Vegan Oil-Free Pesto Variations

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Pesto Party

It's pesto time! This bright, flavorful, super-green condiment is one of my favorites. I love dolloping it on salads and flatbreads, tossing it with grilled veggies, and drizzling it on fresh tomato slices. Basil pesto! Cilantro pesto! Mint pesto! With so many flavor combinations, the possibilities are endless.

However, many pesto recipes call for a ton of oil and sometimes a ton of cheese. This makes me sad, since it takes a sauce that could (at least in theory) be really nourishing and turns it into a heavy oil bomb. But never fear! In this guide I'll walk you through a lot of different ways to make pesto without all the oil and cheese.

Homemade pesto on pasta
One of my favorite ways to use pesto is in a "Green Goddess" type nourish bowl. How beautiful is this one?? It features red lentil pasta tossed in a mixed basil-mint avocado pesto, with loads of green veggies. When it comes to green things, more is more!

You'll see this post has a few parts. First, I'll talk about the components I generally put in pesto. Second, I'll discuss each of those components in detail, with lots of ideas for substitutions and variations. And third, I'll provide loads of examples for how to use your tasty pesto creations (make sure to check out all the photos and their captions!).

Regardless of whether you're a pesto newbie or a pesto pro, I encourage you to look at these ideas as just a starting point. Pesto is very easy to adjust on the fly, based on both the taste and the texture. Don't be afraid to experiment!

Basil pesto on a salad
Pesto on salad?? Definitely! This is my Grilled and Raw Spring Salad and pesto plays a starring role. When it comes to salads, you can use pesto in a dressing or just dollop it right on top. It's such a flavor powerhouse!

What Goes Into Pesto?

Although pesto can vary greatly from recipe to recipe, I generally consider pesto to have a few key components:

  • Greens. The star of the show! Although basil pesto is the most classic, there are lots of great options including other herbs (mint, cilantro, parsley) and even greens like spinach or kale.
  • Fat. Your pesto needs something to give it body, help it stick to whatever you're going to put it on, and make it feel flavorful and decadent. See below for lots more thoughts on this. While oil is traditional, I think we can do much better with a few clever swaps!
  • Citrus. While this isn't strictly needed, some acid really brightens up all the flavors. I love to add either lemon juice or lime juice, depending on what other flavors I'm working with.
  • Other flavors (optional). There's already so much flavor in pesto, I'm not convinced it needs much else. Things in this category could include garlic (I love to roast it first to tame the flavor), some cheese or nutritional yeast, or perhaps some red pepper flakes.
  • Salt. Critical for flavor!

Vegan pesto pasta
Is there anything more summery than pesto pasta with homegrown tomatoes?? No way! This luscious pesto is based in avocado and has a bunch of basil plus lemon zest AND lemon juice. So fresh!

Ingredient Ratios and Directions

I hope you're not looking for a magic answer here, because I'm not going to give you one. The ratios you use will really depend on how you like your pesto and also on what greens/herbs you use. My usual approach is to start with the following, blend it up, and then tweak. The best thing about pesto is that you can taste and adjust as you go!

  • Greens. Start with about 2 cups of loosely packed leaves.
  • Fat. Start with about half a cup, but be ready to adjust upward if you want a more luscious texture. If you use more fibrous greens (e.g., kale), you may need more fat.
  • Citrus. Like I mentioned above, this is optional (but in my opinion delightful!). Start with the juice of half a lemon or half a lime, then taste it and add more if you like.
  • Other flavors (optional). Start small; you can always add more if you want. When I say small, I mean a clove or two of garlic, a small handful of nuts, a dash of olive oil, a big pinch of red pepper flakes, etc.
  • Salt. Critical for flavor! Use several very generous sprinkles, then taste and adjust.

Once you have your ingredients together, the rest is easy! Just put everything in a high-power blender and give it a whirl. Keep blending, scraping down the sides as needed, until you have a rich, thick texture. If you have a hard time achieving this texture, you likely need more fat to help bring it together. Once you have a texture you like, give it a taste and tweak as you see fit.

Avocado pesto on pasta
Can't decide between pasta and salad? Clearly the answer is to make both! This summery bowl features a nest of chick pea spaghetti surrounded by a big green salad. The pesto has avocado, basil, and lemon, plus a dash of olive oil for some extra decadence.

What Greens/Herbs Can I Use?

If it's green, it can become pesto! I think I've made pesto out of basically every green thing under the sun. While basil is the most classic, other herbs (or a mix of herbs!) works beautifully. Kale and spinach also work nicely. Here are a few tips as you choose which herbs or greens you want to use in your pesto:

  1. Think about flavor. Herbs obviously have a lot more flavor than leafy greens do; accordingly, a kale or spinach pesto won't have much flavor on its own. I generally tend to use leafy greens to bulk up an herby pesto rather than using them on their own (for example, a big handful of spinach is an awesome sneaky trick if you don't have enough basil). If you want to play with some greens in your pesto, my suggestion is to start with about 75% herbs and 25% greens, see how you like it, and go from there.
  2. Think about pairing. What else are you serving? If you're working with Mediterranean flavors, basil (+ lemon) might be your best choice. If you're working with Mexican flavors, cilantro (+ lime) might be a good option. If you're working with less ethnic flavors, like simple summer produce, you might experiment with a mix of herbs that just reads as summery and fresh. I always like to decide what vibe I'm going for, then pick my ingredients accordingly.
  3. Think about texture. Some herbs and greens are soft and blend easily, while others are more reluctant. Make sure your pesto has a majority of soft leaves (basil, cilantro, parsley, spinach) for a better texture. Kale is often finicky to blend, and mint can be as well if the leaves are bigger.

Homemade basil pesto
One of my favorite things to do with pesto is to swirl it into hummus! This is an especially good trick if you just have a little bit leftover. It's such a flavor powerhouse and will bring an entirely new dimension to your hummus.

How Do I Make the Pesto Oil-Free?

I expect this is the reason why many of you are here. How do you make your pesto oil-free (or oil-light)? The good news is that there are lots of other delicious, nutritious, decadent ingredients that will work as replacement! I almost never add oil to pesto anymore. Why bother?? It doesn't have much flavor and is really heavy. Or, if I do want to add it, I add just a dash or drizzle it on top where it really counts! Here are all the good-for-you foods you can use as a replacement for the oil:

  • Avocado. This is definitely my go-to! It's a nutritional powerhouse, makes a sublimely decadent pesto, and has a neutral enough flavor that it can pair with just about anything. Use a full avocado and make sure it's perfectly ripe.
  • Tahini. Yes indeed, tahini can work as a pesto base! If you're a tahini lover, this is a good option. If you're not a tahini lover, then it might not be your best bet. The tahini flavor definitely comes through, and the texture is a little less silky. This has become my go-to option if I don't have an avocado on-hand, although I sometimes add a dash of olive oil to loosen the texture a little. Make sure you're using a creamy, artisan tahini with a delicate flavor.
  • Cashews. If you soak cashews in hot water for a few hours, they break down beautifully and become a decadent, creamy pesto base. Cashews are definitely your best bet since they're softer and have a more neutral flavor than most nuts. Personally speaking, I find this version to be too heavy, but it works nicely if you want a really indulgent, creamy texture.
  • Silken tofu. I've only tried this once or twice. Tofu is basically flavorless, so it disappears behind whatever herbs you're using. The texture certainly isn't decadent, but this is a nice way to hide a lot of good protein in your pesto.
  • Zucchini. Seriously! Although this is definitely not a fat, zucchini actually works quite well as a pesto base. It's not as flavorful and the texture isn't as nice as the other options (it's just zucchini, after all). But this is a good bet if you have an over-abundance of zucchini, are cooking for people watching their fat intake, or want to eat a BUNCH of pesto.

Pesto on a pizza
Another way I love to use pesto is on a flatbread! It's so flavorful and delightful, and I love the color. This version, which has both avocado and macadamia nuts as the fatty elements, is described in my Double Macadamia Pesto Pizza recipe.

Ways to Use Pesto

How can you use your beautiful homemade pesto? Oh let me count the ways! And of course don't forget to look at the photos throughout this post, which show a myriad of ideas for incorporating pesto into your dishes. Spoiler alert: it's not just for pasta! Here are a bunch of delightful things you can do with it:

  • Toss it with pasta (obviously!) or zucchini noodles
  • Toss it with other grains (farro is my favorite)
  • Drizzle it across grilled veggies
  • Dollop it on a salad
  • Mix it into a salad dressing
  • Use it on pizza in place of tomato sauce
  • Swirl it into hummus
  • Add it into a smashed chick pea salad
  • Spread it onto toast or sandwiches
  • Spread it on a Mediterranean-inspired burger
  • Serve it as a dip or spread on a snack board
  • Serve it as a dip with sweet potato fries

Pesto pasta and salad
Clearly I can't get enough of these epic Green Goddess Bowls! This one features a lemony basil pesto, a whole bunch of green fruits and veggies, and extra avocado for good measure. The grapes give a lovely pop of sweetness.

Can I Freeze Pesto?

Good news: pesto is one of the most freezer-friendly foods out there! That's great, since it means you can make a bunch of pesto during the summer when fresh herbs are in season, then stash it away in the freezer for dark winter days. There are two ways in which you can freeze pesto, depending on how much you'll want to use at once later on:

Method #1: Bag

The fastest and easiest way to freeze pesto is in a quart-sized ziplock bag. Just pour your pesto neatly into the bag, make sure it's well sealed, and lay it somewhere flat in the freezer overnight. After it has frozen solid, feel free to stack the bags up. While this approach is definitely easy, the possible downside is that you'll need to thaw the whole bag at once, so this is generally a good choice if you're more likely to use it all within a couple days.

Method #2: Ice cube tray

If you want to use smaller amounts of pesto at a time (e.g., adding it to a salad dressing, swirling it into hummus, etc), then an ice cube tray might be a better bet. After you make your pesto, pour it into one or two ice cube trays and freeze. Then, only after the pesto is frozen, take the cubes out and store them in a large bag or container. When you're ready to use it, just thaw one or two cubes at a time!

Pesto pasta with vegetables
Who says pesto is just for summer food? Not me! This fall-appropriate pasta + salad bowl has chick pea rotini tossed in a basil pesto plus lots of fall ingredients like roasted delicata squash, walnuts, and grapes.

Closing Thoughts

And there you have it! All my secrets for making delicious, flavorful, versatile pesto without all the oil and cheese. I'm a huge pesto fan, and I hope this post will help you to become a pesto lover as well. With this new, nourishing pesto makeover, there's no reason for it not to end up on every one of your meals all year long!

Like I mentioned above, pesto is a really forgiving sauce, not least of all because you can taste and tweak as you go. My suggestion? View this post as a general guideline for creating your own favorite pesto recipes at home. It's such a great opportunity to incorporate your favorite ingredients, create a pesto to match a certain meal, and adhere to your own nurtitional preferences.

Have fun, and happy pesto-ing!

Vegan oil-free pesto
Summer dreams! This colorful bowl is filled with all my most favorite summer treats: pesto pasta with homegrown basil and mint, crisp cucumbers, juicy watermelon, succulent figs, crunchy plantain croutons, creamy avocado, and homegrown edible flowers.


Share It!

It makes me so happy to hear from you and see your creations! Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think about this recipe. If you post a photo on Instagram, hashtag #TheRogueBrusselSprout and tag me (@TheRogueBrusselSprout) in the post text so that I'm sure to see it.

Vegan Oil-Free Pesto Variations

The most comprehensive guide to making pesto that's delicious and nutritious! In this guide I cover many different pesto variations, how to avoid having to use oil, and lots of ideas for how to use your pesto.

Author:
Lee

Ingredients

Instructions

There is no single recipe here. Instead, refer to all the options above!

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Janis
August 21, 2022
Wow I love all these ideas! Can't wait to try the avocado one, we really enjoy avocados. This seems much healthier than the 1c of oil my current recipe calls for.