The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe

The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe
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The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe

Looking for a good vegan pesto recipe? This basil pesto recipe is easy and super flavorful. Using nutritional yeast instead of parmesan cheese and less olive oil than traditional pesto recipes, this vegan pesto sauce bends toward healthy and works wonderfully on pasta dishes and sandwiches.  

What is Pesto Sauce?

In writing this blog post, I realize that there’s a good chance that some of you may be familiar with pesto sauce but may never have made it. I can relate – pesto sauce was something I’d often order out, but avoid making at home because I imagined it was a difficult task with lots of ingredients that were hard to find. As it turns out, this isn’t the case.

A Good Pesto Recipe Starts with Fresh Basil

Pesto sauce features fresh basil as its primary ingredient. You should be sold already, as the smell of fresh torn basil alone makes making pesto sauce at home worth it.

How to Store Fresh Basil
Give Your Vegan Recipes the Gift of Fresh Basil

You can usually find fresh basil in the produce section at your grocery store, but don’t be afraid to keep a pot of it growing on your counter at home. Think I just made this easy recipe hard? Not necessarily. There are a number of ways to keep fresh herbs growing at home, even during the cold months. Check out my “What Makes This Recipe Easier” section below for my method.

How to Store Fresh Basil

One of the best things about growing your own basil at home is that you pick it when you need it. There’s no plastic clamshell packaging or trying to use it up before it starts to turn black in the fridge. (If you’ve brought packaged basil home from the store, you know what I mean.) But, if you’re not quite ready to give up that much counter-space, here are a few tips for keeping purchased basil fresh until you’re ready to use it: (1)

  • If you’re not using your fresh basil right away, don’t put it in the refrigerator. After a day or two, the leaves will wilt, darken and start to become slimy.
  • Fresh basil does best if you treat is like a bouquet: trim the stems and store it on your counter top in a jar of water. Change the water regularly and trim any dead leaves.
  • Use it up! I have several recipes that use pesto sauce, but don’t think pesto sauce is your only option. Adorn the top of your pizza, dress up your tomato soup or tear up a few leaves and sprinkle it in your salads. Nothing beats getting a pop of fresh basil when you’re digging into your greens!

What Else Makes a Good Pesto Sauce?

In addition to fresh basil, traditional pesto recipes include olive oil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic and salt and pepper. Variations may swap out the pine nuts for walnuts and supplement the basil with spinach and kale. 

The Tools to a Great Pesto Recipe

In all of the research I did for this recipe, the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that a mortar & pestle makes superior pesto. Busy modern life though. But, I do have to say, I’m intrigued enough to give the mortar & pestle a try. I just added a nice Italian marble mortar & pestle to my Christmas list. If I’m lucky, I’ll get one and I’ll update this post when I do.

I use a mini food processor when I make this pesto recipe. It requires a little ingredient organization, as in it is not as simple as “add all ingredients to the food processor and pulse.” There are (my favorite!) food chemistry reasons for this that I’ll get into below. But, there are a lot of reasons that this little tool makes my “things that make this vegan recipe easier” list. First, it’s compact, so it’s perfect for making small batch soups and sauces. It’s pretty easy to clean and, even with the staging of ingredients, it makes this pesto recipe super quick!

The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe
Using a Mini Food Processor to Make the Best Vegan Pesto Recipe

Parmesan Cheese in Pesto Sauce? What’s a Vegan to Do? 

Admittedly, the pungent, acidic bite of parmesan cheese is a tricky omission to overcome in vegan pesto sauce. I made many-a-batches, simply swapping out the parmesan cheese with nutritional yeast. If you’re not familiar with nutritional yeast, I dug into it a bit in my Basil Pesto Stuffed Shells Recipe. The short version is this: nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that is commonly used in vegan recipes as a substitute for cheese. And while nutritional yeast offers up a hint of cheese, it doesn’t pack quite the same punch as parmesan cheese. As such, my early versions of pesto sauce just came out a touch flat, with much of the flavor being overpowered by the extra virgin olive oil. It just needed…something. 

Then, one day, I was writing my blog post for my Homemade Tomato Sauce and describing my newfound love for food chemistry. In particular, I was learning about using acids to enhance flavors – something I’m finding particularly helpful in vegan cooking. Parmesan cheese is one example of an acidic flavor enhancer. Lemon juice is another. So, the next batch of pesto I made, I added a small amount of lemon juice and a small sprinkle of crushed red pepper… and I found my something. 

Why Add Lemon Juice to Tomato Sauce
Fresh Lemons: The Key to Great Homemade Tomato Sauce

What Else Is in My Vegan Pesto Recipe?

With the exception of nutritional yeast, crushed red pepper and lemon juice, I stay pretty close to the traditional ingredients. I use fresh basil as the base. I’ve tried supplementing with both spinach and kale, but I find that I like the basil on its own. I also much prefer pine nuts to walnuts. Pine nuts have a sweet creaminess to them, whereas I find walnuts to be a bit too bitter.

The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe
Ingredients for the Best Vegan Pesto Recipe

I also try to use only as much olive oil as necessary to achieve a thick paste/sauce. Selecting a good quality olive oil is something you should consider for all of your cooking, but in a sauce like pesto sauce, it’s particularly important because of its prominence. I buy and use extra virgin olive oil in my cooking, but a word of caution when using it to make pesto sauce: blending extra virgin olive oil at high speeds is thought to lead to an unnecessary bitterness. As such, I’ve recommended adding olive oil at the end and stirring it in by hand. (2)

Finally, salt is a key ingredient in a good pesto recipe. I include it in the recipe as salt & pepper “to taste.” I hesitate to recommend a total amount of salt because I think salt is something that really should be done by taste, but ½ teaspoon is a good place to start. Sprinkle some in and taste. If you’re not getting a “Wow!” factor (i.e. every other ingredient seems to really come to life) then try adding some more.

What’s in My Kitchen to Make This Pesto Recipe Easier?

This post includes affiliate linksWhen I find a great product or service, I like to share it with my readers. Sometimes I use affiliate links so I can earn commission for my recommendations. Thank you for your support!

I often get asked what gadgets and tools I have in my kitchen that help me pull all of my recipes together. I included a list below along with a description about why I like them so much. If you have any questions about them, please feel free to reach out to me in the comments!

Aerogarden Bounty

I bought this a few years ago and have success growing herbs and lettuces in it ever since. I love that it is mostly hands off — perfect for someone who has trouble keeping plants alive. I use my own seeds using the Grow Anything seed pods.

Mini Food Processor

There are a few tools in my kitchen that get used all the time and this mini 4-cup food processor is one of them. It’s perfect for sauces that don’t require me to bring out the big guns. Clean up is easy and it doesn’t take up much space. 

The Best Vegan Pesto Recipe

Looking for a good vegan pesto recipe? This basil pesto recipe is easy and super flavorful. Using nutritional yeast instead of parmesan cheese and less olive oil than traditional pesto recipes, this vegan pesto sauce bends toward healthy and works wonderfully on pasta dishes and sandwiches.  

Course Sauce
Cuisine Italian
Keyword basil pesto, how to make pesto, pesto recipe, pesto sauce, pesto sauce recipe, vegan pasta recipes
Total Time 15 minutes

Ingredients

Basil Pesto Sauce

  • 2 c. fresh basil
  • 1/4 c. pine nuts
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 c. olive oil
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Prepare your basil by washing and drying the leaves.

  2. Combine the fresh basil, pine nuts, nutritional yeast, crushed red pepper and garlic into your mini food processor. Blend until all ingredients have been reduced to small pieces.

  3. Remove the ingredients from the food processor. Stir in the olive oil and lemon juice.

  4. Add the salt & pepper, to taste. Start by adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Taste and add more salt as necessary.

About Herbivore’s Kitchen

Herbivore's Kitchen A Vegan Diet Blog for Beginners
Herbivore’s Kitchen Creator: Kate Friedman

Herbivore’s Kitchen is a blog run by me, a plant-based home chef and aspiring food photographer. I switched my and my family’s diet to a plant-based diet after learning about the health benefits of going vegan. Making this change has prompted a variety of food and holistic-lifestyle related questions that I explore through this blog. I talk about how to pick and prepare the most nutritious foods, to how to reduce waste at home, to how to live a more sustainable lifestyle while on the road. 


Sources:

(1) https://food52.com/blog/22732-i-tested-basil-storage-methods

(2) https://www.seriouseats.com/2014/07/how-to-make-the-best-pesto.html.



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