The Official Basil Pesto Recipe

The ingredients needed to make the very best basil pesto

Jump to the official recipe.
Jump to our simplified recipe.

Introduction
The one and only pesto recipe recognised by the Pesto Genovese Consortium contains just seven ingredients: basil, olive oil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino, garlic, and salt. Many of the ingredients are so special that they are protected from inferior copycats under EU law.

Here, we're publishing the legendary recipe, one that will reward you with the most authentic pesto you’ll find anywhere outside of Italy.

How many pesto recipes are there?
Browse any supermarket, and you'd be forgiven for thinking that the potential for new and exciting pesto recipes is practically limitless. In some ways, that’s true, but it's not a view held by the Pesto Genovese Consortium. They vociferously argue that their recipe is the only one worthy of the name "pesto".

Flag flying on top of the Doge's Palace in the heart of Genoa

Pesto Genovese is the name given to the classic basil pesto that the consortium works tirelessly to protect. It’s one of the world’s great sauces, one that the people of Genoa, the recognised birthplace of pesto, hold dear to their hearts. It's hard to emphasise how much passion there is in the region for their revered ‘green gold’, although it is nicely summed up by the wonderful local adage that pesto is the second thing a Genovese baby tastes after its mother’s milk.

Montage showing jars of various basil pesto sauces commercially available

A quick online search throws up literally hundreds of sauces that purport to be classic basil pesto. Their ingredients, however, vary wildly. Some producers chase cost savings by switching expensive ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil and pine nuts for cheaper alternatives like sunflower oil and cashews. Some use flavourings like basil extract to improve their sauce's taste, while others contain acidity regulators to prolong shelf life. At the very bottom of the barrel, you will find sauces that contain all kinds of nasties, like egg lysozyme, potato flakes, and refined soya.

Variations in the recipes of different shop-bought, basil-based pestos are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Widen your search, and you will find quite literally thousands of sauces marketed as pesto containing everything from beetroot to seaweed to salami.

Montage showing jars of unconventional pesto sauces

Producers of 'alternative' pestos often argue that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that it's only natural for food lovers to experiment with recipes and bring new ideas to the table. For traditionalists, though, this form of appropriation is seen as disrespectful to Genoa's cultural heritage.

You may assume that because Italians are so proud of their pesto, only foreign imposters would dare ride on the coattails of its reputation to produce such renegade sauces. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seggiano's pesto line-up includes aubergine, kale, and fennel. Sacla produces truffle, coriander, and red pepper pestos. Meanwhile, the world's biggest pasta producer, Barilla, uses tomato puree, sugar, and balsamic vinegar in one of their most popular pesto products.

If there's one pesto that gets traditionalists seriously hot under the collar, it's Casalinga's 'Vegan Cauliflower and Curry Pesto', which is marketed as "the taste of India with a classic Italian twist". Even as people who believe in taking the original recipe as inspiration rather than the rule, we feel that is taking things a step too far.

Woman competing in the Pesto World Championships

So, how did it come to this? That is something that the organisers of Genoa’s World Pesto Championships are constantly grappling with. While they don’t claim to have invented pesto (there are several sauces, most notably moretum, which are widely considered precursors to pesto), Genoa is undoubtedly where the classic pesto recipe we know today was perfected.

The region's producers have made some progress in protecting their legendary recipe from inferior copycats. In 2006, Ligurian farmers successfully proved that their basil was so unique that it deserved to be protected under EU law. That means that Basilico Genovese has a 'protected designation of origin' status, which acts as a proof of provenance.

Some people in the region don’t just want their basil protected by the European Union, but pesto itself. We can't realistically see that happening, though. If it were ever granted, it would effectively ban any company from calling their sauce ‘pesto’ unless it followed a precise recipe, was made using an exact production method, and contained ingredients sourced from specific geographical locations.

For the time being, though, there's no shortage of people willing to beat the drum for the traditional recipe for anyone who will listen.

A bunch of basil wrapped in paper showing its protected designation of origin status

The official basil pesto recipe (4-6 servings)
Sourcing the exact ingredients below is undeniably tricky, and that's why we're accompanying this recipe with a simplified version alongside some recommendations for good substitute ingredients.

Ingredient Quantity
Riviera Ligure olive oil (PDO) 65g
Genovese basil (PDO) 60g
Pisa pine nuts 30g
Parmigiano-Reggiano (PDO) 30g
Pecorino Fiore Sardo (PDO) 20g
Vessalico garlic 1 clove
Trapani sea salt pinch

What to do if you can't source these ingredients
Eataly, the premium Italian food importer that has shops in several capital cities, including London, Paris, and Stockholm, is your best bet to find the exact ingredients listed above. For everyone else, a few compromises are required, which is why we've created a simpler version that uses ingredients that you should be able to buy from your local supermarket.

Our simplified basil pesto recipe
While the following recipe cannot be considered 100% authentic, provided you use the finest quality ingredients you can afford, you'll be rewarded with a far superior pesto than any of the jarred stuff you find in the supermarket.

Ingredient Quantity
Olive oil 65g
Basil 60g
Parmesan 50g
Pine nuts 30g
Garlic 1 clove
Salt pinch

Pesto being made in a pestle and mortar surrounded by basil leaves

A note on ingredients

Oil
Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is famed for its flavour, aroma, health benefits, and the fact that it hasn't undergone extensive processing. For these reasons, we would urge you to spend a little extra on the good stuff, but even regular olive oil will make your sauce far superior to one made from cheaper neutral oils like vegetable or canola.

Don't assume that all extra virgin olive oils are equal. The official pesto recipe dictates that it must come from the Italian Riviera, where the oil is famed for having moderate levels of fruitiness but very little of the bitter and spicy notes that are prevalent in oils from other regions. A good deli will be able to help you choose the most similar oil, but if all else fails, just stick to the generic stuff in the supermarket. Big supermarket chains don't generally cater to foodies, so they tend to sell quite generic products that won't offend but also are not imbued with any award-winning character.

Basil
Getting hold of Genovese basil outside of Liguria is near-impossible. However, if you buy a fresh basil plant (the sweet variety, not Thai basil) and use only the smallest leaves, you'll get close enough to the real deal.

Pine nuts
Pine nuts from China are cheaper than those from the Mediterranean but have a major downside. For some people, eating them can result in a condition called 'pine mouth', which causes a lingering metallic aftertaste that can last weeks. It's simply not worth the risk. If you can't afford pine nuts, then sunflower or pumpkin seeds make fairly decent alternatives.

Cheeses
The official recipe calls for pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano, but they vary greatly in sharpness, saltiness, and intensity. Rather than ruin your pesto by choosing the wrong kind of cheese, you can do a lot worse than simply sticking to generic Parmesan. At a stretch, Grana Padano can also be used.

Garlic
While different varieties of garlic have slightly different flavour profiles, as long as you stick with a fresh supermarket bulb, you won't go far wrong.

Salt
We don't think it's worth the hassle of tracking down salt from Trapani, but we would urge you to use sea salt flakes rather than heavily processed table salt. Not only will the flavour be superior, but those flakes will act as an abrasive when it comes to breaking down the garlic.

Basil pesto being made in a pestle and mortar

How to make pesto
For complete authenticity, pesto should be made with a pestle and mortar. This isn't done out of sentimentality; the action of pounding and crushing ingredients releases far more of their essential oils and volatile flavours than if they were sliced by the blades of a food processor. If you don't own a pestle and mortar or can't be bothered with the hassle, then an electric blender or food processor will do. Just make sure to add the oil by hand at the end because processing it at high speeds can turn it bitter.

Start by slicing a single garlic clove in half and discarding the green "germ" running down the middle if it has one. Add it to your mortar with a generous pinch of salt, and crush until the garlic is well broken down.

Add the pine nuts, and continue to rotate the pestle around the sides of the mortar to create a paste.

When the nuts are fully broken down, add the basil leaves, ideally using the smallest ones as they are extra-sweet tasting. Continue to work the sauce for another minute or two until you reach a smooth consistency.

Add the cheese, work the sauce for another minute, and then slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the sauce is silky and super creamy.

Have a taste, and add a little extra salt or garlic if you think it needs it.

Silk handkerchief pasta with pesto

How to serve pesto
Pesto is best served immediately to prevent the herbs from oxidising and dulling the flavour of the sauce. However, it will last in the fridge for three days without excessive deterioration.

It goes without saying that pesto and pasta are two of gastronomy's great love affairs. We think that if you've gone to the effort of making your own pesto, it would be a disservice to serve it with cheap pasta. For that reason, we always recommend opting for bronze-die pasta if your budget allows, or better yet, making it yourself from scratch.

If you want to experience what the inhabitants of Liguria have been eating pesto with for decades, then try pairing your sauce with one of these traditional pasta shapes. Pesto is a proudly raw sauce, so it doesn't need to be heated in anything other than the residual heat of the pasta. Cooking it simply destroys all those amazingly fresh flavours that you’ve just put so much effort into encapsulating.

Pesto does have a life beyond pasta, though, and not just as a topping for pizza or bruschetta. Here, we've compiled a handy guide of inspiring ways to use pesto.