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Vegan Pesto

We’d never considered cooking something like vegan pesto until after we watched the Netflix limited series, “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment.” While it was interesting to see the differences in twins who ate a vegan diet versus an omnivore, our takeaway was this: we needed to add even more plant-based food to our diet.

Our household has been pescatarian since 2019. Except for the times when we’re eating fish or using anchovies in a puttanesca pasta recipe, we border on vegetarian, sometimes vegan. Just this past holiday season Bill made a batch of vegan butter cookies — I know, that sounds contradictory but he found terrific substitutes.

Homemade arugula pesto in a rustic bowl
Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

How to make vegan pesto

And substitutes is exactly how you can get a pesto dish on the table and have it be true to veganism. While traditionally made with parmesan cheese, a plant-based, fully vegan pesto is not only possible but, if made properly, can be just as delightful as the original recipe. 

With this guide, you’ll learn a handful of variations and techniques to create the perfect vegan pesto for your recipe.

Originally, the recipe for a classic pesto consisted of fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, pecorino cheese and olive oil. Of course, if you’re going for a vegan pesto, you’re going to have to skip all of these cheeses.

Don’t worry. We’ve got great ideas for vegan substitutes or alternatives.

Essential components of any pesto

Whether you’re making a traditional recipe with cheese or a vegan version without, there are a few crucial ingredients to any pesto recipe.

Greens

Greens are how pesto obtains its classic vibrant green color. The classic pesto recipe leans entirely on basil, an aromatic, bright, fresh and peppery herb. We like to grow our own basil or buy a rooted basil plant to keep on a window sill. That way we can have fresh basil whenever we want to use it in a recipe.

However, one of the most typical ways to alter pesto and create fun new varieties is by changing the herbs or using leafy greens in their place. 

Common substitutions include:

  • parsley
  • arugula
  • spinach
  • mint
  • kale
  • watercress

Seasonal variations such as ramp pesto or garlic scape pesto are also popular ways of highlighting produce with short-lived availability.

Oil

Extra virgin olive oil’s herbaceous taste is a perfect match for pesto. The oil not only adds complementary flavor to the sauce but also acts as a flavor carrier for the other ingredients helping to distribute their taste throughout. It’s also the main factor in the smooth, rich and velvety texture of the pesto.

Nuts or seeds

Traditionally made exclusively with pine nuts, pesto is now made with all different types of nuts. Some even omit nuts entirely and opt for seeds instead. Nuts or seeds offer both a textural element to the pesto, making it thicker and creamier when blended, as well as contributing to the earthy, rich taste.

Toasting the nuts before making the pesto offers an even deeper flavor. Common nut substitutions include pecans, walnuts, pistachios, almonds and cashews. Nut-free pesto recipes often include sunflower seeds or pepitas. 

The cheese factor with vegan pesto

Cheese in pesto contributes a salty, umami undertone to the sauce while also helping to bind the ingredients together. Along with the oil, it’s another contributing component to the creamy mouthfeel in the finished product.

Of course, if you’re making vegan pesto, then cheese is not an option. With the rise of plant-based diets, there are many popular alternatives to the traditional recipe using one of many substitution options for cheese available these days.

Nutritional yeast

Any vegan will be quite familiar with nutritional yeast. It’s the most popular plant-based swap for many cheese-filled recipes.

Nutritional yeast, commonly referred to as nooch, is a deactivated version of the yeast used to make beer or bread. The flakes are typically sold in bulk and have become so mainstream in recent years that you can probably find at regular grocery stores. 

With its savory, umami flavor, nutritional yeast can be substituted for pecorino or parmesan in pesto at a one-to-one ratio. Kristen Wood who writes the MOON and spoon and yum blog agrees.

“I love to make vegan pesto with nutritional yeast as the cheese substitute,” she says. “Not only does it work well, it tastes better than cheese in many instances. I also sometimes use sunflower seeds or hemp seeds instead of standard pine nuts as they can impart a cheesier flavor, too.”

Vegan parmesan

Vegan cheese options are abundant these days, and it shouldn’t be hard to locate a quality vegan parmesan no matter where you shop. Store-bought varieties are usually made from potato or rice starches. These mimic the dry texture of milk-based parmesan. 

You can also easily make homemade vegan parmesan. Recipes for this typically combine nuts like cashews with nutritional yeast and result in a finely grated vegan cheese perfect for using in pesto or sprinkling on top of pasta.

Miso paste

Fermented soybeans might sound like a crazy substitution for Italian cheese in a pesto recipe. However, miso paste offers many of the same savory, umami and salty characteristics as parmesan. A little goes a long way with miso paste, though. So, using 1 to 2 tablespoons is plenty.

Lemon

Fresh homemade basil pesto sauce in a glass jar viewed from above. Originally from italy, pesto is commonly made with basil and used as a sauce for pasta.
Photo credit: Adobe Photos.

While the other substitutions attempt to mimic the flavor of parmesan, lemon takes a completely opposite approach. Fresh lemon zest and juice can add a tangy brightness to the pesto that makes the use of cheese or a cheese-like product completely optional. 

Lemon brings such vibrancy to pesto that it’s a great addition to both vegan and traditional recipes. The acidity also helps to keep the pesto a radiant, bright green color.

Ways to use vegan pesto

Now that you’re armed with all the best options for making vegan pesto, here are a few ways to enjoy your plant-based creation:

  • Toss with pasta 
  • Roasted pesto potatoes as an easy side dish
  • Sauce for pizza
  • Spread on sandwich bread
  • Thin out with more olive oil and use as a salad dressing
  • Dip for breadsticks, focaccia or sourdough
  • Swirl it into soups

Portions of this article originally appeared on Food Drink Life.

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