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Vegan Pesto: 5-Minute, Dairy-Free Pesto Recipe

Fresh basil pesto enhances the flavor of anything it touches, from pasta and salad to a slice of freshly-baked bread. While traditional pesto contains cheese, we’ve created this 5-minute dairy-free basil pesto recipe that tastes just as delicious as the original. 

Why do we love sauces like pesto so much? Whether you slather it on protein, pasta, or grilled veggies, pesto quickly takes any meal up a few notches.

Did you try a new recipe that didn’t wow you? Add some pesto. 

Are you sick of eating plain veggies or boring salads? Amp up the flavor with pesto. 

Do you want to take your bruschetta to the next level? You guessed it, pesto. 

Although you can’t tell by looking at it, pesto contains some hidden dairy, but this doesn’t mean vegans have to stop eating this delicious and nutritious sauce - that’s why we created this healthy pesto recipe for plant-based, vegan pesto. 

We made this a garlicky vegan walnut pesto, using walnuts in place of the more classic pine nuts, but you can substitute another nut or try a nut-free version, too. 

You can prepare this vegan pesto recipe in large batches to freeze or whip it up as an afterthought for dinner, as it’ll be ready in 5 mins or less with a few simple ingredients. 

Read more for the recipe below!

Is Pesto Vegan?

No, most classic pesto recipes are not vegan-friendly. 

Why? Pesto usually contains dairy, specifically Parmigiano Reggiano cheese grated into the mix. Parmesan adds a rich, salty flavor to the pesto and builds the creamy texture. 

The great news is that our vegan pesto without cheese is just as good as the original, thanks to one life-saving vegan ingredient - nutritional yeast.

While some choose to immediately flip to veganism, you can also learn how to transition to vegan slowly by swapping out commonly animal-based ingredients for plant-based ones instead. 

Nutritional yeast is one such ingredient - you can use it anywhere you’d typically add parmesan. 

It’s a deactivated yeast, dried and sold at most grocery and health stores as small, yellow flakes. It has a rich, salty, and cheesy flavor that is almost indistinguishable from that parmesan taste. 

You can use nutritional yeast in vegan pesto or a bunch of other delicious dishes:

  • Sprinkled on a plate of pasta, vegan pizza, popcorn, or kale chips
  • Stirred into soups or sauces as a flavor enhancer and thickener
  • Mixed into vegan hummus or bean dip

How To Make Vegan Pesto: Vegan Basil Walnut Pesto

As we said, our vegan pesto recipe comes together in less than 5 mins with the help of a food processor or blender. 

We chose to use walnuts for our pesto, but feel free to substitute pine nuts instead if you prefer them. We’ll give you some nut-free pesto vegan options in the FAQ below. 

This recipe makes approximately 1 c. of vegan pesto sauce, so if you’re looking to make big batches to freeze, you want to double or triple the measurements. Keep the size of your processor or blender in mind, as you need 2 c. of basil leaves for each recipe, which can fill up smaller appliances quickly.

Ingredients

  • 2 c. packed fresh basil leaves, large stems removed
  • 3 Tbsp walnuts or raw pine nuts
  • 3 large cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 3-4 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1/4 tsp fine sea salt, + extra to taste
  • 2-3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3-6 Tbsp filtered water, + more as needed

Instructions

  1. In a small, high-powered blender or food processor, add the fresh basil, walnuts or pine nuts, peeled garlic, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and fine sea salt. Blend or process the ingredients on high until loose paste forms.
  2. Add extra-virgin olive oil a Tbsp at a time as the processor is on, if possible. Turn off the food processor and gently scrape down the sides with a spatula as needed. 
  3. Then, pour in 1 Tbsp of filtered water at a time, until you achieve your desired consistency of a thick but pourable, no-cheese pesto. 
  4. Taste and adjust the flavor of your homemade vegan pesto as needed. Add more nutritional yeast for cheesy-tasting non-dairy pesto, salt to enhance flavor, nuts for richness, garlic for a bite, or lemon juice for acidity.
  5. Serve and enjoy your easy vegan pesto on your favorite pasta, salads, or bread!

Vegan Pesto Sauce Recipe - Nutrition Information

Per 1 Tbsp serving

Calories: 39 kcals; Carbohydrates: 1.2 g; Protein: 0.8 g; Fat: 3.8 g; Sodium: 32 mg; Fiber: 0.7 g; Sugar: 0.2 g. 

Vegan Basil Pesto Recipe - FAQ

Pesto Variations

Oil-Free

We use extra-virgin olive oil and water to make this pesto into a smooth sauce instead of a thick paste. It makes the pesto a lot more spreadable to work with it a little easier.

If you avoid consuming oil, you can replace the oil with vegetable broth instead - it’ll add some depth to the flavor while watering down the recipe. Try adding 1 Tbsp at a time to ensure you don’t add too much liquid to your vegan pesto. 

You can use just plain water instead of broth or oil.

Nut Variations + Nut-Free

If you don’t like walnuts or pine nuts, try making vegan cashew pesto instead, swapping them in at a 1:1 ratio for the other nuts. 

You can also try almonds, macadamia nuts, peanuts, or pistachios. They all help to develop that richness while bringing slightly different flavors to the table. 

If you need a nut-free alternative for your pesto, try seeds instead! We love sunflower seeds, but pumpkin and sesame are fun ones to try, too.

If you can’t have nuts or seeds, omitting the ingredient altogether is fine and won’t significantly affect your overall flavor. You’ll likely need to add less water, as the pesto will be less thick without nuts or seeds. 

Different Herbs

Basil makes a classic, delicious pesto, but there are plenty of different herbs you can substitute for creating completely different, tasty pesto flavors!

We love fresh cilantro for a bright, zingy pesto that pairs well with Mexican dishes, like tacos. You can also try parsley, mint, tarragon, sage, or a blend of whatever herbs you currently have on hand. 

For an extra nutritious meal, try making your pesto with spinach - it loses some of the kick that real herbs have, but it’s still pretty delicious smothered on almost everything.

How To Use

Pesto is ridiculously easy to make and eat - we have yet to use our pesto in a way we didn’t like. 

Here are a few of our best ways to include pesto into your meals:

  • Mix it into any soup for a garlicky kick
  • Smooth on fresh-baked bread for a tasty snack
  • Spread on sandwiches and hamburgers to level up the flavor to 10
  • Use as a fresh veggie dip or salad dressing
  • Stir a couple of spoons into your mashed potatoes
  • Toss into a bowl of pasta with fresh veggies

Storing Vegan Pesto

After you’ve made your vegan pesto recipe, you can store it in a sealed container in the fridge for up to one week. 

You can easily make your plant-based pesto in big batches and freeze it for later consumption. Get fresh, delicious basil during its peak growing season in the summer, and make enough pesto to last you for the year. 

You can place your vegan pesto into sealed containers for freezing, or pour your pesto into an ice cube tray and place it carefully in the freezer. Once you have your frozen pesto cubes, pop them out of the tray and store them in a sealed, freezer-safe bag in your freezer for up to 6 months. 

How do I keep my pesto from turning brown?

We add the fresh lemon juice into our recipe for a tangy flavor and acidity, but it does double-duty to help keep your pesto a beautiful, bright green. 

After a few days, your pesto will inevitably brown as more oxygen reaches it. If you’re storing your pesto in the fridge for a few days, you can pour a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil on top of the pesto - it acts as a barrier and won’t allow the oxygen to reach the pesto as easily. 

Final Notes: Vegan Pesto Recipe Without Cheese

Switching simple foods, like pesto, to a vegan version doesn’t have to be complicated. 

You can buy nutritional yeast in bulk, store it in the cupboard, and use it as a vegan substitute for parmesan in countless recipes!

We hope you enjoy experimenting with this basil pesto recipe and spicing up any dish you toss it in!

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