Red pesto is a classic Italian sauce that’s been around for hundreds of years. Some even say it has predecessors that go back as far as ancient Rome.
Traditionally, it’s made by hand-crushing sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and Mediterranean sea salt with a pestle and mortar.
This delicious concoction can be eaten on its own with some crusty bread, but it is often used as a sauce for pasta. It’s also the perfect accompaniment to grilled meat and fish dishes, like steak or salmon.
But more on that below.
Where Does Red Pesto Come From?
Contrary to what many people believe, green and red pesto don’t really come from the same place.
Green pesto—by far the most popular variant of this sauce—originated from the city of Genoa in Liguria, a region in northwestern Italy. That’s why you’ll see the words pesto alla Genovese on most jars at the grocery store, which translates as “Genoa-style pesto.”
Red pesto comes from the town of Trapani in Sicily, the largest island on the Mediterranean Sea in the south of Italy. It’s commonly known as pesto alla Trapanese, which translates as “Trapani-style pesto.”
The birthplaces of green and red pesto are as far as Italian towns get: the distance between Genoa and Trapani is 930 miles (1,500 kilometers).
So, a good way to think about red pesto is like green pesto’s distant (and more fiery) cousin from Sicily.
How Is It Different From Green Pesto?
Green pesto tastes fresh and herby. It has a grassy and nutty flavor thanks to the fresh basil leaves and the aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Traditionally, green pesto is prepared with garlic, fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and sea salt.
Red pesto, when compared to green pesto, is spicier and more peppery. Its heavier flavor comes from the sun-dried tomatoes and roast peppers it’s typically made with.
Red pesto is made with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt.
Where Can I Buy Red Pesto?
Look for red pesto in Walmart (Filippo Berio, Ponti, Mantova, Trentasette), Kroger (Stonewall), Publix (Classico, Rao’s), and Costco (Cibo Organic Sundried Tomato Pesto).
When looking for red pesto at the store, be sure to ask for “sun-dried pesto.” This is the term most food brands use for this sauce, and consequently, how store staff tends to refer to it.
When selecting red pesto at the store, carefully read the ingredient lists on all the jars—and choose the one with the fewest additives and preservatives.
Can I Eat Red Pesto Cold?
Red pesto is a raw and uncooked sauce meant to be eaten cold or brought to room temperature before serving.
Doing so brings out the aromas and allows the flavors to meld together nicely. It’s also the correct way to enjoy its deep red color and enjoy its tart, slightly acidic taste.
While it’s acceptable to expose red pesto to residual heat, like when you’re saucing pasta with it (or spreading it on pre-baked Sicilian pizza), you shouldn’t cook with it or heat it for a prolonged time.
What Can I Use Red Pesto For?
There are few things like the burst of flavor that comes from a bite of red pesto. And, in the following paragraphs, I’m going to tell you about some of my favorite uses for it.
Sauce pasta with it
Cook pasta to al dente in a generously salted pot of boiling water. When it’s done, drain and transfer it to a large bowl—and toss it with the red pesto sauce.
Plate the pasta, grate a small block of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and serve.
Make a red pesto pizza
For this recipe, try my technique for fermenting dough in the fridge for 2-3 days (it works equally well with homemade and store-bought dough).
Make a pizza and top the pie with all ingredients but the red pesto, then bake in the oven preheated to its maximum temperature for at least 30 minutes.
As soon as the pizza is cooked, take it out of the oven—and smear some red pesto sauce on it. Let it rest for 2-3 minutes, then slice and eat.
Use it as a dip for breadsticks or yesterday’s bread
One of the most basic ways to make use of red pesto is… to serve it in a dip bowl and use it as a dip for breadsticks or hand-torn pieces of leftover bread.
Seriously, this is a surprisingly tasty way to use up last night’s leftover bread!
Add it to scrambled eggs
Want a Sicilian-inspired breakfast dish?
Add red pesto to your scrambled eggs, which you serve with anchovy fillets and caciocavallo or scamorza cheese.
Some people scramble and cook their eggs with the red pesto; others—me included—serve it as a sauce after they’re cooked.
Build a sandwich with it
Pesto can be used in sandwiches and wraps for a quick lunch on the go. Slice a spaccatella (Italian bread roll) lengthwise and spread red pesto on both sides.
Make yourself a panino sandwich by adding prosciutto, mozzarella, hard cheese, arugula (a.k.a. rocket salad), sliced cherry tomatoes, and olives. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on the sandwich, slice crosswise in half, and serve.
My favorite cheeses to use for this recipe are Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano. If you’re feeling funky, you can also add Gorgonzola.
Spread it on baked potatoes
Is there anything more comforting than a baked potato? Maybe. But that doesn’t stop me from eating them all of the time.
When I’m feeling extra indulgent, I like to sauce my potatoes with some red pesto for a sharp flavor boost.
Halve the potatoes, keeping the skins on, seasoning each side with salt and pepper.
Place the slices evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven, preheated to 350°F, until they are tender on the inside and slightly browned on the top.
When the potatoes are done, take them out of the oven and rest them for a few minutes. Spread red pesto on them and serve. Eat while hot.
Mix it with roast vegetables
Serve your favorite veggies with an extra punch. This recipe is ideal for potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Toss a bowl of roast vegetables with red pesto sauce and a little balsamic vinegar. Serve as a healthy and savory appetizer alongside fish or chicken.
Toss it with hot cooked rice
No time for risotto? Boil rice in salted water, then toss it with red pesto and sun-dried tomatoes and grate a small block of gamey sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano cheese before serving.
Should I Keep Red Pesto in the Fridge?
Keep unopened jars of red pesto in a cool and dry place, like in your pantry or a kitchen cabinet. Store-bought red pesto is shelf-stable and will stay good till its best-by date.
If you bought fresh red pesto (not shelf-stable) from the refrigerated section at the store, you should put it in your fridge as soon as you’ve unpacked your grocery bags at home.
Once opened, red pesto should be refrigerated. As a general rule of thumb, opened red pesto will stay good for 2-3 weeks if kept continuously refrigerated.
Keep it in its original jar with the lid sealed or transfer it to a sealable food storage container if that’s not possible.
Don’t leave red pesto out for too long. It contains ingredients, like tomatoes, red peppers, and garlic, that will spoil at room temperature.
Can I Freeze Red Pesto?
It is possible to freeze homemade or store-bought red pesto for prolonged storage of up to 12 months.
Just transfer it to a resealable plastic bag or food storage container with the lid closed—and put it in the freezer.
Here’s a neat habit I picked up from a friend who is a professional chef in a high-end restaurant:
When freezing foods, use sticky labels and write down the date on each bag or container. This trick helps you remember by when you should thaw and eat each of them.
For easier portioning and thawing, you can also freeze red pesto in an ice cube tray. Keep the pesto from picking up smells from other frozen foods by wrapping it tightly with plastic wrap.
The easiest way to thaw frozen pesto sauce is by keeping it in your refrigerator overnight. It takes 12-24 hours for frozen pesto sauce to defrost enough that it can be eaten.
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