This is it. The real thing. Made according to the very specific instructions of the Genoese Pesto Societies.
Note: I normally try to avoid lengthy introductions on recipe blogs so I always try to keep my comments short and to the point; however, this one is worth the read. Still, you can skip ahead to the recipe if you like.
I used to think that I made pretty good pesto. And indeed, the pesto I made was just that – pretty good. Way better than that stuff you buy in the jar that tastes like the clippings of freshly mowed grass. But then I stumbled across some interesting information: There is, in fact a correct way to make pesto. In fact, there is an official way to make pesto that’s regulated by several pesto societies founded in Genoa centuries ago.
There are slight variations in each society’s recipe, but they all agree on two things: (1) It’s the same seven ingredients, and any substitutions must be sanctioned by the societies as a whole and (2) if it isn’t made exactly to these specifications, it ain’t pesto. In fact, in Italy, it’s illegal to refer to anything that isn’t made according to these specifications pesto.
These people are crazy – even maniacal – about pesto. They have devoted their whole lives to pesto. And God help you if they catch you making pesto any other way.
I shall refer to them as the Pesto Police.
Once I learned of the existence of the Pesto Police and their centuries-old secret societies, I had to know more. The problem is that all my browsers (Mozilla, Chrome, Safari, IE) think the websites of these societies are part of the Dark Web and thus blocks them with a security feature (I’m serious).
The other problem is that even if you’re crazy – even maniacal – about food like I am, and you take the trouble to work your way around the firewall, these websites – and their secret recipes and regulations – are, of course, in Italian. Thus they would need to be translated.
It did occur to me that maybe I shouldn’t be visiting these websites, but I figured the worst thing that would happen to me is that the Pesto Police would track me and have me assassinated for making pesto the wrong way. All that said, if you want to try to hack your way in yourself and translate from the Italian for yourself, knock yourself out. Here’s the URL to one of the websites, visit at your own peril.
All that said, if you just want to make the best pesto of your whole life, I’ve done the hacking and translating legwork for you.
(Oddly enough, I figured out later that I didn’t have any trouble accessing this site through my phone, but it is still in Italian).
Anyhow, a few words on the ingredients:
First of all, it is of paramount importance that you use the highest quality, freshest, most authentic ingredients you can find. If you are going to go to the trouble of making this (which isn’t actually that much trouble), you owe it to yourself, to the recipe, and to the Pesto Police to do the best you can do. The goal here isn’t good pesto, or even great pesto; the goal here is mind-altering pesto.
That said, some of the authentic ingredients are going to be hard to find, and the Pesto Police do allow for a few substitutions (more on that later). Do keep in mind, though, that the more substitutions you make the more it’s going to affect your final product.
The one exception to this rule is that the Pesto Police are very specific about where they source their ingredients (they must be pine nuts from this region, from this farm; the basil must be grown in this place and harvested at this time, etc). We’re not going to be able to do that, and that’s okay. Just get the highest quality ingredients you can, and make sure they come from as reputable source as possible.
Without further ado:
- Basil. Buy a real basil plant (they have them at most grocery stores, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s). One large, fluffy, green basil plant will set you back maybe 4 bucks and will yield you one recipe’s worth of pesto.
- Cheese. Obviously we’ll be using freshly grated cheese; accept no substitutes (duh). There are two types of cheese found in authentic pesto: Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Fiore Sardo in a 3:1 ratio, respectively. Go to the gourmet cheese section of your grocery store (or even better an Italian market) and get the real stuff. Parmigiano Reggiano shouldn’t be that hard to find, but an acceptable substitute would be Grano Padano (which is hard to find). Conversely Pecorino Fiore Sardo is going to be hard to find, but you can substitute Pecorino Romano if you like (which is easy to find). Bottom line here: You want a sweet, nutty cow’s cheese for the main cheese, and you want to punch it up a bit with a sharper goat’s cheese.
- Nuts. The canonical ingredient is pine nuts. Pine nuts are expensive. Use them; they make all the difference. While pine nuts are almost prohibitively expensive at the grocery store, they are quite affordable on Amazon, providing you don’t mind buying a lot of them. You’ll want to toast them in a small pan for a minute or two to really bring out their flavor. If you have to, even the Pesto Police say it’s okay to use walnuts, but I’d advise against it. Walnut pesto pales in comparison to the real deal.
- Garlic. Mostly, garlic is garlic. Just make sure you’re using fresh garlic from a whole bulb, not green in any place, not prepeeled, and certainly not that horrifying pre-minced stuff or granulated garlic.
- Sea Salt. If you have Maldon or another extra flakey sea salt, use this. If not, Kosher salt is fine – just make sure you use Diamond Crystal and not Morton’s.
- Olive Oil. The Pesto Police are very specific about their Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), and here they are right. They use a very mild, very fruity version that is much different than almost anything you can get in the States. The olive oil available in the US is liable to turn bitter if beaten too hard, so I recommend using regular olive oil rather than extra virgin for the main ingredient, and then stirring in a drizzle of high quality EVOO for taste at the end.
Lastly, of course the authentic recipe is in metric units, but the original was just done by eye, taste and smell. Still, until you really get the hang of it, I’d strongly recommend breaking out the food scale, switching the unit of measurement over to metric, and weighing everything in grams.
Here’s your ingredient list:
Notice how GREEN the pesto is in all the pictures on this post? That’s because it isn’t oxidized. Oxidization will turn the basil bitter and your final product will be “army green” rather than a brilliant, floral green. It is therefore critical to use the right equipment, and use it correctly:
Mortar and Pestle
The traditional vessel in which to make pesto, according to the Pesto Police, is a stone mortar and pestle. They are very specific that if you choose this method you do not want to “step on” the basil too hard, but rather work in a circular motion “to bruise” the basil. This is what keeps the basil from oxidizing with this method.
For those of us that don’t have a mortar and pestle there is good news: The Pesto Police allow for the use of a food processor providing you take one step in order to avoid oxidizing your basil: Be sure to put the blades and the bowl of the food processor in the freezer for a good 20 to 30 minutes to get them ice cold. This will prevent the violent action of the food processor from warming up the basil with friction, which would lead to oxidization.
1. Place blades and bowl of food processor in freezer for 20 – 30 minutes (You can have it cooling down while prepping the ingredients in the next steps). Chill another bowl large enough to hold your pesto in the refrigerator.
2. Toast pine nuts over medium-high heat in a small skillet, tossing to ensure even toasting, 1-2 minutes until fragrant and lightly toasted. Transfer immediately to a small bowl.
3. Weigh (or measure) all ingredients, arrange mis en place
4. Place all ingredients except oil into the food processor. Cover, and pulse gently several times until everything is nicely mixed together. Wait several seconds between pulses; the food processor must not be allowed to become warm.
5. Begin drizzling in the olive oil. Add the oil a little at a tim, and continue pulsing gently, waiting a few seconds between pulses, until desired consistency is achieved. You’ll probably end up using closer to 1/4 cup rather than 1/2 cup.
6. Transfer pesto to a chilled bowl. Stir in 1 -2 teaspoons of EVOO for flavor.
7. If serving over pasta, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and run under cold water. Pesto is best served room temperature. Garnish with cheese of choice.
Or use part of it to make a marinade for chicken (2 tablespoons pesto, 2 tablespoons mayo)
Definitely not traditional, but oh so delicious.
Wait… what’s that? I think the Pesto Police are coming for me. I’m outta here!