To call pesto a topping or sauce feels like an understatement. In my opinion, when pesto is in a dish, it makes the dish. Made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese, it has a rich, assertive flavor that commands attention: when paired with pasta, it’s the pesto that keeps you coming back.
When it’s made well, pesto is a flavor wonder: rich, assertive, vibrant, and making everything around it taste better.
Sadly, perfect pesto isn’t always the case. There are several things that can go wrong: it can be made overpoweringly garlicky, distractingly oily, or it can be browned and soggy about the edges. None of these versions will make for a delicious meal.
Luckily, most of the common causes for mistakes in pesto are also easily remedied.
What is pesto? In case you’re not 100 percent certain what pesto is, let’s take a moment to discuss.
Pesto is a sauce which hails from Italy. It is made by crushing together a melange of simple ingredients: most famously basil, salt, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and cheese. While the ingredients are similar in most recipes, it’s more the method that defines the sauce: “pesto” is actually derived from “pestle”, referring to the fact that in the early days it was likely made with a mortar and pestle.
Pesto recipes are like snowflakes: no two are quite the same, but many are delicious. The one called pesto alla Genovese is probably the version you know best. It is made with garlic, salt, a good quality extra virgin olive oil, cheese, and of course, basil from Genoa.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Pesto. Usually, when pesto comes out poorly, it’s due to one of these common mistakes. Here, we’ll discuss each mistake and how to remedy them.
- You only ever use basil. Yes, basil is the traditional pesto base, but how about giving some other herbs or leafy greens a chance? According to Bon Appetit, “if you can eat it in a salad, you can probably use it to make pesto.”
Experiment with adding a portion or substituting an alternate green in your pesto: kale, arugula, collard greens, parsley, or cilantro are all great picks. Choose flavors that are harmonious to begin with, and you might find yourself with a new classic version of pesto.
- You use dried herbs. Dried herbs keep longer than fresh, and are sometimes more convenient. But when it comes to pesto, you’ve got to keep it fresh. Dried basil simply won’t have the same texture or flavor as its fresh counterpart. Don’t bother wasting your time with powdered garlic: it will fall flat compared to fresh cloves.
- You don’t wash your ingredients. We get it, you love mother earth. But nobody likes a gravelly-textured pesto. Make a pit stop between farm and table to wash and pat dry fresh ingredients before incorporating them into your pesto so that you can have a sauce that gets its texture from the different ingredients, rather than organic matter such as dirt.
- You overdo it on the aromatics. If some garlic is good, a ton is better, right? Wrong. Pesto is an assertively-flavored sauce, but it is also balanced. If you overdo it on aromatics like garlic, you’ll have an unbalanced pesto that will repel not only vampires, but everyone else, too.
Our pesto recipe features two cloves of garlic, which is an assertive but not overpowering amount for a classic pesto.
- You don’t roast the pine nuts first. It’s a small step, but an important one. By lightly roasting the pine nuts before adding them to the pesto mixture, you will release the flavor and give them the slightest crunch. This will give the pesto overall a better and more rich flavor, and more interesting texture. In short, it’s one of the small steps you can take to bring your pesto from amateur grade to professional quality.
- You let the food processor do all the work. Yes, it takes longer and requires more elbow grease to make pesto with a mortar and pestle, but it does pay off. A mortar and pestle can be used for other kitchen projects, so it is a worthwhile investment.
Hand-grinding the ingredients with a mortar and pestle really does bring out the flavors of your pesto. There’s also a certain sense of accomplishment that the tactile quality of working with a mortar and pestle lends to the finished product.
- You don’t use the right cheese. When making pesto, it’s worth seeking out the right cheeses, and the highest quality versions you can afford. A mix of a hard cheese such as Parmigiano Reggiano paired with a milder goat cheese such as Pecorino Sardo is the best of both worlds: it has a sharpness from the hard cheese, but that is softened in a pleasing, creamy way with the more mild sheep’s milk cheese. If these cheeses are not available or not within your budget, you can find a number of substitutions for Parmigiano Reggiano, and substitutes for Pecorino Sardo.
- You store it on the counter. You know how guacamole can turn brown and unappetizing if left at room temperature? The same fate can befall pesto if it is left out at room temperature. It doesn’t have enough acid to keep the greens from browning, and it will turn an unappetizing color if left out.
Store pesto in the refrigerator before cooking with it to ensure the best texture and flavor, and store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge, too.
Making great pesto is a skill that is well within the reach of even amateur cooks. It’s not difficult to master the art of pesto, and you’ll be rewarded with a rich, flavorful sauce. By mastering these easy tips, you’ll be able to avoid common pitfalls and make a perfect batch every time.
Have you ever made any of these common mistakes while making pesto?