Growing Basil for Making Homemade Pesto
Ready-made pesto is convenient and available all year round, but it’s pricey and content varies widely. Making pesto can also be expensive if you have to buy all the ingredients, but using homegrown herbs (and a few clever recipe tweaks) will make a huge difference. Fresh herbs are always expensive, even in season, which is a great incentive to grow your own even if it’s just a small patch or pot!
Basil is easy to grow, with the right conditions. Plants are happiest in warm sunny conditions with well-drained soil, and can be grown in the garden or in pots. I like to grow my basil plants from seed, but you can also grow from cuttings (it roots in water within a week or so) or you can buy seedlings for transplant. Regular pinching will help reduce leggy grown, and keep you in ready supply of delicious freshly picked leaves. Basil will try to set seed in hot weather, so keep pinching if possible. The flowers are edible, but the plants tend to produce and taste better before flowering.
Basil Varieties for Making Pesto
If you’re growing for pesto, a large leaf Italian variety of basil is the way to go. Fortunately for pesto lovers, this is the common form of basil sold as cut herbs in stores, and it is readily available as small plants or as seed. It may be marked as Italian basil, sweet basil, or by variety such as Genovese.
Saving Time with Big Batch Pesto Prep
Prepping basil, blanching, toasting, grating, grinding, and mixing all the ingredients can be time consuming and messy, so pesto making is something I like to do as a big batch rather than small quantities for immediate use. Right about the time when the basil is starting to get away from me and I’m fighting to keep it from bolting to seed with heavy pruning is just about perfect, and the hard cut rewards me with another round of fresh basil growth. Win win!
Tweaking Classic Pesto for Cost and/or Health
Classic basil pesto is made with fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Simple and delicious.
To lower the cost and/or improve the healthiness of the (often rather naughty and salty) pesto, reduce the ratio of cheese and nuts to basil and/or swap some of the pine nuts for an alternative such as hulled sunflower seeds.
I like making my pesto with less oil and less salt than a classic pesto recipe. They can be added to a recipe during use when needed/wanted, but once they’re in, they’re in. The resulting pesto is still absolutely delicious, has an authentic flavour, and is more versatile (in my opinion) as it can be used as a thick spread or thinned into a sauce.
Homemade pesto is awesome for strict vegetarians, vegans, or dairy-free diets as you can skip the cheese or swap for vegetarian/vegan-friendly alternatives. You can also swap or drop the nuts (or other allergens) if needed. You can experiment with padding out the basil with other greens, such as spinach, but do so with care as these adjustments can alter the flavour.
Preparing Fresh Basil for Pesto Making
Prepping the basil is the only time consuming step, but so worth it! Since this takes a while, it’s very easy to toast the nuts (see below) and leave them to cool whilst working so that everything is ready and waiting for processing once the basil is prepped. Tips:
- Harvest your basil in bulk (if using homegrown) and make your pesto the same day while it is at peak freshness.
- Wash thoroughly and separate the leaves from any flowers, buds, or large stems.
- Right before processing, blanch the basil leaves in small batches. Blanching is optional, but can help to create a greener pesto and keep it greener for longer in storage. The leaves only need 5-10 seconds in boiling water before their ice bath, so it’s quick work. It can also help smooth the texture of the pureed leaves, but may also mellow the flavour slightly. Since I like to have a higher amount of basil to other ingredients in my tweaked classic, I don’t find it detrimental at all.
Making Homemade (Big Batch) Pesto
New to making pesto? If you’re not comfortable with estimation in making your pesto, any basil pesto recipe can be scaled-up to suit the volume of basil from your harvest. Adapt (see above on tweaks for cost, healthiness, and versatility) if/as you wish. Additional tips:
Toast Nuts and Seeds for Better Flavour
- Toast your nuts for added flavour and allow to cool completely before processing.
Processing Ingredients for Homemade Pesto
- Traditional pesto is hand ground; however, a food processor is very helpful for making the grating and grinding quick work, especially when making a big batch.
- Don’t over process. Unlike the often smooth commercial pesto purees, I think that retaining some texture in a homemade pesto is fantastic. Of course, it’s all a matter of personal preference.
- By processing incrementally, you can do all of your processing without needing to wash the processing equipment until the end and make a much larger batch than your processor might hold all at once. I like to grate the cheese, then process the nuts and garlic, then the basil (adding some oil if/as needed), and then hand mix everything together before incrementally adding seasonings and/or additional oil to taste (mmmm…taste testing…).
Storage and Use
- It’s a great idea of plan a dinner including pesto on the night you make it and enjoy some in all of it’s fresh glory. Yum!
- Fresh pesto doesn’t keep for long. It is best used within a couple of days, but freezes beautifully. Read about how I freeze mine for easy use below.
- Before longer storage, I like to cover and refrigerate freshly mixed pesto to chill for a few hours or overnight so that everything has time to meld in moisture and flavour for a final taste and texture adjustment before freezing. Totally optional, of course!
Freezing Pesto for Easy-Use Storage
Whether working with homemade pesto or bought pesto (most are use-by within days of opening), freezing is a good option for longer storage. You can freeze in small containers, dropped dollops on baking paper, on a sheet to cut or cracked to portions, or (my favourite) in an ice cube tray. If you’re worried about losing some of the green colour the exposed surface before freezing, you can cover it with clingfilm or a little additional oil, but I just freeze straight up. Once thoroughly frozen, I remove the cubes from the tray to a sealed container for freezer storage until defrosting for use if/as needed. Yummy homemade pesto at the ready!