The Official Basil Pesto Recipe

Pesto in a pestle and mortar surrounded by basil leaves

Jump to the official recipe.
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How to Make the World's Most Authentic Pesto

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 proudly publishing the legendary recipe; one that will reward you with the most delicious and 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 pestos is practically limitless. In some ways, that is true, but it's not a view held by the members of the Pesto Genovese Consortium who maintain that their recipe is the only one worthy of the name.

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

The Italians' Love of Pesto Genovese

Pesto Genovese is the official name of the classic basil pesto that we all know and love. It's one of the world’s greatest sauces, so it's no wonder that the people of Genoa, the recognised birthplace of pesto, hold it so dear to their hearts. It's hard to emphasise how much passion there is in the region for their ‘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.

The Rise of Alternative Pesto Recipes

Variations in the recipes of different shop-bought, basil-based pestos are just the tip of the iceberg. Widen your search, and you will find quite literally thousands of sauces marketed as pesto that contain all kinds of unconventional ingredients, such as beetroot, seaweed, and salami.

Montage showing jars of unconventional pesto sauces

Producers of these sauces 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.

The Genovese Want Their Pesto Back

While the Genovese don’t claim to have invented pesto (there is a sauce called moretum, which is considered to be the precursor to pesto), Genoa and the wider region of Liguria are where the classic basil pesto recipe we know today was honed and perfected.

Over the years, producers in the region have become more and more dismayed at the plethora of sauces flooding the market that claim to be pesto but are virtually unrecognisable to the classic recipe. In an attempt to protect their recipe from inferior copycats, in 2006, Ligurian farmers and pesto producers successfully proved that the region's 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 both quality and provenance.

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

Some people in the region don’t just want their basil protected by the European Union, but pesto itself. If that kind of protection 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.

Efforts to Keep the Traditional Pesto Recipe Alive

Most producers accept that pesto is now such a mainstream product that legally protecting it is highly unlikely to happen. Instead, a group of businesspeople and gourmets set up the Palatifini Cultural Association and created the Pesto World Championships as a way to celebrate the original recipe and promote it to a global audience.

In the lead-up to the biennial competition, delegates are sent to countries all over the world to judge heats to select the best pesto maker in their country. In a lavish ceremony that takes place at the Doge's Palace in the heart of Genoa, 100 finalists compete to make the best pesto using only the seven allowed ingredients. The event generates plenty of publicity and is seen as a vital way to keep the traditional recipe alive and in people's minds.

Woman competing in the Pesto World Championships

The Official Basil Pesto Recipe

Sourcing the exact ingredients required to make a completely genuine basil pesto is undeniably tricky. Your best bet is the premium Italian food importer Eataly, which has shops in several capital cities, including London, Paris, and Stockholm. For everyone else, a few compromises are required, which is why we're accompanying this recipe with a simplified version. We've also given some recommendations for substitute ingredients. Both recipes will make enough pesto for 4-6 servings.

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

The ingredients needed to make authentic basil pesto

Our Simplified Basil Pesto Recipe

While the following recipe cannot be considered 100% authentic, provided you use the finest 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

Substitute Ingredients

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 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 and very little of the bitter and spicy notes that are prevalent in oils from other regions. A good delicatessen 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 are not imbued with any award-winning character but also won't offend their customers with potentially divisive flavours.

Basil is exceptionally prone to bruising and does not travel well, so 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 decent alternatives.

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.

While different varieties of garlic have slightly different flavour profiles, the intensity of their taste is much more affected by the way you process them rather than the specific variety. Chop garlic cloves with a knife for the most mellow taste, or grate with a fine Microplane if you want your garlic to be so spicy that you'll think you've been assaulted.

The official pesto recipe calls for the salt to come from Trapani in Sicily. It's easy enough to buy online, but we're not convinced it's worth the expense. Just make sure you use sea salt flakes rather than heavily processed table salt, and you'll be fine. 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 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 working 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.

A bowl of silk handkerchief pasta mixed with bright green 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 poor quality 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, such as trofie, trenette, or corzetti. 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 destroys all those amazingly fresh flavours that you’ve just put so much effort into encapsulating.

Pesto's Life Beyond Pasta

While pesto will forever be synonymous with pasta, there are plenty more strings to its bow, and not just as a topping for pizza or bruschetta. Here, we've compiled a handy guide to inspiring ways to use pesto.