Should You Toast Pine Nuts When Making Pesto?

Surface of a non-stick Hexclad frying pan.

Short answer
Whether to toast pine nuts for pesto is a matter of personal preference, but one of the best qualities of pesto is that it is a raw sauce, so you will never find traditionalists toasting them.

Long answer
The difference between raw and toasted pine nuts is significant. Not only does toasting nuts amplify their nuttiness, but it also introduces complex flavours and makes them crunchier. We're not fans of those qualities, so while you won't find us making pesto with toasted pine nuts, a lot of cooks recommend it.

Our main dislike of a pesto made with toasted pine nuts is simply that it tastes excessively nutty. Even if you reduce the quantity, they still have a knack of bullying all the other flavours and casting excessive nuttiness over proceedings. Toasting nuts also adds an extra level of uncertainty to pesto because, until you've added them to your sauce, you will never know how strong they taste. Because pesto is all about a harmonious balance of flavours, we find the extra uncertainty to be entirely unwelcome.

Comparison of raw and toasted pine nuts.

Something that lots of people seem to like is that toasting pine nuts makes them crunchy. Although we like a little texture in our sauce, a pesto should never crunch when eaten!

Still want to toast your pine nuts? Here's how.
If we're being the devil's advocate for a moment, one reason to toast your pine nuts is that the process intensifies their nutty flavour, meaning you can get away with using less of them. That's quite a handy thing when you consider how prohibitively expensive they are.

Dry frying is by far the best way to toast pine nuts, although the method does rely on you watching them like a hawk as they are quick to burn. Simply place a single layer of nuts in a dry, cast-iron skillet or non-stick frying pan and heat over medium-high heat, agitating constantly to ensure they don't scorch. As soon as you notice the nuts have deepened in colour and a toasty smell starts to fill your kitchen, remove them from the heat and allow them to cool. Over-toasting will turn them unpleasantly bitter, and there's nothing you can do to rectify that.

Some people use an oven to toast pine nuts, but because ovens are notoriously bad at holding an accurate temperature, you'll need to check on them every minute or two. Simply heat a fan oven to 180°C, line a baking tray with parchment paper, and place the pine nuts on it, making sure to keep them in a single layer. Shake the tray every minute or two and remove from the heat when the nuts have turned golden-brown.

It is possible to toast pine nuts using an air fryer, a grill or even a microwave, but we've had some dubious results with these and now don't use anything other than the old-school skillet approach.