Use your basil to make this pesto recipe that is super easy, tastes amazing, and uses a secret substitute that means it’s cheap enough to eat pesto all winter long! Check out more Quick Healthy Recipes.
Okay, I know you may be thinking, “frugal pesto?” Let me explain. This is the pesto recipe 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 this pesto 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 we had to buy from a store.
The pesto is 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.
This recipe 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 a flavor) or some other seed or nut I’ve seen mentioned 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 we’re going to spend almost $10/lb. for something, we better be able to taste it, right?
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!
If you’re more of a connoisseur than I am, by all means, go with the pine nuts. For the rest of us, let’s make a frugal pesto recipe.
Pesto Recipe to Freeze for Winter
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.
Freeze Frugal Pesto
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 serve directly on the table.
Here are two things to 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.
Frugal Homemade Pesto (with Secret Ingredient)
- 6 cloves garlic peeled
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds*
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- 2 ½ cups packed basil leaves washed and dried
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice for freezing to keep pesto a brighter green after opening
- 3/4 to 1 cup olive oil plus more if freezing
- 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.
- 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).
- To store in the freezer: pour about a 1/2 cup of pesto into freezer-safe containers, add a shallow layer of olive oil to cover the tops, attach lids, label with date and freeze.
And please let me know if you try this and like it as much as we do!
Note: This recipe was originally published in 2009 and has been updated with all new photos, formatting, and printable recipe. This special frugal pesto recipe is an AOC classic, showcasing how adapting things to make them doable for wherever you are in life – 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!