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.
Why You Should Try This Recipe
You can make pesto without cheese substitutes and have a delicious, easy (and less expensive) sauce to use any way you’d usually use pesto. A handful of nuts or seeds adds plenty of creaminess.
- No nutritional yeast: you can add some, of course, but it’s not necessary and detracts from the otherwise pure flavour.
- Use any nuts or seeds: within reason, but it certainly doesn’t need to be expensive pine nuts! See more on this below.
- This freezes well: without cheese, pesto can be frozen for much longer as a way to preserve summer basil.
Ingredient Notes and Substitutions
- 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.
- Seeds/Nuts: pine nuts, sunflower seeds, walnuts, or nut or seed butter. More on this below.
- Olive Oil: 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.
Step by Step
1. Add ingredients: basil, garlic, seeds/nuts, lemon, and seasoning to a mixing container.
2. Mix: blend, moving around or scraping down the sides as needed.
3. Continue blending: the pesto must break down before starting to add the oil. This is why a large container like a food processor doesn’t work for smaller batches.
4. Add oil: while blending, pour the olive oil in a slow stream. This causes the emulsification.
5. Blend until mixed: continue blending until very smooth and silky.
6. Serve or freeze: serve with pasta or as you usually would, or freeze immediately.
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, hemp, or sunflower butter, or tahini
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.
For a creamy pesto without any seeds or nuts, try the sauce in this super green pasta recipe. I use some zucchini instead and it makes a fantastic sauce.
How to Store
Storage: I highly recommend using this fresh, or freezing immediately, rather than refrigerating for any length of time. If it has to be stored, it can be kept in the refrigerator in a sealed container for a day or two.
Freezing: 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.
Growing and Harvesting Basil
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.
- Add other greens: if you don’t have quite enough basil, bulk it out with hardy greens like spinach or chard. The flavour change is barely noticeable.
- Add it to soup: this is especially true if you freeze it in ice cube trays. One square will really lift a winter soup or sauce – just add it right at the end of the cooking time to preserve that fresh flavour.
- Use fresh basil: for self-harvested, make the pesto immediately after harvesting, within minutes. The longer basil sits, the less flavour it will have. For store bought, try to perk it up in a bit of water before using.
More Herb Recipes
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Dairy Free Pesto
- 50 grams fresh basil
- 2 cloves garlic
- Juice of a lemon ~ 3 tablespoons
- 30 grams nuts or seeds*
- ½ 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.50 grams fresh basil, 2 cloves garlic, Juice of a lemon, 30 grams nuts or seeds*, 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 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.3 tablespoons olive oil
- Spoon into a jar or airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to a week, or freeze up to six months.