Way back in the spring, I was asked to compete in a friendly pesto competition at Eataly here in Chicago. And I WON! Haha before you think I’m too cool, I was only one of 3 competitors. But it was still SO fun – and I was surprised at how easy it was to ditch the food processor and make a mortar and pestle pesto. Especially in front of a bunch of people while being judged! No pressure…
To back up, I’ve been making pesto my whole life. My mom usually had basil growing on our back porch, and we would make big batches at a time whenever there was enough to pick. But we always made it in a food processor. Why wouldn’t we?! It worked great!
Fast forward to this spring when Eataly told me I couldn’t use my old trusty method. Instead, I had to make the whole thing with a mortar and pestle. Uhhhh OKAY! I promptly did some research, watched some cooking videos, and came up with a plan. Turns out, there was no reason to worry at all. I mean, this is how it is supposed to be made. This his how my Nana’s Nana’s Nana used to make it! They even show an Italian woman making it this way in Italy on the new Netflix show, Salt Fat Acid Heat. (Highly recommend, by the way!)
There are two keys to this method. The first? Get a stone mortar and pestle. Afterwards, I tried to recreate what I did at Eataly with a wooden pestle, and it didn’t work. It was so hard to break down all of the ingredients and create the silky sauce we all love.
The second key is in the order that you add the ingredients. Garlic has to be first. I minced mine to help make it a little easier – but regardless, you want to smash the garlic with a little salt until it becomes a paste. You won’t get any bites of garlic this way. Instead, garlic flavor will be evenly distributed throughout the pesto.
Then it’s time for the star: BASIL! Again, I roughly chopped the pesto to help myself out – because it’s a workout breaking down those leaves! You’ll want to add a little at a time so it’s easier to break down. I also add the parsley during this stage, too.
This step definitely takes a little bit of muscle, so don’t be afraid to get in there! Also, this is really why I recommend getting a stone on stone mortar and pestle instead of wood on stone. It is infinitely easier – trust me 😉
Next up is pine nuts! Surprisingly enough, this is where the pesto starts to get thick and creamy. Also, feel free to toast your pine nuts if you like that flavor better!
And of course, no pesto is complete without cheese! I use both Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano in mine. I think the combo is key!
Last but not least, add in the olive oil. I actually think I used a little too much to this batch, so I’d recommend adding it little by little until the sauce is the consistency you like.
Serve over pasta, or on pizza, sandwiches, crostini – anything! I also freeze any leftovers with the date on the container. You’ll thank me when you can’t find basil in the middle of winter!
Do you make homemade pesto?
What do you put in yours? Have you ever made mortar and pestle pesto?
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