What is pesto?

Pesto is a generic Italian name for any sauce made by pounding ingredients together.

The best known of these is pesto Genovese, usually shortened in the UK to just pesto. This is based originally on handfuls of the bright and bold basil grown around Genoa, pounded together with pine nuts, garlic (only a little) and olive oil and then finished with finely grated parmesan and pecorino cheeses.

Pounding in a pestle and mortar releases the pungent oils of the basil in a way that chopping or whizzing in a food processor cannot replicate.

Make your own with our pesto recipe.

How to cook with pesto

When cooking with pesto Genovese, remember that the flavour of fresh basil is dampened when heated; it’s better to add the sauce at the last moment.

Grilled vegetables all seem brighter with pesto Genovese. Fish enjoys a dollop of pesto Genovese, as does chicken and lamb and, although you can use it as a stuffing for any of these, using it fresh as a condiment usually works better.

See our top 10 ways to use up pesto.

How to store pesto

Homemade will last for days but the flavour balance changes and the garlic and cheeses will dominate the basil. Store-bought pesto sauces will last longer and this is often due to preservative ingredients. These can be enlivened by adding a fresh version of the main original ingredients, like basil, coriander leaf, olives or sun-dried tomatoes.

Availability of pesto

Homemade in high summer is best. Bought pesto Genovese can be brightened up by pounding fresh basil leaves and add them to the mixture.

See our guide to DIY pesto to decide if you should make or buy.

Choose the best pesto

When starting from scratch with basil, ensure the picked leaves are fresh and fragrant. If they seem just green and a little acidic, you won’t get a good result, no matter how much you use. Different basil varieties, such as the more pungent Holy Basil, can be used, especially if the sauce is to go with meat or fish.

These days, commercial pestos are being made with almost anything Mediterranean, including sun-dried tomatoes, olives, almonds and many other nuts, lemon and orange zest, and with such different herbs as coriander, parsley and rosemary.