Lemon Basil Pesto Sauce

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Introducing my go-to homemade pesto recipe – a simple, perfect Lemon Basil Pesto Sauce! Made with fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese, & extra-virgin olive oil, this classic Genovese-style basil pesto is balanced with lemon zest & juice for brightness that isn't too lemony. Made with just 6 ingredients & ready in 5 minutes or less thanks to a food processor, this simple pesto is perfect for everything from pasta to burgers to pizza night!

Easily Vegetarian & Vegan.

An overhead macro shot of a jar of lemon basil pesto garnished with lemon zest on a white plate atop an off-white surface. Lemon wedges sit beside the jar, and basil leaves can be seen in the background.

The Tried & True Homemade Basil Pesto We Use on Everything!

I grow a ton of fresh basil during the summer months & am always looking for ways to make the most of my harvest. Of course, fresh basil pesto is always at the top of that list! There are 2 pesto recipes that I like to rotate between throughout the summer: my Damn Good Kale Pesto & this simple Lemon Basil Pesto.

This bright & herbaceous sauce is a pretty classic Genovese-style basil pesto, but a twist of lemon makes it especially irresistible. Fresh lemon zest & juice brightens up the pesto without making it taste too lemony at all. Instead, it cuts through the richness of toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese, & olive oil to create the perfect balance in flavor. As a bonus, the acidity also preserves the sauce’s vibrant green color!

Plus, this lemon basil pesto takes about 5 minutes to throw together with the help of your food processor & from there you can use it with just about anything. A quick & simple pasta dinner is an obvious choice, but we also love using it for everything from Pesto Breakfast Burritos to Grilled Shrimp Skewers to the perfect summer pasta salad. Pesto just makes everything better! 🌿

This bright & herbaceous sauce is a classic Genovese-style basil pesto, but a twist of lemon makes it especially irresistible.

Lemon Basil Pesto Recipe Highlights

Adding a touch of lemon to basil pesto is a total game-changer! You’ll love it because it’s…

BRIGHT & HERBACEOUS. This recipe takes traditional Genovese-style basil pesto up a notch, pulsing fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, & parmesan with lemon juice & zest for extra brightness & balance. The resulting lemon basil pesto sauce doesn’t taste too lemony – just super fresh, punchy, & perfectly balanced!

EASY TO MAKE. Homemade basil pesto is so easy to make with the help of a food processor! The machine does all the work (no mortar & pestle required!) & the sauce is ready in 5 minutes.

SUPER VERSATILE. While we love tossing lemon basil pesto into a gorgeous pasta dinner, it also adds the perfect punch of freshness to everything from breakfast burritos & sandwiches to grilled veggies, & more!

Homemade pesto is always a good idea! ♡ Read on to learn more about how to make this Lemon Basil Pesto, or jump straight to the recipe & get cooking!

An overhead shot of pesto pasta on a white and pink floral plate atop a white cloth and white surface. Gold silverware is nestled into the pasta.
Ready in 5 minutes or less, you can pair this all-purpose basil pesto sauce with just about anything – pasta, breakfast burritos, grilled dinners, chicken, seafood…pesto just makes everything better!

What is Pesto?

Originating in 16th century Genoa, a capital city in Northwest Italy, pesto is a staple Italian sauce traditionally prepared by crushing walnuts with herbs & garlic to form an herbaceous, paste-like sauce. In fact, the name pesto actually comes from the Italian word pestare, which means to crush or pound!

Today, Genovese-style pesto is commonly made with pine nuts, basil, garlic, parmesan, & olive oil. While pesto purists still swear by the mortar & pestle (it’s in the name, after all!), I prefer to use a food processor to make basil pesto at home. It makes for super fast prep & the high-speed machine also yields an extra smooth & creamy sauce. Within 5 mins you can easily toss the pesto into an everyday pasta dish, layer it into a lasagna, or drizzle it over juicy tomatoes.

Today, you can find many different varieties of pesto made with other herbs, nuts, & greens, like kale pesto, sundried tomato pesto, avocado pesto, & even spicy jalapeño pesto! If you ask me, though, it’s pretty hard to beat a fresh lemon basil pesto.

Key Ingredients

The best Italian dishes rely on in-season & high-quality ingredients to create a ton of craveable flavor, & this lemon basil pesto recipe is no exception. It comes together with 6 simple ingredients – most of which are probably already in your pantry or summer garden!

An overhead shot of ingredients displayed on a white textured surface on a cutting board and a variety of dishes: basil, parmesan, lemons, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pepper.
This flavorful sauce comes together with just 6 simple ingredients: fresh basil, lemon, garlic, toasted pine nuts, parmesan cheese, & extra virgin olive oil.

Note: Full ingredients list & measurements provided in the Recipe Card, below.

  • Fresh basil – The star ingredient! A generous amount of fresh basil is a must-have for any Genovese-style pesto sauce, making this recipe a great way to use up your summer garden harvest. Whether you grow it yourself or buy it from the store, you’ll need about 1 ½ cups fresh basil leaves (loosely packed).
  • Pine nuts – Also known as pignolias or pinoli nuts, pine nuts are soft, buttery, subtly sweet nuts harvested from the cone of a pine tree. They add a beautiful nuttiness to basil pesto, especially when toasted. To toast pine nuts on the stovetop, simply heat the nuts in a dry pan over medium heat, shaking frequently so they don’t burn. They’ll be golden & fragrant in a few minutes. Easy substitute for pine nuts. ⇢ If you prefer not to use pine nuts, hardy walnuts are the best substitute, though pistachios & almonds also work well.
  • Lemon – Both juice & zest! Lemon is our secret ingredient here. It keeps the basil vibrantly green while also cutting through the richness of the nuts & cheese. It balances the basil pesto out, rather than making it taste super lemony.
  • Garlic – It wouldn’t be pesto without it! This basil pesto recipe uses 6 whole cloves for a good punch of garlicky flavor. Feel free to adjust based on your tastes.
  • Parmesan – Parmesan adds nutty flavor that complements the pesto sauce beautifully. You can easily swap out parmesan to make the lemon basil pesto vegetarian or vegan – more guidance below!
  • Extra virgin olive oil – Since pesto is a raw, oil-based sauce, using the best olive oil you can afford is key to making all the flavors shine. Premium extra-virgin olive oil gives the lemon basil pesto a rich, fruity, well-rounded flavor & extra-smooth texture. You don’t have to break the bank here – but do select a good quality oil. DeLallo EVOO is my go-to – it’s imported from Italy, tastes amazing, & super affordable.

Simple Substitutes for Vegetarian or Vegan Basil Pesto

While most pesto recipes are naturally meatless, the use of parmesan cheese does not guarantee that the sauce is naturally vegetarian or vegan. Why? ⇢ Like many hard cheeses, parmesan is traditionally made with an animal enzyme known as rennet, which comes from the stomach of a cow, goat, or lamb. It’s essential in the cheese-making process, typically added after heating cow’s milk in order to kickstart the separation process.

The good news? To ensure a vegan or vegetarian pesto sauce, you can easily swap parmesan with rennet-free or dairy-free options:

  • For a vegetarian lemon basil pesto ⇢ Simply sub in a rennet-free parmesan.
  • For a vegan basil pesto ⇢ Use your favorite dairy-free parmesan instead.

How to Make Basil Pesto With A Food Processor

This lemon basil pesto recipe is ready in 5 minutes or less thanks to a food processor! Simply pulse it all together & enjoy – easy!

Full Recipe Directions, including step-by-step photos, are included in the Recipe Card, below.

1

Finely chop the aromatics. Add the toasted pine nuts & garlic to your food processor, pulsing a few times to break them into smaller pieces. Then add in the basil, lemon & parmesan, continuing to pulse until the sharp blade of the food processor chops everything into fine pieces. Why? ⇢ Basil is a very delicate herb that bruises easily. Pulsing heartier ingredients like nuts & garlic first allows them to break down into small enough pieces to create a smooth sauce – all without overworking the basil!

2

Drizzle in the olive oil. With the food processor running, slowly stream in olive oil until the lemon basil pesto reaches the perfect consistency. Why? ⇢ Slowly streaming in the olive oil gives it time to mix  with the aromatics & form a smooth pesto. Keep adding until the sauce reaches your desired texture – feel free to make it as chunky or smooth as you like.

A close-up overhead shot of a spoon holding up basil pesto from a jar. The jar sits on a white plate with lemon wedges atop a white surface.
Stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator, lemon basil pesto sauce will keep for about 1 week.

Make-Ahead & Storage Tips

Pesto Storage

This lemon basil pesto sauce stores beautifully, so feel free to prep it ahead of time – it’ll keep, stored in the refrigerator, for up to 1 week.

Pesto tip! ⇢ Be sure to store your pesto in an airtight container with a tight seal. With too much exposure to air, delicate basil has a tendency to oxidize & lose its beautiful green color, turning murky & brown instead. Pressing a layer of plastic wrap over the sauce before sealing also helps keep the oxygen away, preventing oxidization & browning.

How to Freeze Pesto?

When my summer garden is bursting with fresh basil at peak flavor, I love to prep a big batch of basil pesto with lemon, freezing it to enjoy throughout the fall & winter. Frozen properly, bright & herbaceous pesto will keep for up to 3 months. Check the Recipe Notes, below, for more guidance!

How to Use Basil Pesto (More Than Just Pasta!)

A close-up overhead shot of pesto pasta with gold silverware on a pink and white floral plate.
For a quick & simple lemon pesto pasta, heat your pesto sauce in a large skillet over medium heat on the stovetop. Once it’s warm, toss in al dente pasta & bring it all together with some of the starchy pasta water – easy!

When you think of basil pesto, you probably think of pasta. I LOVE pesto pasta just as much as the next person, but if you’re only pairing pesto with noodles then you’re missing out.

Plenty of dishes benefit from a punch of fresh & herbaceous, garlicky pesto – it’s the kind of sauce that makes everything better! You can have a lot of fun with this lemon basil pesto recipe & enjoy it any time of day. Some of our favorite creative ways to use pesto sauce include…

Homemade Basil Pesto FAQs

Can you use basil stems in pesto?

Just the tender leaves are best for basil pesto! Unlike other herbs like cilantro, where you can use both the leaves & stems, basil stems are a bit too tough for a smooth & creamy pesto sauce.

How to preserve basil pesto?

One of the biggest storage concerns about basil pesto is having it oxidize & turn brown. The best way to preserve its beautiful bright green color is to keep the basil pesto in an airtight container (air = oxidation!). This lemon basil pesto recipe makes things even easier by preserving the basil with acidic lemon.

Will lemon juice keep pesto green?

Yes! That’s one of the reasons we make basil pesto with lemon. The acidity helps prevent the basil from oxidizing, so it stays nice & green.

A side-angle shot of a jar of lemon basil pesto being stirred with a spoon. The jar sits on a white plate with two lemon wedges.

I can’t wait for you to try this Lemon Basil Pesto! It’s one of my absolute favorite recipes – we use it on everything here at the PWWB House! – & I know you’re going to love it just as much as we do.

If you do give it a try, be sure to let us know! Leave a comment with a star rating below. You can also snap a photo & tag @playswellwithbutter on Instagram. We LOVE seeing your PWWB creations! ♡ Happy cooking!

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A close-up overhead shot of a spoon holding up basil pesto from a jar. The jar sits on a white plate with lemon wedges atop a white surface.

5-Minute Lemon Basil Pesto Sauce

  • Author: Jess Larson
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Total Time: 5 minutes
  • Yield: 2 cups 1x
  • Category: Sauces & Condiments
  • Method: No-Cook
  • Cuisine: Italian
  • Diet: Gluten Free

Description

I grow a ton of fresh basil during the summer months & am always looking for ways to make the most of my harvest. Of course, fresh basil pesto is always at the top of that list. This Lemon Basil Pesto Sauce is my go-to pesto recipe.

This bright & herbaceous sauce is a pretty classic Genovese-style basil pesto, but a twist of lemon makes it especially irresistible. Fresh lemon zest & juice cuts through the richness of toasted pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese, & olive oil to create the perfect balance in flavor. As a bonus, its acidity preserves the basil’s vibrant green color!

The fun thing about fresh pesto is you can pair it with just about anything. Pesto pasta is an obvious choice, but we also love rolling it into breakfast burritos, folding it into juicy turkey burgers, serving it with grilled shrimp or chicken, & drizzling it over a tomato salad. Check the blog post, above, for lots more inspiration to get you started. ♡ Happy cooking!


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 ½ cups loosely packed fresh basil (approx. 2 ounces basil leaves & tender stems)
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • ½ lemon, zested & juiced
  • ⅓ cup finely grated parmesan cheese
  • ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • optional: up to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • kosher salt & ground black pepper, to season

Instructions

  1. Pulse the garlic & pine nuts: To food processor, add the toasted pine nuts & garlic. Pulse just enough times to break the garlic & pine nuts into small pieces without pulverizing them.
  2. Prepare the lemon basil pesto: Add the basil, lemon zest & juice, & parmesan to the food processor. Season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt & ground black pepper as desired. Pulse to combine, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. With the processor running, slowly stream in the olive oil until your desired consistency is reached. Taste & adjust seasonings as needed.
  3. Serve: Enjoy your lemon basil pesto immediately. It’s, of course, great tossed into your favorite pasta dishes. (this Pesto Pasta with Seared Scallops is one of my all-time favorites). It’s also great in breakfast burritos, drizzled over a gorgeous summer salad, whipped into an herbaceous aioli, folded into a turkey burger, & so much more. Get creative & have fun with it – sky’s the limit!

Notes

  • Jess’ Notes & Tips:
    • Easy Recipe Variations: The beauty of pesto is its versatility. If you do not have pine nuts on hand, feel free to swap them out with toasted walnuts or pistachios. Similarly, you can use another hard cheese like asiago or pecorino romano in place of the parmesan. Doing so will result in a slightly different flavor profile, but your pesto sauce will be delicious nonetheless!
    • Dietary Restrictions: This lemon basil pesto sauce is naturally meatless. To ensure it’s vegetarian, be sure to use your favorite rennet-free parmesan. To take it a step further & make it vegan, opt for your favorite non-dairy parmesan.
  • Storage & Freezing: The wonderful thing about pesto is that it’s incredibly make-ahead friendly. Feel free to make a double batch & store in your refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use it.
    • Storage Instructions: Transfer the lemon basil pesto sauce to an airtight container or jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
    • Freezer Instructions: To freeze lemon basil pesto pesto, transfer to a freezer-safe container or divide between multiple freezer containers for smaller portions – these are my absolute favorite freezer containers! – & freeze up to 3 months. To thaw, place the frozen pesto sauce in the refrigerator overnight or submerge the freezer container in room temperature water for a quicker thaw.

Recipe and Food Styling by Jess Larson, Plays Well With Butter | Photography by Rachel Cook, Half Acre House.

Follow along with Plays Well With Butter on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Pinterest for more unfussy recipes that pack a big punch of flavor!

Hi there, I'm Jess!

If there’s 1 thing to know about me, it’s this: I am head-over-heels in love with food. I’m on a mission to make weeknight cooking flavorful, fast, & fun for other foodies, & PWWB is where I share foolproof recipes that deliver major flavor with minimal effort. Other true loves: pretty shoes, puppies, Grey’s Anatomy, & my cozy kitchen in Minneapolis, MN.

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