How Do I Fix Pesto That Tastes Too Strongly of Garlic?

Garlic bulbs

Short answer
Adding a small amount of acidity (lemon juice or vinegar) and balancing that with a little sweetness (sugar or honey) is the best way to take the edge off a pesto that tastes overwhelmingly of garlic.

Long answer
Almost every cuisine on earth makes use of garlic, and it's a vital component in pesto. We know from experience, though, that being too heavy-handed with it can run the danger of ruining a meal. Here, we're outlining what you can do to ensure you don't accidentally make a homemade pesto that's too garlicky, and what you can do to counteract it if your shop-bought pesto tastes too strongly of it.

What to do if you're making pesto yourself
If you're making pesto at home, you have the advantage of being able to add garlic incrementally. That simply means adding a little at a time and tasting regularly until you reach the perfect balance of ingredients, which is, after all, what great pesto is all about.

There's an important nuance that should be part of your culinary repertoire, namely the way you process your garlic cloves. Garlic's inimitable spicy kick comes from allicin, a sulphur compound that is released when the cells in garlic are damaged. Finely grating garlic causes so much cell damage that you'll end up with a puree so pungent that even the biggest garlic lovers will turn their noses up at it. Using a much less abrasive technique, like chopping the cloves with a knife, puts far less stress on the cells. The outcome is still fully flavourful but without the excessive, spicy pungency.

If you love garlicky pesto but don't appreciate the aggressive spiciness of raw cloves, cooking your garlic before adding it to your pesto is the perfect solution. It doesn't make a huge difference whether you boil, microwave, or fry your garlic cloves; all methods end up with the same outcome.

If you have the time, though, we highly recommend taking a whole garlic bulb, chopping off the top to reveal the cloves, and drizzling with olive oil. Wrap the bulb in tinfoil and roast in a 180°C oven until a garlicky aroma fills your kitchen. Check on it after around 15 minutes, by which time the cloves should have turned slightly jammy and will pop out of their skins when gently squeezed. Take care not to leave your garlic in the oven for too long because, if overcooked, it can turn unpleasantly bitter.

Roast garlic bulb

What to do if you're working with shop-bought pesto
If you're the unfortunate owner of a pesto that contains too much garlic, your options are limited but not catastrophic. Let's start by looking at all the suggestions you’ll find online that we really don't concur with.

A common recommendation is to add more base ingredients (basil, cheese, oil, etc.), effectively diluting the percentage of garlic in the sauce. The trouble is that it rather negates the point of buying pre-made pesto in the first place.

If you've got a pesto that's quite chunky, then the simplest solution is to identify any little pieces of garlic and remove them. Many shop-bought pesto sauces, however, are pureed into a homogenous paste, so this usually won't be possible.

If we were working with a tomato sauce, we'd recommend simmering it to deactivate the enzymes responsible for garlic's sharpness, but because pesto is a proudly raw sauce, we can't condone doing that.

Another thing we disapprove of is trying to overpower the garlic with another strong flavour, such as chilli, onion, or more herbs. We just think it's a sorry situation when you have to purposely overpower something with an equally assertive flavour just to get rid of a taste you don't like.

Some people swear by adding a creamy ingredient like crème fraîche, yogurt, or butter. This method undoubtedly works well to mellow the garlic flavour, but we find that these kinds of ingredients turn the pesto into a sauce that doesn't really resemble pesto at all.

As for what we do recommend, our go-to method to tone down the excessive garlicky taste of pesto is to add a little acidity and sweetness.

Acid (normally in the form of lemon juice or vinegar) denatures allicin, the source of garlic's spiciness. Make sure you add it sparingly, or you'll switch from complaining about a garlicky taste to complaining about a sour taste. Adding a little sweetness (normally sugar or honey) takes the edge off garlic's pungency and balances the acidity at the same time. Win-win!