Pantry Basic: Frugal Homemade Pesto {with a Secret Ingredient}

Our special pesto recipe is an AOC classic showcasing how adapting things to make them do-able for whatever your level is (in this case frugality) sometimes ends up being the better thing. I wouldn’t make this with pine nuts now even if I did want to spend the money on them! This recipe deserved to be updated and republished with new pinnable images and an easy-to-print recipe – I’d appreciate your help in pinning these new photos – the old ones from 5 years ago left a lot to be desired – thanks, friends!

Frugal (aka, cheap) Homemade Pesto with an alternative to pine nuts that we like even better!

Okay, I know may be thinking, “frugal” pesto – huh? Let me explain. This is the pesto I’ve made for many years with our garden basil which I then store in the freezer to last us all winter (we eat it fresh, too, but most of it gets stored). We use it on artisan bread instead of butter (by the way, 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 one of my “pantry basics” right along with ketchup, mayo, salad dressings, etc. – anything we use regularly that we (use to!) think needed to be bought from a store. 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 with your garden basil is less expensive in it’s own right. But that’s not what I mean by calling it “frugal pesto.”

The pesto I make has an secret, alternative ingredient that drastically decreases the cost of the most expensive ingredient in traditional basil pesto: pine nuts.

The secret? Sunflower seeds. Not walnuts (too strong) or some other seed or nut as I’ve seen in other recipes, just mild-mannered sunflower seeds. It’s their very neutrality which makes them the perfect substitute, in my book.

But aren’t pine nuts essential? I may be a traditional pesto heretic, but I just can’t justify the expense. And we’re talking three times the cost of sunflower seeds. And I did use pine nuts when I made pesto for the first time years ago – I almost hyperventilated, but I did it to be “authentic.” And you know what? I couldn’t even 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!

Pesto becomes a pantry staple when made inexpensively with this delicious alternative to pine nuts

However, 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. 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 and we even like it better!

How to Make Pesto with Sunflower Seeds - frugal and delicious

Making pesto is so easy. You do have to start with removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, but that goes pretty quickly, depending on the amount you have to use. Then dry the leaves. Here’s my tip for drying  the basil leaves – and even storing them for longer:

  • lay the washed leaves in a layer on a dry tea towel
  • roll the towel, with the leaves, up to rest and dry while continuing with the recipe, OR
  • if you need to break up the pesto tasks into harvesting/prepping and then making the pesto later, you can place this rolled, damp towel in a large baggie, seal it, and place it in the refrigerator. The basil will last for up to a week (though it’s best after about four days)- there may be a few leaves that turn brown, but it keeps them remarkably well.

Then it’s just a matter of chopping the garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt and sunflower seeds in a food processor until finely chopped before adding the basil leaves and process as far as you can. With the motor running, slowly pour in extra virgin olive oil. And voila! Homemade pesto.

Freezing homemade pesto in small jars is a great way to enjoy it all winter long

Pesto freezes great and is SO nice to be able to enjoy that taste of summer all winter long! To freeze for later, you simply pour serving-size portions of pesto in containers for the freezer. I’ve saved little glass jars from things like marinated artichokes over the years specifically to use for freezing pesto and I’ve not had a problem with breakage since I’ve been reusing the jars. I like that they’re easy to defrost and then use on the table. There are two things I do when freezing that I learned from The Oregonian’s food section years ago:

  • Add a couple teaspoons of lemon juice to each batch of pesto I’ll be freezing- this helps it last longer and stay a brighter green longer after opening (really – when I don’t use it, it turns brown almost right after opening!).
  • Cover the pesto in the jars with a thin layer of olive oil which acts like a barrier to keep it fresher.

An Oregon Cottage's "Secret Ingredient" Frugal Homemade Pesto
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Frugal (aka, cheap) homemade pesto with an alternative to expensive pine nuts that we like even better!
Author:
Recipe type: condiment
Yield: 1-1/4 cups
Ingredients
  • 5-6 cloves garlic, peeled
  • ¼ c. sunflower seeds*
  • ½ c. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
  • 2-1/2 c. lightly packed basil leaves, washed and dried
  • 1 Tb. lemon juice (for freezing to keep pesto a brighter green after opening)
  • ¾ - 1c. olive oil (plus more if freezing)
Directions
  1. Pulse garlic in a food processor until minced. Add seeds, cheese, and salt. Pulse a few times to chop, and then add the basil and continue to process until most is chopped (it's okay if not all is chopped - it will mince as the oil is added). Add lemon juice now, if using.
  2. With the machine running, add the oil in a fine stream. Process until pesto is smooth. Adjust salt to taste, if needed (less will be needed if using salted sunflower seeds).
  3. To store in the freezer, pour about ½ cup into freezer-safe containers, add a shallow layer of olive oil to cover the tops, attach lids, label with date and freeze. The frozen pesto keeps for about a year - if it lasts that long.
Notes
*I use roasted sunflower seeds for the extra flavor, but raw seeds will work too.

And please let me know if you try this and like it as much as we do!

 

Comments

  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!
    Thanks!

  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. :-)

    Shirley

  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.

  27. Courtney says

    Been on a pesto binge lately–but in my defense, it’s really my garden’s fault. Basil has exploded this year and I love it.

    What I don’t love, however, and what also seems to be the bane of many people’s existence, is the cost of the pine nut.

    I googled “cheap pesto” and clicked on the first link. THANK YOU! Making this recipe tonight.

  28. Sara says

    Finally! I have been putting off making pesto simply because of the cost of pine nuts! Thank you for posting this! I have been wracking my brain trying to think of an alternative! Woohoo!

  29. says

    Love your recipes – your salsa is the only kind we make now! Thank you for sharing your knowledge! Wondering if this pesto can be canned instead of frozen? Thanks!

    • says

      Oh, no, there’s no pesto that can be home-canned, Mari. It’s all low-acid ingredients which would make it a perfect environment for botulism. :(
      Thank you for the kind words, btw – I’m SO glad you are finding useful recipes!

  30. Jackie in Canada says

    I love this recipe, & have pinned it as you requested. I will be making it again this year. I found some really wonderful small containers with lids, at a dollar store. They only hold about 1/4 cup each & are perfect for freezing the pesto. I can pull a small container out of the freezer & pop it right into my tomato sauce while it is heating.

    Your new photos are great!

  31. Jacob says

    This is wonderful! I bought sunflower seeds because pine nuts were just to expensive, I had heard that they can be a great substitute. I then found your recipe. I thought, what the heck, I’ll double the recipe but ran short of basil! I used a cup of arugala to get to five cups of greens. It worked and adds a slight kick to the pesto. Thank you!

  32. says

    I’ll have to try this. I’m with you, pine nuts are insanely expensive. I made a big batch last week with pecans and almonds. Delicious. I bet the sunflower seeds are fantastic, too.

  33. Marlene says

    I have been making pesto with sunflower seeds for the last couple of years. I started using sunflower seeds instead of nuts since my granddaughter loves to take pesto pasta in her school lunch. The schools are nut free so we had to come up with an alternative to nuts and I decided to try sunflower seeds. Everybody loved the result. Now I make a big batch and freeze small packets for her mom to use to make pesto pasta for her school lunches. Nut free and delicious!

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