12 of Your Pesto Questions, Answered

Published Categorized as Food
Green pesto sauceNathalie Jolie (via Unsplash)

Pesto is an Italian uncooked cold sauce traditionally made with garlic, fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and sea salt.

The original recipe for pesto comes from Liguria, a beautiful region in northwestern Italy also known as “the Italian Riviera” thanks to its dramatic coastline along the Mediterranean Sea.

If you love pesto, you’re not alone: other than a staple in Italian cuisine, it’s also one of the most popular sauces in the world. As an avid eater of pesto, a few of my favorite uses for it include pasta, salads, bruschetta, or simply as a dip for salvaging yesterday’s leftover bread.

Regular readers of Home Cook World know how much I enjoy talking about food with my family, friends, and audience.

I get an opportunity to battle-test some of my recipes and techniques and get a sneak peek into the dilemmas home cooks actually face in their daily cooking.

In the past few years, I’ve been asked a fair share of questions about pesto. So, in this post, I’m setting out to answer the majority of them.

Keep on reading if that sounds like what you came here to find out.

Why Is It Called “Pesto?”

“Pesto” is the past tense of the verb pestâ /ˈpes.ta/ in Genoese, the Italian dialect spoken in and around Genoa, the capital city of the Liguria region. Translated to English, it means “to press” or “step on.”

Pesto’s name refers to the way it’s is prepared by hand-crushing the ingredients—traditionally garlic, basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and parmesan—in a marble mortar or wooden pestle.

Funny enough, the other etymology for the verb is “to find oneself in trouble.” I guess Italians think that people who like pesto are troublemakers by default!

The correct way to pronounce pesto in American and British English is peh·stow. Oh, and this is how Italians say it (or, perhaps, it’s more appropriate to describe as, sing it).

Where Can I Find Pesto in the Grocery Store?

Most grocery stores carry pesto, and it’s not too hard to find, either. In the following few paragraphs, I’m going to tell you where exactly to look for it.

Though each retailer tends to place pesto sauces differently, they’re typically found near most grocery stores’ condiments and sauce sections.

I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the best pesto brands for your shopping needs below.

If I somehow missed your favorite, be sure to share it with the rest of this post’s readers and me by leaving a comment below.

Pesto can always be found in the spaghetti aisle of Walmart, near the jarred pasta sauces. Several brands are sold there, including Barilla, Sam’s Choice, Classico, and Prego.

Kroger’s Pantry Department carries Barilla, Classico, DeLallo, Filippo Berio, Simple Truth, and Private Selection pesto. Select your store and look up your favorite pesto on Kroger’s website, and they will tell you precisely in which aisle you will find it.

Publix carries refrigerated Buitoni pesto, as well as jarred pesto from Barilla, Filippo Berio, Rao’s, and a few other brands you will find near the dried pasta products.

Trader Joe’s has good vegan pesto in a glass jar. Some bloggers swear by it; others claim it has a funky aftertaste. As with most foods, if you like Trader Joe’s products as a whole, the best thing to do is to try this one out and decide for yourself.

Those of you who shop and cook for a crowd should consider Kirkland Signature Imported Basil Pesto carried by Costco. I haven’t tried it myself, but a few grocery store bloggers I follow praise it.

Which Pesto Sauce Is Good?

Too many options in the store can make selecting pesto difficult. Which brands and products are worth the money?

Grocery stores usually carry two kinds of pesto sauce: refrigerated tubs, which smell and taste fresher but have a short shelf life, and shelf-stable jars that keep in your pantry for months and are generally cheaper.

Search for the refrigerated tubs near the fresh pasta and imported Italian cheeses on the refrigerator shelves. Most of the time, jarred pesto can be found somewhere near the boxed pasta.

If you’re looking for my two cents, go for jarred pesto. If you want fresh pesto, it’s better and cheaper to make it yourself at home anyway. Plus, you get to control all of the ingredients—which isn’t quite the case with pesto sold in plastic tubs.

When selecting pesto at the store, look for imported Italian sauces with as few additives and preservatives as possible (and, ideally, none). Sure, they sell for a few dollars more than their American counterparts, but they taste nothing like them.

Personally, I go for De Cecco Pesto Sauce or, when I can’t find it, Barilla Pesto Sauce. Both of these household brands make a pretty awesome sauce at a reasonable price, so don’t hesitate to throw them in your shopping cart when you spot them.

Can I Heat Pesto?

Pesto, an Italian sauce made of basil leaves and tangy olive oil, shouldn’t be heated. To get the most out of this fresh sauce, it should be served and eaten cold (or at room temperature).

The truth about pesto is that it’s a cold sauce, and it was never meant to be cooked.

Heating it at high temperatures and for a prolonged time will change its chemical composition, darkening the basil and dulling the flavor. You can give it a brief exposure to residual heat to toss it with pasta or use it as the topping on pizza, but do not ever cook with it.

What Are the Best Ways to Use Pesto?

The traditional use for pesto sauce is for making pesto pasta.

Daniele Sgura (via Pexels) Pesto pasta with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Boil pasta noodles in a pot of generously salted pasta water until they’re cooked al dente (tender on the inside, but firm to the bite on the outside).

In my experience, a thin and long pasta, like spaghetti or linguine, is best for pesto pasta. More delicate varieties such as angel hair have a hard time holding on to the sauce without tearing apart, and thicker ones (for example, fettuccine) are better suited for cream and tomato sauces.

Once you’ve cooked the pasta noodles, transfer them to a large bowl and toss them with the pesto sauce, making sure they’re well covered with it. Optionally, you can grate hard Italian cheese, like the nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano, the balanced Grana Padano, or the gamier Pecorino Romano, on the pasta before serving.

Don’t rush to get rid of the pasta water! Chef and food writer Daniel Grizer of Serious Eats recommends adding salty and starchy pasta water “bit by bit, mixing to bind and emulsify the oil-based sauce.”

One of my favorite uses for pesto sauce is in bruschetta. Slice a baguette crosswise into pieces about as thick as your thumb.

Brush each side lightly with olive oil, ensuring not to use an excessive amount of oil as you don’t want the baguette slices to come out too oily. Roast the bread on the outside grill or brown it in the oven to give it a crunchy texture and bring out its taste.

Spread room-temperature pesto on one side and top with your ingredients of choice. Pesto pairs equally well with diced tomatoes and mozzarella as it does with Prosciutto Crudo and Pecorino Romano cheese.

Make pesto pizza by topping your pie with all of the ingredients but the pesto sauce before baking. As soon as it’s cooked and you’ve taken it out of the oven, spread the pesto sauce on top, then slice, plate, and serve.

Daniele Sgura (via Pexels) Pesto pairs fantastically well with stale bread

Pesto sauce is a great way to salvage leftover bread. Use your hands to tear the stale and crusty bread into pieces (or slice it with a bread knife) and dip each piece in room-temperature pesto for a delicious and healthy snack.

How Long Does Pesto Keep in the Fridge?

As long as your canned or jarred pesto sauce isn’t past its expiry date (or you made some at home using a fresh batch of ingredients), you can store it in your fridge for up to 2-3 weeks.

Don’t leave opened cans or jars of pesto sauce out for more than an hour or two. It contains cheese and garlic, which will spoil quickly.

Occasionally, you can forget that your pesto was on the counter—and leave it there overnight.

If that’s why you’re here, you’re probably wondering, “Is it safe for me to eat it?”

The best thing to do in this scenario is to trust your senses.

Give the pesto a sniff. Does it smell off in any way? If not, take a teaspoon of the sauce from the jar to taste. If it tastes fine, then you’re most probably good to go.

Can Pesto Be Frozen?

Made a batch of pesto sauce but can’t eat it all at once? Or bought a big jar of Kirkland Signature Pesto at Costco, and you don’t feel like eating it every day?

The good news is that you can freeze pesto sauce for prolonged storage. Before you do it, here’s all you need to know.

Pesto sauce can be frozen for up to 12 months. To freeze pesto, transfer the contents of the can or jar into a food storage container, closing the lid tightly, and put it in your freezer.

Food blogger Renee at the Joy of Every Season recommends freezing pesto in an ice cube tray.

There are a few benefits to doing so instead of freezing it all in one large batch. Perhaps the biggest one is that portioning and thawing become significantly easier.

With this method, the pesto cubes will keep in your freezer for up to 9 months.

Why Does Pesto Turn Dark With Time?

“I’ve frozen pesto before,” a reader asked, “but it turns dark when thawed. Is there a way to prevent this?”

Pesto can turn dark when stored or thawed because of a chemical reaction called oxidation. When you expose basil, a key ingredient in pesto, to air for a long enough time, it will react to the oxygen contained it and turn dark.

To prevent pesto from turning dark when stored or thawed, cover the top in a thin layer of oil (any oil that’s already in your pantry, like olive oil or sunflower oil, will do). This will keep the top of the pesto from coming into contact with—and reacting to—oxygen.

Should Pesto Have Lemon Juice?

It’s a common misconception, especially among Italian-American cooks, that traditional pesto sauce includes lemon juice.

In Liguria, the region of Italy where pesto originated, the sauce prepared with garlic from Vessalico, fresh basil leaves from a young and tender plant, extra virgin olive oil (ideally, a regional oil from Liguria), pine nuts from Pisa, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and Mediterranean sea salt.

Notice that pepper, another ingredient that many cooks mistakenly add, is also missing from that list.

Learn how to make pesto from none other than Italian Michelin-star chef Mauro Ricciardi in this cooking masterclass from Italia Squisita, one of my favorite cooking channels on YouTube:

Is Red Pesto Italian?

Ever wonder if red pesto sauce is as Italian as its green cousin?

Green pesto is a pasta sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy. This is why you’ll see most food brands refer to their products as Pesto alla Genovese on the labels.

There are as many pesto variations out there as there are generations of Italian home cooks since it was invented, but the one that is most popular by far is red pesto.

Red pesto, also called Pesto Rosso or Pesto alla Siciliana, is an Italian pesto sauce from Sicily. It’s made with sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and almonds instead of pine nuts. Some variations also include Italian olives.

Red pesto
James Sutton (via Unsplash) Red pesto

Compared to green pesto, red pesto has a more intense flavor. It tastes more tart and acidic, with a deep red color that goes well on fish or chicken dishes to give them an extra punch.

It also contains three staple ingredients of Sicilian cuisine that you will find less of in Genoa: sun-dried tomatoes, peppers, and almonds.

Which is better?

At the end of the day, it all comes down to your personal preferences.

For more details, I wrote a whole blog post about red pesto—be sure to check it out.

Why Is Pesto So High in Calories?

Pesto sauce is prepared with olive oil, a liquid fat extracted from olives that grow on trees along the Mediterranean coast. It’s one of those foods for which the calories can add up when you look at the ingredients list (even if you eat it in small portions).

As with any other cooking oil, olive oil is high in fat—and, therefore, calories. According to the USDA’s FoodData Central, a nutritional facts database for the staple ingredients and foods in American homes, 1 tablespoon (13.5 grams) of olive oil contains on average 119 calories.

For those of you who, live me, love their pesto, I have some terrible news: eating less of it is the only way to keep tabs on your calorie intake.

Unless, of course, you’re happy sweating those calories off at the gym.

Why Does Pesto Taste So Good?

Pesto. The word alone conjures up memories of summer evenings and leisurely dinners with friends and family. It’s no wonder this sauce is so famous—it tastes so good!

The combination of garlic, basil, pine nuts, and nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a piquant, slightly creamy base of olive oil creates a fantastic depth of flavor.

Traditional pesto is also much smoother than most other sauces because it’s prepared raw with a mortar and pestle (instead of being simmered, for example).

This preserves the natural scents of the basil and brings out the pungency of the garlic in a way that makes your taste palette dance.

In Conclusion

Pesto is such a delicious and versatile sauce, and its uses go way beyond pasta. I hope this post answered all of your pesto questions. And that you’ve found some new ways to enjoy it.

Got any more questions, or maybe tips of your own you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below!

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.