Lemon Pesto is a fun twist on classic pesto made with basil. With both lemon zest and lemon juice in the recipe, it's bright, flavorful, and so delicious for making Lemon Pesto Pasta, and so many other recipes.
Lemon Pesto is another incredibly delicious and refreshing pesto twist. Gluten-free and vegetarian, with a vegan option listed below, it can suit a variety of diets.
Another spin to this pesto, making it extra scrumptious, is that in addition to the lemon, there are also capers in this recipe, and both add a zesty, tangy brightness to the earthy fresh basil, creating a perfect balance of flavors.
The texture is rich and creamy and definitely dreamy!
(I often suggest brands I love and use — these are only suggestions and this is not a sponsored post.)
- lemons - This lemon pesto recipe includes the peel and juice. I always use Meyer lemons over regular lemons when they're in season. Meyer lemons are a touch less tart and a bit sweeter. And with a thinner skin and fewer seeds, they are incredibly juicy.
- fresh basil leaves - Look for perky bunches and avoid any brown, bruised or yellow leaves.
- grated Parmesan cheese - Use Parmigiano Reggiano if possible.
- pine nuts - The pine nuts will be toasted before we add them to the recipe, to deepen their flavor and bring the oils to their surface.
- capers - Capers are unripened, pickled green flower buds of the Caper Bush. Capers taste tart, tangy and salty, and they're delicious paired with lemon.
- garlic - Look for firm heads of garlic without any soft spots or green shoots, which are an indication it's old. Raw garlic cloves should be firm without any dark spots
- sugar - Just a tad. In this recipe, the sugar works much like salt, as it helps to bring out more of the natural flavors of the other ingredients.
- extra virgin olive oil - I like this one.
- salt and freshly ground black pepper - Just a pinch or two.
(See recipe card below for quantities.)
Substitutions and Variations
- Garlic. If you are allergic or prefer not to use garlic, use 1 tablespoon of roughly chopped shallots.
- For a slightly less sharp flavor, you can roast the garlic. If you choose to do this, it should be done a few hours ahead of making the pesto, and can be made up to a few days ahead.
- Basil. If you'd like to try another fresh herb in this pesto, dill would be great, or a combination of the basil with dill.
- Pine nuts. The pine nuts can be substituted with almonds, pecans or walnuts. You can also use a mix of them.
- Vegan option. Substitute the Parmesan cheese with ½ cup cashews plus 1 tablespoon of nutritional yeast, and a few pinches of salt. You can also use more of the pine nuts instead of the cheese, or add a second nut like almonds, pecans or cashews.
- Spicy version. Add a sprinkling of red chili flakes to the pesto.
- Do not skip the step of blanching the lemon peels. This is important because it helps to remove the bitter taste.
- When you're toasting the pine nuts, watch them carefully, as they can go from golden to burnt quickly.
How to Make it
- Add the pine nuts to a small sauté pan and place it over medium-low heat. Shaking the pan gently to move them around often, heat just until they’re golden, very aromatic and look oily. Set them aside to cool.
- Use a vegetable peeler to peel the outermost part of the lemon rinds from 1¼ pounds of lemons. Use gentle pressure or you'll get too much of the white pith which is quite bitter.
- Place the peels in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover them by about an inch. Place over high heat, bring to a boil and simmer for about 1 minute. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
- In a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, blend the blanched lemon peels with the basil, grated Parmesan, toasted pine nuts, capers, garlic, sugar and lemon juice. Once the mixture is as smooth as you can get it, with the food processor on, pour in the oil in a slow stream, through the lid's opening. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- My favorite use for this pesto is to serve as a sauce with fish and seafood -- especially salmon. The flavors are spectacular together! You can also bake fish with it.
- Of course Lemon Pesto Pasta is outstanding. Mix it with a little extra olive oil to loosen it up if desired.
- Try spreading pesto on your pizza instead of red sauce. Here's a scrumptious Pesto Pizza recipe.
- It's an excellent sauce for chicken and steak.
- Add extra olive oil and a touch of cider vinegar and use it as a salad dressing.
- Spread it on toast, in a sandwich or wrap.
- Roasted vegetables are great with the lemon pesto. It's fantastic with Smashed Cauliflower.
- Stir it into your scrambled eggs or an omelette.
- Serve it as a dip with Crudite and crackers as an appetizer.
More Unique Pesto Recipes
How long will it last?
In a tightly sealed container or jar, the lemon pesto should last about 5 days in the refrigerator.
Can you freeze it?
Yes, you can freeze lemon pesto. In an airtight container it should keep well for about 4 months. To thaw it, place it in the refrigerator a day or two before you want to use it. It's also really handy to freeze it in standard ice cube trays, so you can "pop" out and thaw a little bit at a time.
Can you make Lemon Pesto without a food processor?
There are many different ways to make pesto. I find the food processor is best for large batches, and I usually recommend it to my readers, as it's fast, easy and does a very good job. That said, here a few other methods you can use for this recipe:
- According to Maurizio Valle, a Pesto World Championship finalist (who knew!?), the best way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle. And you can use that method for the lemon basil pesto recipe -- however, it's best for small batches of pesto and takes more time (and muscle). The lemon peels should be finely chopped with a Chef's knife first for this method.
- You can also use an immersion blender or standing blender. For a standing blender, depending on how powerful it is, you might need to add the oil earlier, as some blenders need more liquid to start mixing.
- It's also possible to use a very sharp Chef's knife to very finely chop all of the ingredients, mixing the oil in last.
I hope you love lemon pesto as much as my family and I do!
Lemon Pesto Recipe
- ⅓ cup pine nuts, toasted
- 1 cup lemon rind (from approx. 1¼-pound lemons), see instruction no.1 below
- 4 cups lightly packed basil leaves (approx. 4-ounces), washed and dried
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons capers, drained
- 1 tablespoon garlic (from approx 3 large cloves) peeled, smashed, roots removed
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoons granulated sugar
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- pinch or two Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Toast the pine nuts. Add the pine nuts to a small sauté pan and place it over medium-low heat. Shaking the pan gently to move them around often, heat just until they’re golden, very aromatic and look oily. Set them aside to cool.
- Peel the lemons. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the outermost part of the lemon rinds from 1¼-pounds of lemons (approx. 4 to 5 lemons). Only use gentle pressure so you don't get too much of the white pith -- we want all or mostly yellow because the pith is quite bitter.
- Blanch the peels. Place the peels in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover them by about an inch. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil and simmer for about 1 minute. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.
- Blend all of the ingredients. In a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, blend the blanched lemon peels with the basil, grated Parmesan, toasted pine nuts, capers, garlic, sugar and lemon juice. Once the mixture is as smooth as you can get it, with the food processor on, pour in the oil in a slow stream through the lid's opening. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (You likely won't need much salt because the capers are salty. Here's How to Season to Taste.)