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What makes Pesto great?

I have been making pesto for years but recently had some in a local restaurant that was exceptional. I inquired and was told it was the normal combination, fresh basil, olive oil, parmesan, garlic and pine nuts. Should I assume it is a particular oil that made it so much brighter in flavor ( and color)? It was very green, not the muddy color so often associated with pesto.

Any sage wisdom (no pun intended)?

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  1. I bet they blanched, then shocked the basil. Alternatively, they might have snuck in some spinach.

    1. It may just have been very, very fresh. The bright green color of the basil usually starts to fade after a day or so. Certainly, the variety of basil is a major factor in the taste/color of the pesto.

      1. Not only do I agree with Celeste (sorry Pika but you CAN'T blanche basil) but I'd check to see what recipe you are using. What makes Pesto great to me is the fact that when well made you couldn't really figure out exactly what is in it. Not only does freshness and quality of ingredients come into play but everything should be balanced by using the correct amounts.The flavors should blend into one flavor...Pesto! Marcella Hazan has what I believe to be the "perfect" proportions of everything.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Chas

          I totally agree about Marcella's recipe. I'm not a big fan, but I decided to look at her pesto recipe a while ago and have made every pesto with it since.

          The most important thing to me (keeps it from getting that sticky consistency) is that she prepares the basil, pine nuts, olive oil and garlic together than whirrs up the basil separately and then mixes the two together by hand. It really makes a difference imo.
          Check out her recipe.

          Also, when I get fresh basil from my CSA box, it's ever so much fresher, fragrant and tasty than even that bought at a good market.

          1. re: oakjoan

            Marcella Hazan's recipes are good as far as technique, but she uses a mix of Reggiano and Romano to substitute for the traditional young Sardo.

            I mash the garlic with salt in a small mortar, put some olive oil on top, and let it sit for at least half an hour. That cuts the bite without reducing the flavor.

          2. re: Chas

            Why CAN'T you blanche basil - just did it the other day for some recipe.

            I also use the Marcella recipe.

            1. re: MMRuth

              LOL!!! Well I guess you can do anything you want. :) But blanching the Basil would cause it to lose some of its fresh flavor. You certainly can taste the difference when using it in a sauce that has been cooked. And though blanching is not cooking, it does have the quality of removing bitterness from certain veg's or put another way, lessens the strength of the flavor of what you are blanching. I'm no worshipper of Marcella either as Oakjoan has said, but she doesn't blanche hers and her recipe works better than most restaurant versions I've tried. As for the bright green color well I think Bogie might be on to something with the Mortar and Pestle vs the Processed method. Also, the younger the leaves,the brighter green they tend to be. I also have often heard that the younger leaves taste "brighter and "lghter". Not "woody". Unless the leaves are REALLY huge, old and leathery, the darker work and taste just fine for me. Hey maybe my palate isn't as refined as some. :) I'm not all that concerned with how green it looks, as long as it doesn't look like "Dog Slop" :) I just want it to taste good.

              1. re: Chas

                Of course you can blanche basil. I just did a basil-wrapped cod with it.


          3. We just had a pesto discussion you could look up; it described how blanching basil preserves the color.

            Another possibility -- gardeners know to pick their herbs in the early morning, when the oils are most concentrated in the leaves. An evening or afternoon pick is rarely as bright-tasting.

            1. Different olive oil won't make it brighter green, but definitely can affect the flavor. And if the oil is a strong peppery oil it can overwhelm the delicate basil. I try to emulate the pesto we had in Liguria which was made with a really mild olive oil from Liguria itself. Still extra virgin, just made with different olives. I am not an expert in the different olive varieties so I can't tell you which one, but I can suggest that you use a lighter style extra virgin olive oil rather than a heavy one (Tuscan and Sicilian generally are on the assertive, peppery side).

              1. Toasting the pine nuts lightly also helps. I usually take a small amount of the total olive oil and toss the pine nuts in a frying pan until lightly browned. Really mellows the flavour.

                1. I would guess that the basil was very fresh, perhaps a particularly fragrant variety, plus good olive oil and a careful balance of the other flavors. I had pesto genovese when I was in Genoa and nothing else has ever come close to the taste. I think it's just the quality of the components.

                  1. I have noticed that making your pesto using mortar & pestle definitely yields a more appetizing color that food processor stuff.

                    1. definitely use a fine olive oil especially one you enjoy on your salads or sandwiches

                      1. I found that Cook's Illustrated's recipe for pesto was superior to any I've tried. To get the maximum exhudation of the basil's aroma, as is traditionally done with mortar and pestle, they recommend putting the basil leaves, before grinding them in a food processor, in a ziploc bag, evacuating as much air as possible, and crushing the leaves with repeated passages of a rolling pin.

                        In addition, CI recommends toasting the nuts (I do it in the microwave and it only takes a couple of minutes.) They also recommend blanching the garlic to remove the harshness of its taste. The last time I made basil this way I froze it (except for the cheese)in ice cube trays and then transferred it to a freezer bag. It's flavor lasted more than a year, even though it was sitting on one of the freezer's door shelves. I also found that adding the olive oil to the basil leaves before processing instead of after, sharply reduced the oxidation (blackening of the leaves) that ordinarily takes place.

                        Today, I took lots of basil from my plantings and decided to try the blanching/freezing technique. Since I had a large amount to do, I took the leaves still on the stems and plunged the stems into the boiling water. (Use as large a pot as you have--a roaster would be ideal--and snap the stems in two if necessary to get them to fit.) The leaves and stems tended to sink into the water and it was easy to extract them after fifteen seconds using tongs.

                        I placed another large pot next to the boiling pot on the stove after filling it with ice water. After extracting the basil I plunged the stems into the ice water and then put more basil into the boiling water. While the succeeding batch was blanching, I extracted the previous stems from the ice water and put them aside.

                        After finishing blanching all the basil, I sat down at a chair with the pile of wilted basil and stems, and next to them I had a salad spinner. It was easy work to pick the leaves off the stems, and in time I cranked up the salad spinner full of leaves and extracted some water. Next, I placed the basil in a thin layer on a sheet and placed it in the freezer. It took little time for the leaves to freeze and I transferred them to sandwich bags, removing as much air as possible, and put them in the freezer.

                        They lost a bit of flavor compared to fresh leaves, but they were far better than the dried basil.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: sethian1

                          I just don't buy the blanching thing. It seems to me that it would definitely dilute the flavour of the basil and is just so much fiddly work. But to each his own, I guess. The slight discolouration of the pesto is just not that much of an issue with me.

                          To freeze basil, I put rinsed and spun-dry leaves into the processor with a small amount of olive oil. Chop finely and press into ice cube trays. Pop out the cubes when frozen and store in ziplock bags. Flavour holds incredibly well and is so easy to use.

                        2. as far as freezer storage, I remember learning somewhere that plastic is a 'SEMI-permeable membrane'-now where did I learn that?-so it would be best to store in a glass container, no? Fat attracting all sorts of off flavors?

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: toodie jane

                            Interesting point--I've always frozen my pesto in ceramic ramekins. This year I purchased plastic stackable containers for my '2006 vintage', perhaps I should stick with the ceramic...

                          2. It may have been the garlic. Different types have different flavors, and this might have been especially bright and pungent. Also - that recipe above sounds good, but a lot of trouble! I grow my own basil, but I still use the Cibo pesto from Costco. The best store-bought I've ever found.


                            1. the cooks illistrated thing is right. you need to pound your basil- that releases much more oils than just processing, and that's why someone above said they prefer the mortar and pestle kind. then, you need to toast your pine nuts and garlic - that way it gives more nut flavor, but tones down the garlic. another secret ingrediant- lemon! helps tremendously. you only need a little bit; just enough to brighten it up. after that, you can just toss it all in the food prcessor. I remember one time, i was working at an italian place, and they were just throwing all the stuff into a food processor. I made it one time, and noone could figure out what i did, even though i made it right in front of them. I told them, and they went right on tossing it all strait into the food processor.... idiots.

                              1. I made my 2006 'release' this weekend. And while I'm a purist and usually pound it out I used a immersion blender rig of a friend as I was at their weekend house. I have to say that I watched carefully what I was doing through all 10 batches and durn if it wasn't right on.

                                As to the green thing, I've been told by various Italian chefs that adding a bit of parsley helps maintain the green. Also when I was in Italy taking cooking classes the most eye opening thing about pesto is that it's toasted walnuts not pine nuts that are commonly used. I've also used hazelnuts and that's vg.

                                1. Personally, I like cashews in my pesto so I use those and I toast them as well. Pignoles are ok, but...and I am sorry about this...to me they look just like a maggot and I have a hard time with that!

                                  1. They probably grow their own leaves and make the pesto on a serving by serving basis using the mortar and pestle and fresh ingredients. Wow, lucky you!!

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Rocky45

                                      this would be totally impractical in a restaurant kitchen. not the growing part, plenty of chefs have herb gardens these days, but doing pesto, by hand a la minute? no way.

                                      i always add a lemon juice to my pesto to perk it up, and yes, i freeze small portions, because for me, a little goes a long way.

                                    2. It is all about the quality and freshness of the ingredients, especially the basil. Supermarket basil will never be as good as fresh, no matter what recipe you use. You local restaurant may be growing their own or may have a local farm supplier. Also, there are different varieties of basil, and which one you use can make a big difference too.

                                      Regarding the bright green color, a very common trick to get that color is to substitute 1/4 of the basil for fresh spinach.

                                      Use the highest quality olive oil, freshest garlic, and REAL parm (not the pre-shredded/grated stuff in the tub) that you can find.

                                      One last note on pine nuts. They go rancid, so don't use the ones that have been sitting in your pantry for several weeks (or months). Again, pesto is all about fresh, fresh, fresh ingredients!

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Shane Greenwood

                                        Instead of pine nuts, I use a dollop of crunchy peanut butter in my pesto - try it, you'll like it!

                                          1. re: hotoynoodle

                                            Yesterday I used toasted, unsalted cashews for the first time ever since there appears to be some kind of drastic pine nut shortage going on. The pesto was very good and, I daresay, I'm not sure I'd have noticed the cashews if I didn't know. Texture was a tiny bit different but flavour was very close. Chose to use cashews because of their sweetness and softer texture. I don't like walnuts in pesto and I find almonds are too almondy.

                                            Another point - depending on many natural factors, basil can become bitter at some point in the summer which also has a huge affect on the flavour of the pesto. Mine is just starting to go over the edge a bit so I'd better start dealing with it before it becomes noticeably bitter and tough. Early summer basil is always the sweetest and most tender.

                                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                                              I have also used walnuts with really good results.

                                        1. just to slightly hijack this thread a bit - lately i've been making a "deconstucted pesto" and i'm loving it.

                                          i toast the pine nuts, i soften the garlic in the olive oil, chiffonade the basil, and just toss it all over pasta without making it into a paste. it's rally good and simple.

                                          back to topic -
                                          if i am making a paste i prefer doing it in my thai mortar and pestle than a food processor. if i do use the processor i only put in the slightest amount of oil in the processor, just enough that everything blends. a also don't add the cheese in the processor or blender. then when it's blended i add the cheese and more oil by hand. i like the oil not all emulsified in the blender, i find it a lighter better texture, and i find putting the cheese in the processor makes it gummier.

                                          1. I know this is really heretical, but I don't put cheese in my pesto.

                                            It all started when DH was concerned he might have a sensitivity to aged cheeses. We've since concluded he doesn't, but we found that we preferred the pesto made without the cheese anyhow. It has a brighter, stronger flavor that adding cheese dulls. We love cheese in general, just not in our pesto. (And yes, I use good quality parmigiano reggiano.)

                                            Regarding the original question, I echo that there are many varieties of basil. There's a fascinating book called Basil: An Herb Lover's Guide that describes dozens of varieties of basil! They sent them in for lab analysis even, and the variety of aromatic compounds expressed is amazing. No wonder they can taste so different. (Not to mention the effects of growing conditions, age of plant, weather, soil, time of harvest, storage, ...)


                                            My preferred variety is the Profuma di Genova that Renee's Seeds sells. It's a little sweeter than her Italian Pesto, but they're both good.