I could truly put this lemon pesto on just about everything. It’s inspired by classic Italian pesto but it has a lovely citrusy twist. With basil, pine nuts, lemon zest, and Parmesan, this sauce is the perfect balance of salty, herby, and savory. It’s beyond delicious on pasta, chicken, pizza, and more!

A grey bowl with lemon pesto with a wooden spoon on a beige counter next to a white bowl of lemon zest, halved lemons, a wood bowl of pine nuts, and a beige linen.

Now that my basil plant is in full force, all I do is make pesto. Not only is it the star in my pesto white lasagna, fried burrata with roasted peppers and pesto, and pesto roasted veggie breakfast casserole, but I also could just eat it with a spoon, it’s ridiculous.

Since basil and lemon is a classic match made in heaven, it only made sense to add a generous dose of lemon zest to my favorite pesto recipe. It’s bright and fresh and honestly the best combo of ingredients. Use this sauce anywhere you would use regular pesto and the end. You got summer in the bag.

Why you’ll love this pesto

Knowing how to make pesto is a great trick to have up your sleeve. It’s such a quick and easy dinner, especially when your basil plant eventually gets out of control. I originally learned how to make it in culinary school, and it’s been a staple in my life ever since. Here’s why this lemon basil pesto is my favorite!

  • It’s simple and comes together in just a few minutes in your food processor.
  • The recipe has only a handful of ingredients.
  • It’s fresh, citrusy, and easy to customize with whatever ingredients you have on hand.
  • You can use this pesto on everything from chicken to pasta to pizza!

Ingredient list

A grey bowl of basil on a beige counter next to halved lemons, a jar of olive oil, a beige linen, a grey bowl of Parmesan, a white bowl of lemon zest, and a wood bowl of pine nuts.
  • Basil – look for super fresh basil that doesn’t have any browning or limpness. This will ensure the best flavor and texture! Fresh basil is key to making pesto that tastes way better than store-bought.
  • Pine nuts – these are traditionally used in pesto to add a little nuttiness and creamy texture. We will toast them until they’re golden-brown for a deeper flavor.
  • Garlic – I typically only use one clove so that the garlic doesn’t overpower the basil and lemon. But, you can add as much garlic as you like!
  • Lemons – we’ll use both the lemon zest and juice to add a pop of citrus flavor.
  • Parmesan – I highly recommend using freshly-grated Parmesan for the best flavor. The Parmesan will add a lovely umami, saltiness to the pesto!
  • Olive oil – a good-quality extra virgin olive oil makes a huge difference in the overall flavor of the pesto. I like to choose something mild so it doesn’t overpower the sauce.
  • Salt & pepper – Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper are the perfect finishing touch. Since the Parmesan adds a bit of saltiness, you’ll only need a pinch or two of Kosher salt.

Substitutions and variations

  • Basil – instead of basil, use parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon, dill, chives, or a mix of different herbs.
  • Pine nuts – try toasted walnuts or almonds instead. For nut-free pesto, use pepitas or sunflower seeds, or just leave them out entirely!
  • Garlic – if you’re not a fan of raw garlic, try roasted garlic or a bit of chopped shallots.
  • Parmesan – you can replace the Parmesan with Asiago, Pecorino Romano, or Grana Padano. For dairy-free pesto, leave out the Parmesan or add a little nutritional yeast for that ‘cheesy’ flavor.

How to make this recipe

Three prep photos; photo 1 has a white pan with toasted pine nuts. In photo 2, a food processor is filled with basil on a beige counter. In photo 3, a food processor with blended basil sits on a beige counter next to wood bowls of salt and pine nuts.
  1. To make basil pesto with lemon, start by toasting the pine nuts in a pan over medium heat until they’re golden-brown. Cool completely.
  2. Next, place the basil in a food processor. Pulse it a few times to break up the basil leaves.
Three prep photos; in photo 1, a food processor with basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan, and lemon zest is on a beige counter next to wood bowls. In photo 2, olive oil is being poured into the food processor. In photo 3, green sauce in a food processor bowl on a beige counter.
  1. Add the garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and Parmesan. Pulse until everything is finely minced.
  2. While the food processor is running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the pesto is emulsified.
  3. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Storing & freezing leftovers

To store leftover pesto, pour it into a jar and add a thin layer of olive oil on top (to keep the pesto from browning). Seal the jar tightly and refrigerate for up to 4-5 days.

If you want to freeze the pesto, you have a couple of options. The first method is to place the pesto into a freezer-safe jar and freeze for up to 6 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight when you’re ready to use it.

You can also freeze the pesto in ice cube trays for smaller portions! Spoon the pesto into the ice cube trays and freeze until solid, 3-4 hours. Then, pop them out of the ice cube trays and store them in an airtight container or zipper bag in the freezer for up to 6 months. When you’re ready to enjoy the pesto, grab however many cubes you need and let them defrost overnight in the fridge. You can also heat them in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently to prevent burning.

How to use this pesto

Pesto is typically served with pasta, but you can do so much with it! Here are some of my favorite ways to use this lemony pesto:

  • Serve it over spaghetti, penne, or any other pasta you like.
  • Use it as a marinade or sauce for chicken, pork, or shrimp.
  • Drizzle it over grilled vegetables.
  • Use it as pizza sauce or dipping sauce for bread.
  • Try it on an Italian or veggie sandwich.
  • Fry eggs with a little pesto instead of oil – so good!

Can I make this recipe without a food processor?

Yes! If you don’t have a food processor, use a blender instead. If you don’t have either, you can also make pesto with a mortar and pestle. Head’s up – if you use a mortar and pestle, you will have to make the pesto in small batches.

  1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the garlic clove into a paste along with a big pinch of salt.
  2. Add the chopped basil, crushing it with a pestle in a circular motion until it’s minced.
  3. Next, add the pine nuts, crushing it in the same circular motion. Repeat with the Parmesan and lemon zest until you have a thick paste.
  4. Stir in the lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
A grey bowl of lemon basil pesto on a beige counter next to halved lemons, a wood bowl of pine nuts, a white bowl of lemon zest, and basil leaves.

Tips & tricks

  • Go for smaller, tender basil leaves when possible. This will give you the best sweet, basil-y flavor!
  • This recipe calls for two cups of packed basil leaves. Two loose cups of basil will make for runny pesto.
  • Start with one garlic clove and add more to taste. If you’re a fan of garlicky pesto, go for it! Just keep it mind that it might overpower the flavor of the basil and lemon.
  • Always use freshly-grated parmesan! It makes a huge difference in the flavor of the pesto.
  • For saucier pesto, add more olive oil 1 Tablespoon at a time until it reaches your desired consistency. Just don’t add too much, or the basil and oil won’t emulsify.
  • Don’t over-blend the pesto. You want it to be very finely-minced, not a smooth paste.

Recipe FAQs

Can I make this recipe without pine nuts?

Definitely! For a more affordable option, try walnuts or almonds instead. If you’re going for a nut-free pesto, try pepitas or sunflower seeds. You can also just leave the nuts out entirely for lemon pistou (a.k.a. pesto’s French cousin).

How do I keep the pesto from browning?

Thanks to the acidity in the lemon juice, I’ve noticed that this lemon basil pesto doesn’t really get brown if you’re only storing it for a day or two. But, just to be safe, I like to add a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto before I seal it. This prevents the air from hitting the pesto and turning it brown.

Does lemon juice keep pesto green?

Yes! The acidity in the lemon juice will help prevent the pesto from turning brown.

Do I have to blanch the basil?

Nope! Blanching basil can be helpful in regular pesto recipes to keep it from turning brown. But honestly, even when I’m making regular pesto, I don’t blanch the basil. Usually I just use the olive oil tip above!

A grey bowl of lemon pesto with a wooden spoon on a beige counter next to lemon halves, basil leaves, a white bowl of lemon zest, a wood bowl of pine nuts, and a beige linen.

More pasta sauces to try!

Braised Pork Ragù with Gnocchi
Simple Roasted Tomato Sauce
Creamy Lemon Pasta with Fried Pine Nuts

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Lemon Pesto with Basil

Yield: 2 cups
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
This lemon pesto is great on just about everything. Inspired by classic Italian pesto, this recipe has a nice citrusy twist. With basil, pine nuts, lemon zest, and Parmesan, it's beyond delicious on pasta, chicken, pizza, and more!

Ingredients

  • 3 Tablespoons pine nuts
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled (about 1 teaspoon minced)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon zest
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • Freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions 

  • Pour the pine nuts into a small skillet. Toast over medium heat until golden-brown. Transfer to a small bowl and cool completely.
  • Place the basil in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse it a few times to break up the leaves. Add the pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Run the food processor, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl every once in a while, until the mixture is finely minced.
  • While the food processor is running, slowly drizzle the olive oil into the basil mixture until you have an emulsified pesto sauce. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if desired.

Notes

You can replace the pine nuts with walnuts, almonds, pepitas, or sunflower seeds. You can also leave them out for nut-free pesto.
Start with one garlic clove and add more to taste. I’ve found that too much garlic overpowers the taste of the basil and lemon, but if you’re a fan of garlicky pesto, go for it.
Always use freshly-grated parmesan for the best flavor.
For saucier pesto, add more olive oil 1 Tablespoon at a time until it reaches your desired consistency.
To store the pesto, pour it into a jar. Pour a thin layer of olive oil on top of the jar to prevent browning. Seal the jar and refrigerate the pesto for up to 4-5 days.
To freeze the pesto, pour it into a freezer-safe jar and freeze for up to 6 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight when you’re ready to use it. Or, freeze the pesto in ice cube trays for smaller portions. Spoon the pesto into the ice cube trays and freeze until solid, 3-4 hours. Then, pop them out of the ice cube trays and store them in an airtight container or zipper bag in the freezer for up to 6 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight or defrost in a small saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly, until hot.
Cuisine: Italian
Course: Sauces
Serving: 2Tablespoons, Calories: 45kcal, Carbohydrates: 0.6g, Protein: 0.9g, Fat: 4.7g, Saturated Fat: 0.8g, Cholesterol: 1mg, Sodium: 90mg, Potassium: 24mg, Fiber: 0.2g, Sugar: 0.2g, Calcium: 22mg
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xo Sara Lynn

Song of the day – Not Dead Yet by Lord Huron