Understanding the basic components of a successful pesto is the key to delicious and inventive off-the-cuff creations.
Pesto seems to be enjoyed nearly universally. Whether that’s as a sandwich spread, a pasta sauce, a salad dressing, or baked into a frittata, pesto has held steady as one of the more versatile and beloved condiments of our time. And while it is rich and delicious, the components of pesto are balanced, which is what keeps us coming back for more.
Traditionally, it’s the heat of the raw garlic, the nuttiness of the toasted pine nuts, salty Parmesan cheese, the sweet fragrant basil, and ever-so-slightly bitter olive oil working in harmony that brings a good pesto to life. A traditional Italian pesto made well is a gastronomic showcase of how simple can be transcendent, but understanding the basic elements of a successful pesto will help empower you to create your own pesto (or pesto adjacent) sauce using just about anything. Here is what you need to consider to create your own original pesto recipe.
Understanding ratios is the key to most off-the-cuff cooking, and pesto is no exception. Although Pesto is much more forgiving than say a souffle, the ratio of your ingredients is key. As your pesto skills advance, it will become more of an intuitive experience, something you can “eyeball”. In general though, you want to shoot for 1 part nut/seed, 1 ½ to 2 parts oil, and 8 parts herbs or greens, with aromatics and seasoning to taste, and grated cheese (if using) added to your desired consistency.
The starting point to any good pesto is a fatty nut or seed, only high quality of course because as with any simple dish, there are very few places to hide bad ingredients. Toasting is imperative – it brings the flavorful natural oils within the nut or seed to the surface, which not only makes your pesto significantly more delicious, but adds a luscious body and texture that you don’t want to live without. For a pesto that really sings, I like to take a bit of the raw bite out of the garlic or whatever aromatic I’m using by blending them with the toasted nut or seed while they are still fairly hot. The heat from the toasted nuts or seeds will actually cook the garlic or aromatics ever so slightly, which helps eradicate some of the unpleasant sting that can linger.
Garlic is a critical counterpoint to all of the richness in pesto. It provides a spice and heat, almost acting as an acid where there is none, at least not in traditional pesto. And while I’m just as garlic goo goo as any self-respecting foodnatic, why limit yourself? If a cutting and savory heat is what you are after, explore the entire allium kingdom and beyond. Ginger, scallion, shallot, and hot chilis are all viable candidates, just to name a few.
While some pesto purists may disagree, any combination of herbs or greens is perfectly acceptable and highly encouraged. Pesto is also a great opportunity to use parts of plants you wouldn’t normally utilize such as carrot or radish tops or herb and kale stems. It’s also a great way to hide bruised or unsightly herbs or greens that are perfectly edible but otherwise heading for the compost or trash bin.
The oil in pesto is perhaps the most pervasive ingredient. It’s the lasting impression on your tongue after each bite. For this reason, it’s important to consider the characteristics of your oil choice and how it will play off the other ingredients to create harmony. This might be achieved with one oil or a combination of oils. Point in case, in our Island-Style Pesto we use a combination of rich coconut oil (to compensate for the lack of cheese, which typically adds a layer of nutty salty fat) and, more sparingly, fragrant sesame oil, which accentuates that nuttiness while also adding a distinctly Eastern flare. Whatever the choice, make sure the oil(s) used are neutral enough to allow the other ingredients to shine through, but have enough personality to leave a good impression.
Cheese, of course, is a multi-dimensional and fatty addition to any pesto, traditionally adding layers of salty nuttiness. It’s generally best to opt for a hard cheese such as parmesan, pecorino, or grana padano as the texture tends to hold up better when blended. And while it does hold an important piece to the pesto puzzle, I’d argue it’s not always necessary, depending on the direction you’d like to take your pesto. Instead, seek out ingredients that will hit on the same notes the cheese would have: umami, nutty, rich, and sweet. In the case of our Island-Style Pesto, rich buttery macadamia nuts, nutty coconut, sesame oil, umami fish sauce, and a little bit of sugar leave us totally satisfied.
Trust your palate and don’t be afraid to add some finishing touches if need be. Whether that’s an extra pinch of salt or fresh ground black pepper, a squeeze of lemon or a cap full of vinegar, a shake of shoyu, or a bit of your favorite spice. Those last second improvised adjustments are often what take a dish from good to great. Just don’t overdo it.
While traditional Italian pesto is protected amongst purists (and rightfully so; done well, it is perfection), I always encourage everyone to keep one simple rule on the top of their mind when cooking at home: your kitchen = your rules. So have fun and don’t be afraid to mess up and explore the outer most reaches of your creativity.