Pesto isn’t a single recipe—it’s more of a plug and play formula. Pesto alla Genovese is the original icon of the genre, made with pungent basil, a combination of salty Italian cheeses, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil, all ground with a mortar and pestle to make a paste. Spread it on bread, smear it on grilled meats, or thin it with starchy pasta water to make a sauce—it’s truly an all-purpose condiment.

It’s also an incredible template, one we use here at Milk Street to explore the wide world of herbs, cheeses, nuts and even vegetable scraps. But before we get to tweaks and add-ins, let’s recap a few of the pesto making rules we learned in Italy.

Three tips for making better pesto

Pablo Picasso wasn’t talking about pesto when he said “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,” but the sentiment applies. Even unconventional pesto benefits from certain tried and true techniques. One rule we break with enthusiasm is using a mortar and pestle—the food processor is faster and more consistent.

Pesto rule no 1: Grind your cheese, don’t grate it. This ensures it breaks down into tiny, uniform pieces that emulsify evenly, rather than clump and stick to itself. Cut the cheese into 1-inch chunks, then pulse in the food processor until it resembles coarse sand.

Pesto rule no. 2: Roughly chop your herbs before adding them to the food processor. It helps the blades chop uniformly, so you don’t end up with huge pieces of herbs mixed in with smaller bits.

Pesto rule no. 3: Add your ingredients in stages so they get the care and attention they deserve. Process the cheese, then remove it from the bowl and set it aside. Add your herbs to the bowl and process until finely chopped, then add your nuts and seasonings, scraping the bowl as needed to make sure the nuts don’t clump in the corners. Add the oil and cheese and blend until smooth. Done.

Branch out from basil

Do not let a lack of basil prevent you from enjoying pesto. Cheap, ubiquitous parsley pestos quite well, as does sage. You can keep the hard Italian cheeses and pine nuts, or you can swap them out for something that complements your herb a little better, depending on the flavor profile you’re trying to achieve. Slightly bitter walnuts, for example, are right at home with clean, peppery parsley in our Pasta with Parsley, Walnut and Caper Pesto, and they’re a great match for the earthy, slightly funky sage in our Rigatoni with Ricotta-Sage Pesto.

You don’t even have to stick to herbs—any flavorful leaf can be pesto-fied. Peruvian pesto, or tallarines verdes, is a study in culinary adaptation. When a wave of Italian immigrants settled in Peru in the 19th century, they modified pesto alla Genovese using available ingredients. A shocking amount of spinach replaced the basil, and the Parmesan cheese was supplemented with queso fresco.

On the slightly more bitter end of the leaf spectrum, we blend earthy lacinato kale (also called Tuscan or dinosaur kale) with roasted almonds (or cashews) and Parmesan to make a pesto that does best with rasiny oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes.

Leave leaves behind entirely

You can also take a lawless approach to pesto and abandon the leaves entirely. But even leafless pesto has roots in Italy—Sicily to be exact. Pesto rosso is a rich, intensely flavored red pesto that gets its color and sweetness from roasted peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, along with savory notes from the usual pecorino and garlic, and typical richness from pine nuts and olive oil. It’s a perfect no-cook pasta sauce. This beet pesto is similarly scarlet, but much more earthy, and anchored by a bit of bitterness from toasted walnuts.

Sweet, anise-like fennel also makes a terrific pesto base, particularly when combined with fresh tarragon and basil, which play up the licorice-y notes in the vegetable. This is one pesto where it makes sense to swap out the resin-y pine nuts. We like buttery, slightly sweet pistachios or deeply savory pumpkin seeds, depending on which direction you want to take things in.

But one of our favorite pestos of all time isn’t made with herbs, leaves, or even vegetables, but strips of heady lemon zest. Almonds, olive oil, and Parm complete the pesto, with a pinch of sugar to approximate the sweetness of the lemon pesto we tasted at Giovanna Aceto’s family farm in Amalfi, Italy. (When compared to Amalfi-grown lemons, domestic lemons fall short.)

Amplify the umami

Cheese is an important part of the pesto equation; it adds a backbone of umami that gives the herbs something savory to play off of. Parm is pretty all-purpose, but you can swap it out for something better suited to your flavor profile, like we do in our Roasted Pepper Pesto, inspired by Spanish romesco sauce. Keeping with the Spanish theme, we use Manchego cheese, a semi-hard aged sheep’s-milk cheese with grassy notes, a subtle piquancy and a salty-savory finish.

The aged Gouda in our Pistachio-Aged Gouda Pesto has a nutty flavor that hints at caramel and chocolate, which highlights the sweetness of the pistachios. We also swap out the usual basil for woodsy rosemary and licorice-y tarragon. Both cheeses have a firm texture that’s similar to that of Parm, so they blend and meld into the pesto without clumping.

But cheese isn’t the only source of umami. You can supplement your Parm (or Gouda, or Manchego) with other savory ingredients, like capers, or replace it entirely with another umami powerhouse. For a fully vegan pesto, we combine earthy kale and fresh basil with creamy, savory-sweet white miso as a substitute for the cheese. We also add walnuts, echoing miso’s umami punch, but you can use pine nuts if you aren’t walnut fan.

On the opposite end of the pesto spectrum we have anchovy-enhanced pesto di prezzemolo. Our recipe is an adaptation of one taught to us by chef Antonio Cioffi at La Vecchia Cantina in Ravello near the Amalfi Coast. Cioffi uses neither nuts nor Parmesan in his incredibly savory parsley pesto. Instead, it gets its rich, complex umami from colatura di alici, an Italian fermented anchovy condiment akin to Southeast Asian fish sauce. Colatura di alici is saltier, less pungent and smoother in taste than fish sauce. It does, however, require a trip to an Italian specialty store; we found just a single oil-packed anchovy fillet, rinsed and patted dry, worked well.

Pick your star ingredient and go from there

Changing too much too fast can give your pesto a muddied, disjointed flavor profile. When coming up with your own recipes, pick a star ingredient you’d like to highlight, then modify the other components as needed to best support the star. If cashew pesto appeals, pick herbs that complement the nut’s buttery sweetness, like tarragon or rosemary, but keep the Parmesan. If you like that, you can try to play around with other cheeses, like aged Gouda or super sharp, crystal-flecked aged cheddar. Once you have your herb-nut-cheese trio in place, you can further experiment with additional herbs, umami-enhancers, citrus zests, or anything else that piques your pesto interest.

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