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 seems like such a shame, since it takes a sauce that could (at least in theory) be nourishing and instead makes it heavy. But I've got you covered with this comprehensive vegan pesto guide. In this post, I'll walk you through a lot of different ways to make pesto without all the oil and cheese; some are more decadent (e.g., my favorite avocado pesto), while others are lighter (e.g., my clever zucchini pesto). I'll also show a bunch of examples for how to use oil-free pesto, including in some unexpected ways.
Regardless of whether you're a pesto newbie or a vegan 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, so don't be afraid to experiment. Remember to bookmark this post, I'm confident you'll want to come back to these healthy pesto recipes again and again!
Is Pesto Healthy?
Many people automatically assume that pesto is good for you just because it's green. Sadly this isn't the case. If you look at traditional pesto recipes, most call for a huge amount of oil, sometimes as much as a cup! While oils, especially healthful options like olive oil, are okay in very small amounts, many pesto recipes far exceed the recommended serving size of oil. Many pesto recipes also call for large amounts of cheese. Both of those ingredients take what should be a green, nourishing sauce and make it incredibly calorie-dense and nutrient-poor.
Can Pesto Be Oil-Free?
Let's ditch the oil and cheese, shall we? It's not needed! Instead, there are so many great options for how to make oil-free pesto using more nourishing bases like avocado, tahini, cashews, silken tofu, or even zucchini. Keep scrolling down for all the details. Making a few simple swaps will help you create a vegan pesto that really is as nutritious as it looks. The best part about switching to a healthy pesto recipe is that you can enjoy it more frequently and in larger amounts!
What Are the Ingredients in Pesto?
Although pesto can vary greatly from recipe to recipe, I generally consider it 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. Keep scrolling down for lots of ideas.
Fat. Your vegan pesto needs something to give it body, help it stick to whatever you're going to put it on, and make it feel creamy rather than thin. While oil is traditional, you can instead use avocado, tahini, cashews, silken tofu, or zucchini (see below for specifics on all of these options).
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). This could include garlic (I like to roast it first to tame the flavor), some nutritional yeast (for a cheesy flavor), flavorful nuts (like walnuts, pine nuts, etc.), or some red pepper flakes.
Salt. Critical for flavor.
Pesto Ingredient Ratios and Directions
The ingredient ratios you use will really depend on how you like your pesto and also on what greens/herbs you choose. My usual approach is to start with the following, blend it, 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 (see specific ideas below).
Fat. Start with about half to three quarters of a cup (see specific ideas below), 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. 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. See the section above for some ideas.
Salt. Start with a quarter to a half teaspoon, then taste and adjust.
Once you have the ingredients together for your own healthy pesto recipe, 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 (or, adding a little dash of water can also help). Once you have a texture you like, give it a taste and tweak as you see fit.
What Herbs/Greens Can I Use in Pesto?
If it's green, it can become pesto! While basil is the most classic, other herbs (or a mix of herbs) works beautifully. Kale, spinach, and arugula also work nicely. Here are a few tips as you choose which herbs or greens you want to use in your healthy pesto recipe:
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 herb pesto rather than using them on their own (for example, adding a big handful of spinach is a 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.
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, you might experiment with a mix of herbs that is summery and fresh. I always like to decide what vibe I'm going for, then pick my ingredients accordingly.
Think about texture. Some herbs and greens are soft and blend easily, while others are more fibrous. Make sure your oil-free 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.
How Do I Make Oil-Free Pesto?
Good news: there are lots of other delicious and nutritious ingredients that will work as a replacement for oil in your healthy pesto recipe. Here are all the good-for-you foods you can use instead:
Avocado. Luscious avocado pesto is definitely my favorite. Avocado is 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. Tahini works beautifully as a creamy 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 because the tahini flavor definitely comes through. Make sure you're using a creamy, artisan tahini with a delicate flavor (my favorite is Seeds of Collaboration; use the code ROGUE for 20% off).
Cashews. If you soak cashews in hot water for a few hours, they become a decadent, creamy pesto base when blended. Personally speaking, I find this oil-free pesto version to be too heavy, but it works nicely if you want a really indulgent texture.
Silken tofu. 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. 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.
How to Use Pesto
How can you use your beautiful homemade vegan pesto? Oh let me count the ways! Here are a bunch of delightful things you can do with it (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).
Toss it with pasta, zucchini noodles, or carrot noodles
Fortunately, pesto is very freezer-friendly. That means you can make a bunch of your preferred healthy pesto recipe 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., for adding to a salad dressing, swirling into hummus, etc), then an ice cube tray might be a better bet. After you make the pesto, pour it into ice cube trays and freeze. Then, once 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.
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 all these new, easy, vegan pesto ideas, there's no reason for it not to end up on every one of your meals all year long.
Most importantly, 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 unique, healthy 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 nutritional preferences.
Have fun, and happy pesto-making! Please leave a comment below to share what you've tried, I'm excited to hear about 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.
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The most comprehensive guide to making pesto that's both delicious and nutritious! In this guide, I cover many different vegan pesto variations, how to make pesto that is oil-free, and lots of ideas for how to use pesto in unexpected ways.