Pesto is one of the classic sauces in Italian food with an intensely herbaceous and savory flavor profile. You can use it in marinades or serve it over pasta. It is a relatively simple dish, so if you need an alternative, you have several easy options. Here are some of the best pesto substitutes:
Your best bet: Make your own pesto
Making pesto may be easier than you think. It is certainly easier than other Italian sauces like marinara sauce. For starters, there’s no cooking involved. Pesto has a few simple ingredients that center around basil, olive oil, and pine nuts. Garlic is also essential for flavor.
The easiest way to get the right consistency is to use a blender, but a standard-sized blender may not be ideal for small portions since the blades may not come into contact with all the ingredients. If you need a small serving, a mortar and pestle may give you a more desirable consistency and is also the tool used to prepare pesto in ancient times.
Making pesto from scratch allows you to change up the main ingredients like basil. Whether basil is unavailable in your local grocery stores or you just don’t like the taste, you can opt for a basil-free pesto. Spinach, arugula, and cilantro have all been used in pesto variants to provide a similar color and nutritional value. Other versions omit pine nuts due to their high cost. Potential pine nut substitutes include cashews, hazelnuts, and even peanuts.
A decent second choice: Basil oil
Basil oil consists of olive oil that has been infused with the bright licorice and mint notes of fresh basil. You can buy bottled basil oil online or in some grocery stores, but it is relatively easy to make it yourself. Remember to use whole basil leaves for best results; chopped or minced leaves tend to oxidize much more quickly.
Basil is a great pesto substitute because you can use it in many of the same dishes and a few more besides. Use it in marinades, vinaigrettes, and drizzle it over your pasta. To truly simulate a Genoan pesto, you can add parmesan, nuts, and garlic to your dish along with the basil oil.
In a pinch: Chimichurri
Another green sauce with a major herbal component, chimichurri comes from South America in contrast to pesto’s Mediterranean roots.
Chimichurri is mainly associated with Argentinian cuisine. Its green color and herbal flavor profile come from two herbs, neither of which is basil. Traditional chimichurri is made with cilantro and parsley. Green onions may also be included to add to the color. Chimichurri contains lots of oil and garlic, which are the two ingredients that make it a potential substitute for pesto.
Because it lacks the basil element, chimichurri does not taste precisely like pesto and may be more suitable for someone who is trying to avoid basil. It works best as a marinade or sauce for grilled or roasted meats but may also make a flavorful pasta sauce.
Gremolata is a lot like chimichurri, except it contains one herb, parsley. Like pesto and chimichurri, it is heavy on the garlic. Gremolata can contain garlic along with Pecorino Romano and pine nuts, so it is very similar to pesto but also includes citrus zest, which makes it very different from traditional pesto. Note that gremolata typically does not have liquid ingredients, so it lacks pesto’s paste-like consistency.