.
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kate pesto pasta
Credit: Aaron Dyer

We would never argue that the combination of basil and pine nuts is anything other than perfect, but we do think it's not the only pesto game in town. If you're looking to try something different with this quick and easy sauce made from a combination of herbs and olive oil, know that there are endless variations. In fact, it's quite easy to mix things up once you get the basic formula down. Don't think of these new iterations as messing with a classic—they're more of an homage to a sauce we can't get enough of.

The first step to riffing on pesto is understanding the basics; start by mastering basil pesto. The formula is basil, pine nuts, fruity olive oil, salty Parmesan, and fiery garlic. Got that down? Now it's time to try changing it up. Swap one ingredient in the formula or replace them all to create an entirely different sauce. Read on to explore each part of the equation and for mouthwatering combinations.

Swap Basil for Another Herb or Even a Vegetable

The most defining ingredient of pesto is the herb or vegetable that makes up the lion's share of the sauce and provides its vibrant color, flavor, and even the name. We immediately know they mean when someone says mint pesto, kale pesto, or carrot pesto. Rather than using basil—or perhaps in conjunction with it—change up the herbal note in your sauce by using other leafy green herbs like parsley, cilantro, or mint. Alternatively, branch away from herbs and look to vegetables like arugula, kale (like the kale pesto, shown here), beet, carrot, pea, or broccoli as the base for your pesto. Add the vegetables raw or cook them just a bit, making sure to keep them crisp tender so the pesto has body—as we all know, super cooked vegetables turn into purées.

Try Other Nuts or Even Seeds in Place of Pine Nuts

Pistachios, almonds, and walnuts or even seeds like sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin can replace the traditional pine nuts in pesto. Pretty much any edible nut tastes delicious—just make sure to toast and cool the nut before grinding them into the sauce. Toasting coaxes out complex nutty flavors that enhance the overall flavor of both the pesto and the nut.

There's No Reason to Swap the Olive Oil, but You Could Branch Out

Pesto is an oil-based sauce, so this ingredient has a big impact on the flavor of the pesto. The sauce is typically made with a mild extra-virgin olive oil that lends fruity flavor without overwhelming the other ingredients. If you love bold flavors, drizzle in robust peppery olive oils or combine a touch of a peppery olive oil with more mild varieties.

Other than olive oil, any oil in your cabinet is game for pesto, so feel free to use anything you like the flavor of. Top off the sauce with strong flavored oils like nut oil or toasted sesame oil—you don't need much to add the flavor. Swap out olive oil altogether with a more neutral flavored oil like avocado oil or a full flavored oil like unrefined coconut oil. Ready to start? Try this Pasta with Cilantro-Peanut Pesto

Stick with Parmesan Cheese Or Use Other Salty Additions

Another ingredient in classic pesto is hard, salty, aged cheese like usually Parmesan but also Pecorino Romano or Grana Padano. Swap it out for other cheeses in this category like an aged Manchego or skip the dairy altogether and try adding a touch of a favorite salty, funky ingredient, like anchovies, capers, or miso. If that sounds radical, know that there's a time-honored take on pesto from Sicily that uses both anchovies, capers and Parmesan and swaps the basil for tomatoes and red bell pepper.

Garlic and the Bonus of Added Acidity or Spice

If garlic is your thing, a small raw clove adds just enough flavor for a whole jar of pesto. For the raw garlic adverse, skip it or add in roasted garlic instead which tempers the bite.

Traditional Genovese pesto does not generally contain added acidity or extra spices and while it's not necessary, sometimes it is nice, especially when you serve the pesto over vegetables or meat. Experiment with including finely grated lemon zest, lemon or other citrus juice, or a splash of vinegar. Sprinkle in a pinch of red pepper flakes or a favorite spices like ground cumin, coriander, or fennel, a tiny pinch of ground cloves or ground nutmeg or a spice mixture like garam masala. And try our Parsley, Lemon, and Walnut Pesto on Roasted Sweet Potatoes or Roasted Wild Salmon with Caramelized Fennel and Fennel-Frond Pesto to get started.


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