We discovered my daughter’s egg and dairy allergies when she was around six months old. Man, I thought eating gluten free at a restaurant was tough, but we’ve been proven otherwise trying to navigate children’s menus that usually consist of cheese pizza, cheese quesadillas, mac and cheese, and cheeseburgers. Even many hotdog buns contain egg.
Luckily the vegan foods market has exploded in recent years and we’re able to easily cook both dairy and egg free at home. Our fridge and pantry are stocked with vegan replacements of typical kitchen items (milk, eggs, and butter, for example) including a prepared vegan pesto that we truly adore.
We once accidentely bought their “regular” pesto with parmesan cheese (we realized it before giving it to my daughter, thank goodness!) and actually much preferred the flavor of the vegan version.
The only problem? It’s almost NINE DOLLARS per container. WOOF!
Rather than shed a tear each time I place it in my cart, I decided to make a copycat recipe. Let me tell you, this vegan pesto sauce is a DEAD RINGER for the store bought version!
My copycat vegan pesto is simple. No nutritional yeast. No pine nuts. Just everyday, affordable ingredients. I’ll show you how!
What is Pesto, and Why Isn’t it Vegan?
Pesto is a raw sauce originating from Genoa, Italy. It’s typically made from garlic, pine nuts, fresh basil leaves, salt, and olive oil, which are crushed together via mortar and pestle or, more modernly, in a food processor. It tastes fresh and bright, a little garlicky, and is deeply flavorful.
We use it in my Crispy Gnocchi Chicken and Bacon Skillet, as a dip for crackers, stirred into cooked pasta and rice, dolloped into vegetable soups, as a sauce for homemade pizza, and even as a chicken marinade.
In short, we LOVE pesto!! But since pesto contains cheese, usually in the form of parmesan cheese or pecorino romano cheese, it’s not vegan / dairy free. Problem solved with this dairy-free pesto recipe. It truly is so, so good.
What is Vegan Pesto Made Of?
Pesto is one of those recipes that may feel easier to buy already prepared, but this 6 ingredient vegan version is very kitchen-staple friendly. It’s perfect to make then freeze big batches of in the summer when basil plants are exploding. Here’s what you’ll need:
- Fresh basil. Regular sweet or genovese basil, vs Thai basil for example, is what you’ll want for this Italian-style pesto.
- Walnuts. I like to replace pine nuts, which are expensive and can be hard to find, with walnuts which are similarly creamy. No need to toast them — we don’t want any crispy bits in this sauce. I have not tested but think cashews could also be used here.
- Garlic. Since pesto is a raw sauce, I like to use a moderate amount of fresh garlic. Otherwise the raw, spicy flavor overpowers the pesto.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil. If you have any speciality / finishing extra virgin olive oil on hand — vegan pesto is the dish to use it in. In short, use the best extra virgin olive oil you’ve got on hand.
- Lemon. Just a drizzle wakens up the pesto to make it taste bright and fresh. I’ve used a small splash of apple cider vinegar as a substitute when I didn’t have a lemon on hand.
- Salt. A pinch brings all the ingredients together.
3 Tips for the Best Vegan Pesto
- Don’t over-process. Pulse the basil, walnuts, garlic, salt, and lemon juice in the food processor until the ingredients are finely chopped before streaming in the extra virgin olive oil. If you over-process olive oil, it can become bitter tasting.
- Stream vs pour. Be sure to slowly stream in the olive oil while processing instead of pouring it all in at once. That way your vegan pesto will come together without becoming oily.
- Give it a rest. I find homemade pesto — vegan or otherwise — tastes completely different on day 2 vs day 1. So if you’re able, plan ahead and make the vegan pesto a day ahead of time.
Alright — grab your basil and let’s get to it!
How to Make Vegan Pesto
Step 1: Pulse the ingredients.
Add the torn basil leaves, walnuts, raw garlic, a pinch of salt to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the ingredients until they’re finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Step 2: Process the pesto.
Next add a drizzle of fresh lemon juice then secure the lid on top of the food processor. With the food processor running, slowly stream in high-quality extra virgin olive oil, scraping down the sides halfway through. Avoid over-processing or the olive oil can become bitter-tasting. Taste then add more lemon juice — the pesto shouldn’t taste lemony, just fresh — and/or salt.
Voila, Vegan Pesto!
What to Make with Vegan Pesto
The possibilities of using fresh pesto to waken and freshen up other dishes are endless, but here are my favorite ways to use homemade vegan pesto:
- Dollop on top of roasted vegetables.
- Toss vegetables in vegan pesto before roasting.
- Use as a pesto pasta sauce.
- Toss with crispy gnochi.
- Stir a small spoonful into a bowl of vegetable soup.
- Drizzle onto thick slices of fresh tomatoes.
- Stir into cooked rice.
- Dollop into cracked eggs before whisking then scrambling.
- Spread onto baked fish.
- Drizzle on top of hot pizza, or use as a pizza sauce.
- Toss with roasted spaghetti squash.
- Drizzle onto a Caprese Salad or Caprese Skewers.
- Use as a sandwich spread.
- Use as a shrimp or chicken marinade.
- As a dip with crackers.
How to Store and Freeze
Like I said, this vegan pesto recipe gets better and better as it sits! Here’s how to store it:
- In the refrigerator: Scoop pesto into an airtight container then refrigerate for up to 5 days.
- In the freezer: Scoop pesto into a Ziplock freezer bag then remove the air and freeze in a flat layer. Alternatively you can scoop the pesto into silicone ice cube molds then freeze solid. Once frozen, pop out then place inside a Ziplock freezer bag. Use within 3 months for the best flavor.
What I love about frozen pesto is that doesn’t even need to be thawed first. You can add the frozen “flat” pesto, or pesto cubes, directly into whatever dish you’re making.
With that, I hope you love this easy vegan pesto recipe as much as we do — enjoy!
Use Vegan Pesto in These Recipes
- Crispy Chicken Bacon Pesto Gnocchi Skillet
- Pesto Veggie Pasta
- Bliss Bowls with Pesto Rice
- Grilled Chicken Salad
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Simple Vegan Pesto
Simple Vegan Pesto is made with fresh, everyday ingredients — no parmesan cheese needed. Use as a dip, marinade, or sauce. The possibilities are endless!
- 2 packed cups fresh basil leaves (2oz), large stems removed
- 2 Tablespoons walnuts halves and pieces
- 1 regular sized or 2 small garlic cloves
- heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 lemon, may not need all
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Tear basil leaves into a food processor then add walnuts, garlic, and salt. Pulse until the ingredients are finely chopped, scraping down the sides as needed.
- Add a drizzle of fresh lemon juice — not too much. The pesto should taste fresh, not lemony — then, with the food processor running, stream in the extra virgin olive oil, scraping down the sides halfway through. Don't over-process as the oil can become bitter tasting. Taste then adjust salt and/or lemon juice if needed.
- To store: Scoop pesto into a storage container with a tight fitting lid then store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- To freeze: Scoop pesto into a Ziplock freezer bag then freeze flat. Alternatively you can scoop the pesto into a silicone ice cube tray then freeze. Once frozen, pop the pesto cubes out then place inside a Ziplock freezer bag then freeze. Use within 3 months for the best flavor. You can add the frozen cubes directly into any hot pot/pan/skillet.
- This pesto gets even better tasting as it sits in the fridge! I much prefer the flavor on day 2 vs day 1.
- Apple cider vinegar may be used in place of the lemon juice if you don't have a lemon on hand. Start with 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar then add more as needed to reach your desired flavor.
This recipe is courtesy of Iowa Girl Eats, http://iowagirleats.com.
Photos by Ashley McLaughlin