Pantry Basics: Frugal Pesto {with a Secret Ingredient}

frugal pesto in jars

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Frugal pesto – huh?” Let me explain. This is the pesto I make every year with our garden basil – enough to last us all winter by storing it in the freezer. We use it on artisan bread instead of butter (if you haven’t tried this, you really should- but be warned, it can be addicting…), as the sauce on homemade pizza, and in Creamy Pesto Pasta, among other things.

This, then, qualifies as a “pantry basic” which is anything you use regularly that is often just purchased. It’s very easy to make taking a just few minutes to whir together in a food processor. And of course making it at home is very frugal. But that’s not what I mean by calling it frugal pesto. The pesto I make has an alternative (aka, secret) ingredient that drastically decreases the cost of the most expensive ingredient in traditional basil pesto, pine nuts.

I use sunflower seeds. Not walnuts (too strong) or some other seed or nut, just mild-mannered sunflower seeds.

I know, label me a traditional pesto heretic but I just can’t justify the expense. And we’re talking three times the cost of sunflower seeds. Now, when I made pesto for the first time years ago I did buy pine nuts. I almost hyperventilated, but I did it to be “real.” And you know what? I couldn’t taste the pine nuts inside all the garlic, basil and Parmesan. And if I’m going to spend almost $10/lb. for something, I better be able to taste it!

But I didn’t really tell anyone (out of embarrassment? shame? guilt? I’ll let you decide…) until the time we had Brian’s cousin and his family to dinner. Now this cousin is an incredible gourmet cook and has made us many memorable meals. Most of which he duplicated by taste from some fancy restaurant. In other words, way out of my league.

I served pesto with the bread (what was I thinking?) and he said, “There’s something different with this pesto- what is it?”

Uh-oh. Gulp, “I…um…used sunflower seeds instead of pine nuts. Can I get anyone more water?”

And get this- he says, “I don’t usually like pesto, but this is really good!” To say I breathed a sigh of relief is an understatement.

pesto ingredients

So I no longer hold my head down in shame when I say the secret ingredient in my pesto. In fact, I think it’s a pretty smart and frugal way to make pesto.

prepping basil

Making pesto is so easy. Start by removing the basil leaves from the stems and washing them. I like to use kitchen shears, otherwise I spend the last months of summer with green finger and thumb nails also known as “basil fingers.”

drying basil

I dry them by laying them in a towel and rolling them up to rest while I continue with the recipe. And here’s a tip I learned by accident: if you get this far in the process (or it’s all you have time for…) you can place this rolled, damp towel in a baggie, seal it, and the basil will last for up to a week (though it’s best after about four days) in the refrigerator.

making pesto step1

Place five cloves of garlic (if you like it really garlicky, increase to six) in a food processor and chop, then add Parmesan cheese and sunflower seeds. Whir until finely chopped.

making pesto step3

Add basil leaves and process until chopped. With the motor running, slowly pour in 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil. Add salt to taste (if using salted sunflower seeds, you will need less).

freezing pesto

To freeze for later, place serving-size portions of pesto in containers for the freezer. I’ve saved little glass jars over the years specifically to use for freezing pesto. I’ve not had a problem with breakage in the years I’ve been reusing the jars and they’re easy to defrost and use on the table.

A few years ago (wow, I think it might actually be almost 10 years- eek!), The Oregonian ran an article recommending adding a bit of lemon juice to each batch and covering with a layer of olive oil. The oil acts like a barrier to keep it fresher, and the lemon juice helps it last longer and stay a brighter green longer after opening.

Oh, and don’t forget to keep track of how many you “put up” on your nifty freezer chalkboard (don’t have one? A magnetic whiteboard will work great, too!), so you won’t run out in the middle of winter. Oh the horror!*


An Oregon Cottage’s “Secret Ingredient” Frugal Pesto

  • 5-6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 c. sunflower seeds
  • 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2-1/2 c. lightly packed basil leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 Tb. lemon juice (optional, but seems to keep pesto a brighter green after opening)
  • 3/4 c. olive oil (plus more if freezing)
  • 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  1. Pulse garlic in a food processor until minced. Add seeds and cheese, pulse a few times to chop, and then add the basil and continue to process until all is finely chopped. Add lemon juice, if using.
  2. With the machine running, add the oil in a fine stream. Process until pesto is smooth. Add salt to taste (less will be needed if using salted sunflower seeds).
  3. To store in the freezer, pour about 1/2 cup into containers, add a shallow layer of olive oil to the tops, label with date and freeze. Keeps for about a year, if it lasts that long.

Makes about 1-1/4 cups.


*I’m only half kidding about the horror…we really are sad if we run out!


This is linked to:
Tasty Traditions @ Coupon Cookin’
Pennywise Platter @ The Nourishing Gourmet
Gluten-Free Wednesdays @ Gluten-Free Homemaker
Frugal Fridays @ Life as Mom


  1. says

    That sounds really good! I make a spinach pesto. It’s just spinach leaves, walnuts, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese. I freeze them in ice cube trays, and they make awesome single serving pasta sauces. Yum!

  2. says

    sunflower seeds? Genius! I just about have a heart attack everytime I buy pine nuts (when I can find them that is…). I have tried walnuts and pecans, but both were too strong. My next pesto batch will be made with sunflower seeds.

  3. diXymiss says

    Brilliant! I’m glad you came out of the closet, er, pantry with your little sunflower seed secret. Wonderful tips ~ thanX so much for sharing this (my wallet thanX you too). I can’t wait to give it a try!

  4. says

    I’m totally trying sunflower seeds out! Thanks.

    Oh, and any further tips of types of glass to use? I, too, have been trying to move away from plastic (although I do LOVE my Ziploc freezer bags – do you think those are bad?) Do you think canning jar would be okay – like half-pints or jelly jars? I stop by the Goodwill every week or so and I have been getting awesome deals on mason jars lately.

    Oh – and I improved your refrigerator pickles recipes by a little (I really love your recipes). I’ll post about it soon when I do my recipe post.

    Thanks again – glad you are out there!!

  5. Kristin says

    Sadly, 4 days ago I bought a teeny, tiny jar of pine nuts for around 4 dollars. Now I know the “secret” for next time!

  6. gfe--gluten free easily says

    This is terrific! I love using sunflower seeds and pesto is a great idea. You should link this to Linda’s (Gluten-Free Homemaker) Create a Pesto challenge over at Gluten-Free Wednesdays. :-)


  7. Jami @An Oregon Cottage says

    Thanks, Shirley- I did visit GF Homemaker,but the linky was closed (need to get to my email better…), but I left the url in the comments. Good tip and some great recipes there!

    Shannan- Oh, yeah- most canning jars are made for freezing, too, so those are great. I just use the ones I get because I use a lot of the small jars in canning and the little jars are free. I love Ziplock, too, and I think they are fine- I don’t heat anything in them and frankly, I couldn’t store as much in my freezer without them. So they stay! I’ll look forward to your update of the pickles recipe.:-)

    Elizabeth- What!! Crazy price. :-)

  8. Linda says

    What an informative post! I love the idea of using sunflower seeds. I added your link to Gluten-Free Wednesdays since it was a pesto recipe and I we wanted to get it in this month. Please remember to add a link back. Thanks for participating!

  9. says

    I can’t wait to try this! I have a bunch of basil growing in my garden and all of the other ingredients on hand! (no pinenuts on hand though, so I am glad you found out that sunflower seeds work!)
    I am looking forward to trying this on fresh bread.

  10. says

    I made this today. It is so good! And so much cheaper. What a good idea. The pine nuts at my market were 23.99/lb!!! Sunflower seeds are only 3.49/lb. I love pesto but never make it because of the cost. I will definitely be making this recipe all the time now. Thank you.

  11. Jami @ An Oregon Cottage says

    Yea! I’m glad you like it, too, Lori. I saw today at the market that pine nuts were $19.99, so I guess I was thinking of what they cost about 10 years ago when I wrote this- sheesh!

  12. Fruitful Harvest says

    So sweet~
    I was just going to make my first batch of pesto for my freezer!
    I have garden basil to use up!

    I will use youe tip on the sunflower seeds! We have them on hand.

  13. says

    Just have to let you know I made my own Basil Pesto from your recipe AND sunflower sedds! While I use basil from my garden in EVERYTHING, I’ve never made pesto before! And, from this I discovered I can crunch up sunflower seeds and use them on my salads again….divertic stuff :-( Hooray! I love your site and this Super Silver Senior has learned a lot from you! Thanks, Liz

  14. KathyJ says

    What a great idea! I must admit that I, too, have not wanted to make my own because of the pine nuts price. Thank you! Now I can use the pine nuts in other recipes I’ve been wanting to try. :)

  15. Robyn says

    Jami-what do you do with the extra olive oil on top when you serve the pesto? Do you drain it off, or just incorporate it into the pesto? Sounds wonderful and I hope to give it a try, if my basil survives the drought!

    • Jami says

      I actually add less when making the pesto than many recipes call for, so I simply stir it into the pesto when serving. Since it’s thicker anyway, it doesn’t make it too thin. Oh, baby the basil if you can – you’ll be glad you did come winter if you’ve got pesto. :-)

  16. Hrodgers says

    My pesto came out super thick! I used your measurements. Should I have added more olive oil to thin it out or will it be ok when I use it for recipes? Thanks!

    • Jami says

      The thickness is a personal preference – we often use in on bread and don’t like the oil running off. I also make it a bit thicker for freezing because I top it with oil to aid against freezer burn and that gets stirred in when we defrost it. Just add more oil to get the thickness you desire. :)

  17. Rebecca says

    Want to try a batch of this before my basil is past. Have you tried it with raw sunflower seeds, or only roasted? Thanks! Oh, I am also planning to try your artisan sourdough bread today,
    I have homemade, wholewheat starter that seems to work pretty well. I bet the pesto will be wonderful on that!

    • Jami says

      Yes, I’ve used raw sunflower seeds – they work the same, so your choice! And YES the pesto is so good on the sourdough – have fun with that! :)

  18. Rachel says

    I love adding avocado to my pesto for a more creamy sauce. But like with guac, it will blacken after a day or two in the fridge.

    Ive heard another way to keep pesto, freeze in ice cube trays then pop out and keep in plastic bags. When needed pull out as many as needed to thaw.

    • Jami says

      That’s the first I’ve heard of using avocado that way, Rachel! Since avocado’s good for you, it’s a good idea. :)

  19. Stacy says

    Wow..this looks wonderful and I can’t wait to try it! You have solved a huge problem for me as my guy is allergic to pine nuts and giving up pesto was sad! Oh…and not that you seem to have any trouble with it, but I think the advice to add the lemon juice is to up the acid in the pesto to retard bacterial growth..I am sure it doesn’t last long enough to be a problem!

  20. Dawn says

    Hooray for frugal pesto! My whole family loves basil so I grow a lot of it in the garden. We’ve always made “pesto” without any nuts, because I’m too cheap to buy the pine nuts. Made it with sunflower seeds today and we won’t be turning back! Now I’m looking forward to trying your pesto pizza…funny how one recipe keeps leading to another!

  21. Mitch says

    Good tip. I too have been using sunflower seeds in my pesto. I usually lightly roast them first.

    I also play fast and loose with the basil. I often use… brace yourself… carrot tops! As you say in the article, there are a lot of flavours going on in pesto. You have a bit of room to move with ingredients and you will be surprised at what you can get away with.

    • says

      Ha! You totally got me on that one, Mitch – first I’ve heard of using carrot tops. :) I do love that you’re using what you’ve got, though – that’s right up my alley!

  22. Marleen says

    I’ve made such pesto before, with sunflower seeds.
    As I’m also trying out some raw food stuff; and sometimes soaked nuts or seeds are used.. to soften, but also to activate certain content in the seeds (chemistry working!) or even sprout them to enhance even more the natural nutrients.. I wonder (for a batch that day) how that would work with pesto!!
    googled & saw also cashews used; or kale with the basil; or spinach..
    So there is enough to discover as for variations too. Enjoy!!

  23. Ash says

    I need to use sunflower seeds because hubby is allergic to pine nuts. I’m making some today and going to freeze it. Chicken pesto pasta with sun dried tomatoes tonight

  24. Jenni says

    I made this today and it turned out really well. We can get sunflower seeds for $2/lb, and I was wondering if you could use them – thanks for testing and posting this recipe!

    • says

      Glad to read this, Jenni! Yes, I think a $6/lb price difference (between pine nuts and sunflower seeds) is worth trying out, don’t you? 😉

  25. says

    I am DONE with pine nuts! I stopped using them in pesto years ago (we like walnuts, actually), but I just purchased them for a recipe and I decided that those stupid nuts have no flavor, just expense.

    I am definitely going to try your secret ingredient pesto, however.

  26. April Southwick says

    This looks delicious. Can you use a water bath and process the pesto? I haven’t used pesto much and think it sounds delicious, but I have a lack of freezer storage space.

    • says

      Oh, no, April, you can’t preserve pesto at home in a canner! There’s no save way to do that since there’s no real acid in pesto to make it safe. Freezer is about it. :( But you can freeze the pesto in ice cube containers and then remove them to a baggie – they wouldn’t take up much room that way.

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