Sunflower Basil Pesto
This simple recipe is economical, loaded with flavor, and ideal for families with a nut allergy.

Yield: 1+ cup


  • 2-1/2 – 3 cups packed basil leaves, washed and dried (about 4 ounces when weighing the bunches with stems)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup unsalted sunflower seeds*
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon each kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4-1/3 cup olive oil** (plus more if freezing)


  1. Place the basil in the bowl of a food processor. (It’s ok to use some of the stems.) Top with the cheese, seeds, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to coarsely chop, and then process in a few longer bursts; you want the mixture to be evenly chopped but still have some texture. Scrape down the sides, and then with the machine running, add the oil in a fine stream through the feed tube. Process until pesto is mostly smooth. (I like to keep just a hint of texture.)
  2. Use immediately or transfer the mixture to an airtight container and refrigerate. The top layer will brown slightly over time but will still taste good. (See tip.)
  3. To store in the freezer, transfer to freezer-safe containers***, add a thin layer of olive oil to cover the surface, put on the lids, and then label with the date and freeze. The frozen pesto will keep for about a year — if it lasts that long.


  • *I use raw sunflower seeds and often toast them for a few minutes in the oven or on the stovetop to bring out extra flavor—but I’ve skipped this step and the pesto still tastes great. You could try using salted and roasted sunflower seeds if you prefer an extra hint of salty flavor. As is, this recipe doesn’t use too much added salt, but if watching sodium intake, you could further reduce it.
  • ** The precise amount of oil depends on how thick or thin you’d like the final pesto to be. I prefer the consistency of a spread (perfect for pesto bread, pizza, or spreading on salmon or chicken), which can easily be thinned with pasta cooking water, broth, white wine, or even water when a thinner condiment is desired.
  • ***I freeze pesto in 1/2-cup portions and find this to be the perfect amount for 8 ounces of pasta. When making thicker pesto with less oil, as I do with this recipe, I thin the thawed pesto with some of the pasta cooking liquid before tossing it with the cooked and drained pasta. The pasta is then delicious as is, although a handful of halved grape or cherry tomatoes, a sprinkle of pine nuts, a cup or so of leftover, chopped chicken or shrimp, roughly chopped baby spinach, and/or some slivered, fresh basil will create an especially delightful meal.
  • TIP:
  • I recently mentioned my newfound trick that prevents leftover guacamole from turning brown: simply placing a slice or two of peeled onion in the bowl and covering it magically maintains the dip’s bright green color. (No need to completely cover the surface with the onion; just lay the onion on top.) Since leftover pesto tends to brown, too (it will still taste great, by the way), I recently stored an unused portion with a wedge of onion. To my delight, the pesto remained green!

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