Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce

by Julie Cohn
Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce1

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One of my most favorite things to make in the summer months is homemade fresh basil pesto sauce.  To me, that luscious velvet green sauce is literally summer on a fork, it makes me happier with each bite.  Sweet peppery fresh basil leaves, blended with nutty parmesan cheese, zesty garlic, crunchy pine nuts, and extra virgin olive oil…what could be more summer than that?   

Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce

The scent of fresh basil leaves always reminds me of one of my favorite people, Mrs. Calabrese, who literally makes the best basil pesto sauce in the whole world.  She grew beautiful basil plants in upstate New York two feet high and taught me how to grow basil and how to trim the larger leaves off first to give the basil plant room to keep growing, rather than go to seed.  She showed me how to toast the pine nuts (no walnuts or almonds in this pesto!) and when to add the olive oil (at the end) so the sauce does not separate.  She even taught me how to freeze it!  When I make pesto, I lovingly think of her.  ♥

Happily, my family is as obsessed with pesto as I am.  We slather it on pasta, in pesto chicken, pizza, swirled in soup…I even made a scrumptious (and healthy) pesto turkey burger with my pesto sauce! Fortunately, with a little practice, pesto is not difficult to make, stores easily in the refrigerator or freezer, and you can whip up a summer meal in no time at all without heating up the whole kitchen.   Another plus?  This is a healthy, Mediterranean diet-friendly recipe!  

Are you ready to try one of the most incredible summer recipes of your life?  You will never buy pesto ever again! 

Key Ingredients

To make the best pesto, you need the best ingredients.  There are many recipes out there with “substitutes” but I guarantee that using the ingredients I list below will yield the most flavorful results.  


Fresh basil leaves are the key ingredient in this basil pesto sauce.  The leaves must be dark green with a sweet peppery/grass scent to them.  Take a bite of one of the leaves to make sure the basil flavor (minty/pepper) is strong, too.  If you are picking leaves from a fresh basil plant, take the larger leaves first, and trim off any insect nibbles on the leaf.  Did you know that the more you pick leaves on a basil plant, trimming from the base stem with shears, the faster and larger the next batch of leaves will grow?  

Parmesan Cheese 

Parmesan cheese, also known as Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, is a hard cow’s milk cheese.  The cheese is aged up to three years to give it a sweet, nutty flavor.  Cheaper Parmesan cheeses have a bitter taste and smell, but a fine aged Parmesan has a bold but sweet umami (savory) flavor.  Parmesan is basil’s partner-i-crime in this basil pesto sauce, so spring for the good stuff when you buy parmesan, you will thank me later. 


If you are going to use fresh basil for this pesto, why not use fresh garlic, too?  Fresh garlic adds a hint of zest to this basil pesto sauce.  Traditional (soft neck) garlic is fine for this recipe, but if you are making basil pesto sauce for a special occasion, look for elephant garlic at your local gourmet store, it has a milder and sweeter taste than traditional garlic.  

Pine Nuts

Some people use walnuts or almonds in their pesto, but traditional Italian basil pesto sauce is made with pine nuts.  Pine nuts or pignoli nuts are edible pine seeds found in many Mediterranean recipes.  Right now, pine nuts can be hard to find (and expensive) so stock up when they are on sale because you will likely make a few batches of basil pesto sauce over the summer.  Some people get them in bulk at Costco, but I have had good luck getting them on Amazon.  When you purchase the nuts, check to see if they are toasted or not.  If they are not toasted, throw them in a 350-degree oven for about 5-6 minutes, until golden brown.   Toasting adds a nice flavor to the pine nuts and releases the oils from inside the nut. 

Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce3 Pine Nuts

Olive Oil 

Olive oil adds the liquid to this sauce, binding together the basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, and pine nuts.  Use extra virgin olive oil if you can, it adds a pure olive oil taste that compliments the other ingredients so well.  Olive oil is also used if you freeze this basil pesto sauce.  Spoon the sauce into a freezer-friendly container, then add a thin (about 1-2 tablespoon) layer of olive oil on top of the sauce before putting it in the freezer.  Basil naturally oxidizes the longer it is exposed to air so the olive oil top-off helps to seal in the flavors and colors. 


You only need a few pinches of salt to enhance the flavor of the pesto, don’t over salt. 


Fresh basil pesto sauce will keep for about seven days in the refrigerator and up to six months in the freezer.  (Note:  If your basil pesto sauce turns slightly brown, it is still safe and tasty to use, it just won’t look as pretty.  However, if it is past seven days and has a pungent smell, it has likely soured, so do not use.)

Other Ingredients You Can Use

  • Sun-dried Tomatoes
  • Garlic Scapes (Fresh garlic shoots) 
  • Mushrooms
  • Spinach
  • Cilantro
  • Pistachios (In place of pine nuts) 

I am a purist when it comes to pesto, I prefer basil pesto sauce the best, but I also make a mean sundried tomato-basil pesto, which is great for bruschetta. My new favorite way to eat pesto is on zucchini noodles, so good!  

A Few Tips

  • Use fresh basil with larger leaves and a dark green color.  
  • Use freshly grated parmesan, it makes all the difference.  
  • Store the pesto in smaller containers, especially to freeze it.  A little goes a long way and you don’t want to waste it. 
  • You can also use pesto on pizza, in tomato sauces, on bruschetta, and even as a sandwich spread.  

Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce2 Zucchini Noodles


Fresh Basil Pesto Sauce1

Fresh Basil Pesto

Yield: 1 cup
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes

A delicious summer sauce made with fresh basil, parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil.


  • 5 c. Fresh Basil Leaves
  • 1/3 c. Pine Nuts (Toasted)
  • 1 c. Parmesan Cheese
  • 2/3 c. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 2-3 Pinches of Salt


  1. Clean the basil leaves
  2. Toast the pine nuts for 5 minutes at 350 degrees, then set aside to cool.
  3. Place the basil leaves, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, and salt in a food processor. Pulse the mixture for about 10 seconds.
  4. Slowly pour the olive oil into the top of the food processor while pulsing, until it is completely blended.
  5. Place the pesto in a sealed container and place in the refrigerator until use.
  6. To use in pasta, cook the pasta according to package directions, drain, then mix 3-4 tablespoons of pesto sauce into the pasta.


If you freeze the pesto, add a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the pesto before freezing.

Nutrition Information
Yield 12 Serving Size 2 Tbsp
Amount Per Serving Calories 165Total Fat 17gSaturated Fat 3gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 13gCholesterol 6mgSodium 169mgCarbohydrates 2gFiber 0gSugar 0gProtein 3g

All nutrition information is approximate.

Looking for a few other summer recipes?  

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