Toasted pine nuts, Meyer lemon olive oil, and fresh sweet basil make this lemon pesto the absolute best thing to cross your lips. It is rich and nutty, with a brightness and zest from the addition of lemon while maintaining the vibrant and aromatic characteristics that we love in a traditional basil pesto.
Pesto is a traditional Italian sauce that is known for its vibrant green color and fresh, herbaceous flavor. It originated in the Liguria region of Italy and is typically made using a mortar and pestle, although modern versions often use a food processor or blender for convenience.
Pesto can be made in a number of different ways with different ingredients. Some recipes use walnuts or almonds, spinach, or alternate cheese. This basil pesto recipe follows traditional pesto recipes with its pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese, basil, and olive oil. However, I think it gets a serious upgrade with the addition of the toasted goodness of pine nuts and the vibrant lemon flavor.
This bright pesto is such a versatile sauce – it goes with pasta dishes, chicken breasts and seafood, garlic bread, and flatbread pizza. After you taste this recipe, you’ll discover it is irresistible even right off the spoon. We especially love eating this lemon-infused pesto over grilled trout, as a pizza sauce for grilled pizza, or tossed with tomato or blueberry caprese salads. Tossing a spoonful into Pesto pasta salad or pesto zucchini noodles is one of my favorite ways to use this easy recipe. The lemony notes of the pesto compliment almost any pasta dish or fresh summer salad.
- Fresh Basil: Basil leaves are the star ingredient in pesto. They provide the sauce with its distinct aromatic and slightly peppery flavor.
- Pine Nuts: These small, cream-colored nuts add a rich and buttery taste to the pesto. They are typically toasted before being incorporated into the sauce, and that toasting, makes all the difference in this lemon pesto recipe.
- Garlic: Fresh garlic cloves contribute a pungent and savory element to the pesto. The amount of garlic used can vary based on personal preference. We use a relatively small amount to let the other ingredients shine, but if you’re all about the garlic, you can use up to 3 or 4 cloves.
- Parmesan Cheese: Grated Parmesan cheese adds a nutty and salty flavor to the sauce. It also helps to thicken and bind the ingredients together. Freshly grated is best.
- Meyer Lemon Olive Oil: High-quality extra virgin olive oil serves as the base of pesto, providing a smooth texture and a fruity undertone. We discovered this Meyer Lemon-infused olive oil years ago and there’s no turning back. I have found different versions in my local grocery store, but my favorite brand, Sutter Buttes, is delivered to me on the regular.
- Sea Salt: A pinch of salt (and pepper, too, if you’d like) is added to enhance the overall taste and balance the flavors.
For a full list of ingredients and their measurements, 📋 please view my printable recipe card at the bottom of the post.
To prepare this easy pesto recipe, the ingredients are combined and processed until smooth. Traditionally, the basil, garlic, and pine nuts are first ground together with a mortar and pestle. Then, the cheese is added, followed by the olive oil, until a cohesive sauce is formed. Nowadays, it is more common to use a food processor or blender to blend all the ingredients together until a smooth consistency is achieved. We use a food processor to emulsify the ingredients here. A blender can also be used.
Substitutions and Variations
- Cheese – Pecorino Romano, Asiago, or Grana Padano are all Italian cheeses that are similar to Parmesan and can be used for pesto.
- Herbs – Fresh basil leaves are the star of the show in a classic pesto sauce, but for different flavor profiles, there are some herbs/greens that can be used in its place. Wilted spinach, mint, or arugula can be substituted. If you simply want to experiment with new flavors, I would recommend adding other herbs in place of some of the basil, so that you still have that traditional pesto essence.
- Nuts- Pine nuts can be expensive and sometimes there are supply issues. Here are some substitutes: walnuts, almonds, cashews, pepitas, or sunflower seeds. There is more detailed information on each of these type of pine nut substitutions in the FAQs section at the bottom of the post.
- Spice – Black pepper or a pinch of red pepper flakes are a great addition to add a little heat.
PREP: Preheat oven to 350°F. Wash basil and pat off any excess water.
Step 1: Spread pine nuts on a small baking sheet and roast in the oven until golden brown (about 5 minutes). Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Step 2: Place ½ cup pine nuts, garlic clove, and parmesan cheese in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Pulse until a course mixture forms.
Step 3: Mound basil leaves on top of pine nut mixture. Give the lemon a good squeeze over the basil leaves. Add some lemon zest, too, if you’d like.
Step 4: With food processor running, drizzle a slow steady stream of olive oil into mixture. The pesto mixture should be a thick paste by the time the oil has been fully incorporated.
Pro Tip: Use fresh herbs, freshly grated parmesan cheese, and fresh pine nuts. Using fresh ingredients really makes a difference here.
Step 6: Add kosher salt to taste and pulse just once or twice more to mix in.
Step 7: Transfer to a serving bowl or store in an airtight container with a thin layer of olive oil over the top and or a little fresh lemon juice. The lemon basil pesto is ready to eat!
Toasting the Pine Nuts
To toast pine nuts, I pop them into the oven and turn it on to 350 degrees. By the time the oven reaches its temperature, the nuts are usually done. Watch them carefully so that they don’t burn. You just want them golden brown. This step isn’t necessary, but it adds so much flavor – a lovely warm nuttiness to the pesto. You can also toast the pine nuts on the stovetop in a sauté pan. Heat the pan and pine nuts without oil, constantly stirring to make sure they don’t burn. Remove them immediately once they are toasted.
This recipe will make about 1 cup of pesto. It is a good amount to mix into a large pasta salad or add to your favorite pasta recipe. If you use it as a garnish or dipping sauce, you can store the leftovers in the refrigerator in a covered jar for up to 5 days. Pour a little olive oil over the top of the pesto to keep it green. Lemon basil pesto also freezes well. Portion into ice cube trays and freeze. Then, pop the frozen pesto cubes out of the ice tray and place in a plastic bag.
Walnuts: Walnuts are a popular alternative to pine nuts in pesto. They have a slightly bitter and earthy flavor that complements the other ingredients well. Toast the walnuts beforehand to enhance their flavor. Keep in mind that walnuts can sometimes overpower the taste, so you may want to use them in slightly smaller quantities.
Almonds: Almonds are another great substitute for pine nuts in pesto. They have a mild and slightly sweet flavor. Toasted almonds work best to bring out their nuttiness. You can use blanched almonds with the skin removed for a smoother texture or leave the skin on for added texture.
Cashews: Cashews have a creamy and buttery taste, which can add a unique twist to your pesto. They have a milder flavor compared to pine nuts and offer a slightly sweeter note. Soak the cashews in water for a few hours or overnight to soften them before blending.
Sunflower Seeds: Sunflower seeds are an affordable and readily available option for those with nut allergies or if you want to avoid nuts altogether. They have a mild and slightly nutty flavor. Toast them for a richer taste before incorporating them into the pesto.
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds: Also known as pepitas, pumpkin seeds have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. They can provide a pleasant crunch and unique taste to your pesto.
We use both a lemon-infused oil and fresh lemons in this recipe. Meyer lemons are sweeter than Eureka or Lisbon, but typically aren’t available in the supermarket frequently. I have a baby Meyer lemon tree and it is one of my favorite things, but since lemons ripen in the winter here in Northern California, I’m typically out of fruit by the time summer rolls around I am plucking from my basil plant to make homemade basil pesto. Nevertheless, the Meyer lemon extra-virgin olive oil I recommend is perfectly complimented by other lemon varieties and your homemade pesto will be delicious no matter what kind of fresh lemons you use.
If you tried this Lemon Pesto or any other recipe on my website, please please leave a 🌟 star rating and let me know how you liked it in the 📝 comments below.
- food processor
- ½ cup pine nuts
- 4 cups fresh basil
- ⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil lemon infused is preferred
- 2 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest optional
- 1 garlic clove minced
- 1 teaspoon sea salt coarse salt or kosher
- Toast pine nuts in a 350 degree oven until golden brown (about 5 minutes).
- Pulse toasted pine nuts, garlic, and parmesan cheese in food processor until a course mixture forms.
- Mound basil leaves on top of pine nut mixture.
- Squeeze lemon over basil.
- With food processor running, drizzle olive oil into mixture. The pesto paste should be formed by the time the oil has been fully incorporated.
- Add salt to taste and pulse just once or twice more to mix in.
- Store in an airtight container with a thin layer of olive oil over the top.