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How To Make Pesto Out Of Anything

26 March 2020
by Giadzy
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Craving pesto, but don't think you have the ingredients? Worry not - you can make it out of just about anything!

Traditionally, pesto from Genoa, Italy consists of just a few key ingredients: basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, and olive oil. While the original recipe is absolutely delicious and perfect, (especially if you go old-school and make it with a mortar and pestle!) the true beauty of pesto is that it's greater than the sum of all of its parts. The star of the sauce isn't the basil, the pine nuts, the parmesan or the olive oil - it's a combination of all the above. You get that fresh vegetal taste from basil, the nutty flavor of pine nuts, a kick from garlic, savory umami from Parmesan and that rich, decadent flavor of olive oil. The secret? You can strike that same perfect balance from all kinds of things in your kitchen.
Additionally, pesto is forgiving - it's not a super-calculated recipe that will fall apart the moment you add something that isn't right. You can keep finagling with it, adding a little bit of this or that to make it taste fantastic. So go ahead - experiment! We've gathered some of our favorite substitutes below, along with some of Giada's best recipes using all kinds of pesto alternatives.

What to use instead of... basil

While we absolutely love the flavor of basil, you'd be surprised how much pesto will still taste like pesto by using a different type of green. This is a great time to experiment, and to add some superfood qualities to our favorite green sauce. Additionally, we're here for doing blends of greens. For example, using all mint would create a really minty sauce - so it wouldn't hurt to cut it with some peppery arugula, some super vegetal kale, or even some more basil.
Try: parsley, mint, cilantro, mustard greens, arugula, watercress, spinach, kale, swiss chard, broccoli or broccoli rabe (blanched first!), carrot tops, radish tops, beet tops

What to use instead of... pine nuts

We love that rich flavor of pine nuts, but we're not going to lie - they're expensive! You can interchange the nuts in pesto to your hearts content, and we'd bet that if you served up a regular pesto with walnuts or almonds instead of pine nuts, the average person would have no idea that anything was nontraditional about it. Except nonna. Don't try that on nonna - she'll know!
Additionally, if you don't have nuts, you can use virtually any nut or seed butter instead!
Try: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans

What to use instead of... Parmesan

Parmesan is definitely king when it comes to pesto, because it has that perfect balance of saltiness and umami savoriness. However, most hard aged cheeses will lend a similar flavor - especially Italian ones! Additionally, we aren't opposed to a cheese-less pesto (just check out our vegan pesto dressing!). If you don't have cheese, add some more nuts and salt to account for that flavor - even a dash of soy sauce or a spoon of miso can add that umami flavor you might miss without cheese!
Try: Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, Gruyere, Piave, Asiago, Manchego, Ricotta Salata

What to use instead of... garlic

Garlic adds a pretty distinct sharpness and loads of flavor - however, there are a few other "aromatic" type ingredients you could use in its stead.
Try: Green onion, a small shallot, ramps

What to use instead of... olive oil

This is one ingredient we don't stray from too much! However, a neutral vegetable oil - like grapeseed, or canola - will absolutely work, they just wont add in much extra flavor.


Other than the big 5 ingredients of pesto, there are other goodies you can literally throw into the mix to change it up. Something we turn to often is acid - most commonly lemon juice, but vinegars work as well. This brightens up the very rich and decadent-tasting sauce, and adds a layer of flavor that we love. Other than that, you can try some of these ingredients too...
Try: Green olives, artichoke hearts, peas, sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers
Take a peek below at some of Giada's non-traditional (and delicious) pesto recipes!


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