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Pesto by hand

Updated on August 2, 2012

Pesto by hand

5 stars from 2 ratings of Pesto by hand

Pesto by hand

At its most basic, pesto is simply basil, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. I love pesto, but I've always been disappointed with the store bought kind. And to be honest, most restaurant pestos aren't that great either. Pesto is easy to make by hand, and once you've had the homemade variety, it'll be incredibly difficult to settle for anything else.

There are two keys here. The first is to actually use fresh herbs. All the herbs here can be grown on your windowsill. The second key is actually using a mortar and pestle. It's a fairly inexpensive tool, and once you get the hang of it, you'll find it has many other uses in the kitchen. Many recipes will tell you that it's cool to use a food processor. Let me be clear on this: they are lying to you. You gotta go old school on this one.

The recipe here is the one I like the best. I add a little thyme and oregano, which isn't exactly traditional, but the taste works for me. If pine nuts are out of your budget or unavailable, walnuts make a pretty good substitute.

Pesto ingredients with mortar & pestle

Cook Time

Prep time: 5 min
Cook time: 10 min
Ready in: 15 min
Yields: 2-4


  • Several handfuls of Basil
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt
  • A small handful of Pine nuts
  • Several chunks of Parmesan cheese, Actual parmesan, not canned
  • A few sprigs of Thyme (optional)
  • A few sprigs of Oregano (optional)
  • Several cloves of Garlic
  1. Put a few cloves of garlic, the sea salt, and the pine nuts in the mortar and use the pestle to grind them into a paste. There's a tradition that you should only ground the pestle clockwise, and I tend to follow that recommendation. Toss in a few chunks of parmesan cheese and keep working.
  2. Once the mixture has achieved a consistency of thick paste, add some basil, as well as thyme and oregano if desired. It's best to add small amounts at a time.
  3. The key here is pressure and friction. If you've used the sea salt sparingly (and you should always use salt sparingly), then you can add a bit here and there, or some more pine nuts, to increase the friction.
  4. As you keep working, you can add olive oil to achieve the viscosity you desire. Me? I like it less viscous, so I add quite a bit of olive oil. At this point, you can keep working and tasting. Add any of your key ingredients as needed: pine nuts, basil, parmesan, or olive oil.
  5. At this point, all you really need is time. I like to work for a while with the mortar and pestle. There's a certain zen-like quality to it, and like I said, I like my sauce on the less viscous side. This sauce is like comedy in that comedy is tragedy plus time. Pesto is just like that, but instead of tragedy and time, it's more like herbs, nuts, cheese, and pressure.
  6. After you have the sauce made, set it aside and cook your pasta. I like a penne with this, but nearly anything works. After you've cooked the pasta, reserve a bit of the water and drain the pasta. Mix the pasta and pesto together, using some of the reserved water if you'd like to change the consistency of the sauce.


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    • jhkayejr profile image

      jhkayejr 5 years ago from Florida

      Thanks to the both of you. There's a certain "slow cooking" element to the whole thing, even though it's a fairly quick thing to make. It's really cool to be a part of the entire process.

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      avantitexan 5 years ago

      Sounds like a wonderful experience of cooking (not just making a recipe, but being a part of the process), love the old school. Thanks for sharing, and I will be trying this one!

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      Arlene V. Poma 5 years ago

      VOTED UP AND EVERYTHING ELSE. The recipe you have provided is so easy! Now I need to go shopping for a nice mortar and pestle to show off in my kitchen (and put to use!). I already have the basil growing, so I'm more than ready. Thanks!