No cheese needed – dairy free pesto is easy, vegan, and tastes great. There’s no need for nutritional yeast, either, which buries the flavour of pesto more than it brings it out – just use good fresh basil and a tasty olive oil.
This recipe offers several options for the types of nuts and seeds that can be used. There are as many types of pesto as there are regions in Italy, after all, and pesto alla genovese isn’t the only possibility. Vegan pesto is a touch different, especially if you’re using it as pasta sauce, but still excellent.
Using a nut or seed butter can be a great option because it’s already a paste, and if your food processor or blender isn’t particularly strong you won’t end up with chunks of seeds or nuts in your pesto. See more on this below.
- Fresh basil: the fresher the better. If you’re buying basil, you can refresh it it by cutting the stems and placing the bunch into a cup of water.
- Garlic: key! Don’t be too tempted to up the amount of garlic a lot, you want to balance the flavours, not drown out the herbs.
- Lemon Juice: important for both flavour and colour.
- Seeds/Nuts: pine nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, or nut or seed butter. More on this below.
- Sea Salt: a touch more than you would with a cheese pesto.
- Olive Oil: extra virgin, as always – adding while mixing is what makes the pesto more creamy, through emulsification.
Nut and Seed Options
You have a number of different possible variations, depending on what you have on hand and the machinery in your kitchen. If you have a low-wattage immersion blender, for example, it’s best to use a nut/seed butter for the smoothest pesto. With a higher (800+) wattage blender, or food processor for larger amounts, whole nuts and seeds can be used no problem.
Cashews, pine nuts, and walnuts are the easiest to blend with a less powerful mixer if you want to use whole nuts. I find almonds tricky to break down completely with an immersion blender.
For a flexible dairy-free pesto, try:
- Pine nuts, or cedar nuts
- Almonds, walnuts, cashews, or pistachios
- Sunflower seeds, pepitas, or hemp hearts
- Almond butter, tahini, or hemp butter
Amounts for both whole seeds and nuts or butters are included in the recipe card. Use the measurement listed but change it out to what you have on hand.
I don’t recommend more distinctive, stronger nuts like hazelnuts or peanuts for pesto. Try to choose one with a neutral or complementary flavour. Tahini, sunflower seeds, and hemp will all give a slightly bitter aftertaste but it should be balanced with everything else – it’s just slightly more noticeable than very neutral pine nuts.
Notes and Substitutions
As this vegan pesto doesn’t include any cheese, it can easily be frozen for longer periods of time. I like to freeze in ice cube trays (see herbs in oil, pg. 255 in my book) and then store in the freezer to add to tomato sauce or minestrone after my garden basil is finished for the season.
The only substitutions I’d recommend here is a variation on the seed or nut butter you use, as laid out in the recipe. Sunflower seed butter is a good option, and so is almond butter. I don’t have any others I’d suggest.
You could hypothetically use an alternative oil, like avocado, if you’re out of olive oil. It will change the flavour so only do it if you’re in a pinch.
When harvesting basil, pick off the large leaves and leave the smaller ones at the stalk. Basil grows like most herbs, with multiple leaves growing above individual larger ones, so your basil will only get larger as you harvest it if you do it properly. If you’re buying bunches of basil, you can use the stalks as well as the leaves here.
Basil does well in pots, even indoors, but it’s best to grow from seed rather than planting one you get at the supermarket as the root system is poor at best. To grow outdoors, try planting them beside tomatoes if you can! Basil improves the flavour of tomatoes and helps to keep pests down.
More Herb Recipes
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- 50 grams (2 cups) fresh basil
- 2 cloves garlic
- Juice of a lemon (~ 3 tablespoons)
- 30 grams (1/4 cup) nuts or seeds*
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Place the basil, garlic, lemon juice, nuts or seeds, and salt into a tall container or the bowl of a food processor** fitted with the blade attachment.
- Blend, using an immersion blender or the food processor, until the basil has broken down and is fairly smooth.
- Add the olive oil in a slow stream, keeping the mixer running, until the pesto is smooth and lighter in colour.
- Spoon into a jar or airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze up to six months.
* Pine or cedar nuts, sunflower seeds, hemp hearts, walnuts, and cashews are all very good options that blend easily. Alternatively, use an equal weight of tahini or almond butter.
** A smaller container will be more effective for this recipe, and you may have some difficulty with a full sized blender (increase the amount if you want to make more).
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 56Total Fat: 6gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 5gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 107mgCarbohydrates: 1gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 1g
This data is provided by a calculator and is a rough estimation of the nutritional information in this recipe.