The Best Substitute For Basil In Pesto

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Basil pesto is a rich and delicious solution for so many different otherwise bland and boring recipes, from pizza and pasta to sandwiches or even roasted meat. It is versatile and fancy, despite being incredibly easy to make for yourself at home.

But what if you don’t like Basil or don’t have any? There are plenty of substitutes you can use for basil and still create a delicious pesto. The best substitutes for basil in pesto are either leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, arugula, watercress or even seaweed, or herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, mint, sage or tarragon. Better yet, use a combination!

In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each of the best substitutions for basil in pesto and how you can make a signature flavor of your own.

Traditional Pesto Ingredients

Traditional pesto is Italian and rather specific in regards to ingredients, though every family would likely have their own twist to make it unique. 

Basil is the foundation of this sauce, preferably young, fresh basil leaves chopped so fine it forms a thick paste.

Olive oil is the next most important ingredient, and high quality, extra virgin olive oil will add a rich, tangy flavor to your pesto. 

To complement these two crucial ingredients, fresh garlic, aged Parmesan, and creamy pine nuts round out the list of traditional ingredients. 

The Best Substitutes for Basil in Pesto

Basil is an herb, packed with flavor and rich in nutrition, but it’s quite a leafy herb. This provides a lot of space for experimentation and variety when you’re substituting it in pesto.

You have the choice of using alternative herbs, which each have their own unique, signature flavors, or with leafy greens. Of course, you also have the option of combining the two for a truly unique blend.

The following suggestions are not the only substitutes, but in our test kitchen, they have proved the most successful.

Using Greens for Pesto Using Herbs for Pesto
Spinach Parsley
Baby Kale Cilantro
Arugula Mint
Watercress Sage
Seaweed Tarragon

Using Greens in Pesto

If you find the strong flavors of herbs to be overwhelming, you may lean towards using leafy greens in your pesto instead.

As older plants, their flavors are slightly more mellow and less biting, though still strong enough to create a powerful sauce, especially when enhanced by nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

Spinach Pesto

Of all the substitutes you’ll read about, spinach is the mildest in flavor and works best if paired with one of the herbs, especially cilantro or mint, as they’re two of the more potent herbs.

You can use fresh spinach out of your garden, baby spinach, or regular spinach and it will turn out silky smooth. 

Spinach is a bit more watery than some of the other greens, so it creates a thinner, smoother pesto.

If you like it chunky, don’t process as long or, even better, chop your spinach leaves with a sharp knife instead of using your food processor.

Kale Pesto

Kale is another great leafy green to make pesto out of, but it has a bolder flavor that will shine through more prominently, compared to spinach.

If you use baby kale, you can simply chop it or process it as per usual, however, if you’ve got older kale, dinosaur kale, or any of the heartier varieties, you may want to blanch or massage it before adding it to your pesto. 

Kale can be quite tough, and if you add it raw to your food processer you may end up with a stringy pesto.

To prevent this from happening, you can blanch it by adding your leaves to a pot of boiling water for about 2 minutes and then immediately soaking them in ice water to stop the cooking process. 

Alternatively, you can rip up your leaves by hand, add some of the olive oil and spend 5 minutes or so massaging your leaves before chopping them up finely or processing them. This breaks up the fibers, making the leaves less stringy and more delicate.

Arugula Pesto

Arugula is an incredible and highly undervalued leafy green. It’s spicy and has all sorts of flavor and attitude.

It makes a fantastic substitute for basil in pesto, but it certainly provides it’s own signature, peppery taste profile. 

You can substitute arugula in exact measurements for the basil in your pesto recipe, or you can combine it with spinach or one of the herbs mentioned below.

The almost citrusy flavor of fresh cilantro pairs particularly well with arugula.

Watercress Pesto

Raw watercress can be quite spicy, depending on how it is grown and how old the plant is, much like mustard greens or radish sprouts. You may not want to substitute only watercress for the full amount of basil, but it does create a spicy variation on the traditional spread.

To cut back some of the spice, you can blanch your watercress or even cook it for up to 5 minutes before cooling and using in your pesto.

The olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan also take the edge off, but if you combine it with our next suggestion, seaweed, you end up with a hot and salty bowl of magic.

Seaweed Pesto

Substituting seaweed for basil in pesto is unusual and completely delicious.

The salty, somehow earthy green flavor of the seaweed blends perfectly with the buttery goodness of pinenuts and rich olive oil.

For the best flavor, however, instead of using raw garlic, try using roasted garlic. You will not be disappointed. 

You will need to soak the sheets of dried seaweed before you use them.

Using Herbs in Pesto

Basil is an herb so it makes sense to replace it with another herb if you need a substitution. Basil is a particularly leafy herb, however, so something like rosemary may bring a lovely flavor to your pesto, but it won’t provide the body that it needs.

The following herbs will not only add a unique and wonderful flavor to your sauce, but it also fills it out into a proper sauce or spread, as you like it.

Parsley Pesto

Parsley is the most common herb substitute for basil in pesto, probably because it’s so common.

Most people are familiar with the taste of parsley and won’t find it too overwhelming when used in abundance in a sauce. 

When you make a parsley pesto, always squeeze ¼ or ½ of a lemon into the mix to bring out the flavors and tame the bitter edge.

Cilantro Pesto

Cilantro is a controversial herb that most people will either love or hate. There are very few who fall into the middle of the spectrum. If you love cilantro, you will quickly become addicted to cilantro pesto. 

Fresh cilantro has a bit of a nutty flavor, hidden by the citrusy spice, but brought to life by the pine nuts and Parmesan in a pesto.

It is fresh, green, and possibly the best way to use cilantro in any recipe.

Mint Pesto

Mint pesto is probably the most unusual suggestion in this article, but it is worth trying, especially if you add a little squeeze of lemon or lime to your blend. It also pairs well with parsley. 

The flavor is so bright, fresh, and original that it will make headlines if you bring it out at a party. 

Sage Pesto

Sage works perfectly in pesto because it has a bit of a pine taste that works really well with nuts of any kind. 

The leaves of sage are smaller than some of the other options, so combining it with something like spinach or baby kale will fill out your pesto a bit better, without taking the spotlight away from the herb.

Tarragon Pesto

Tarragon, similar to sage, has smaller leaves so it will make the best pesto when combined with another basil substitution.

It has an almost licorice-like flavor, not as obvious as anise, but absolutely noticeable.

Parsley is a great herb to pair it with as the two enhance each other’s flavors nicely.

Simple Basil Pesto Recipe

In most modern kitchens, simple basil pesto is made by combining a few ingredients in a food processor and blending until mostly smooth.

Speaking of which, if you’re looking for a new food processor, read this article: The Best Food Processors For Pesto

Not everyone loves basil or has access to a fresh bunch in a pinch. Most home cooks these days are less committed to tradition and more opportunistic.

Any of the great substitutions for basil detailed previously can be swapped for the basil in this simple recipe.

  • 1 large bunch or a handful of fresh basil
  • 3 – 4 cloves of garlic
  • ¼ cup of pine nuts
  • ½ cup of Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

Related Questions

What is a good substitute for pine nuts in pesto?

Pine nuts bring a buttery flavor and creamy texture to pesto, so to replace it, you need something that will add a similar experience. Good options are walnuts, cashews, or raw almonds.

Some people even substitute with pecans. Peanuts, in general, have too much signature flavor to make a good substitute but if you soak raw peanuts, they actually work quite well. 

What is a red pesto substitute?

Red pesto is a blend of garlic, basil, olive oil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and, the signature ingredient, sun-dried tomatoes.

If you don’t have the sun-dried tomatoes you can substitute for any other form of pesto that you can create, and if you’d like it to be red, you might consider using fresh or marinated tomatoes, or roasted red peppers, or even roasted carrots for some added richness.

Marinated artichoke hearts or capers will also give a nice briny flavor, but without the red.

Can you make pesto without garlic?

You can make pesto without garlic if you have a sensitivity or intolerance to it for any reason, but it is a big part of the flavor.

You can simply remove it from the recipe, but it might be a good idea to add in some other ingredient that is packed with a flavor you love, such as caramelized onion (which would taste AMAZING in pasta).

However, if you simply don’t have any fresh garlic, you can also consider dried or minced garlic or even a little bit of garlic salt or other spice mix that includes garlic in its list of ingredients. 

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