Sunflower Basil Pesto

By Ann Fulton

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This easy recipe is economical, loaded with flavor, and ideal for families with a nut allergy. Plus the pesto freezes well, so you can enjoy the versatile condiment all year long!


If I were to choose just one condiment to get me through the summer, it would be pesto. The fresh seasonal sauce can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes, lending impressive flavor with exceptional ease.

Several years ago, I shared my go-to pesto—and several recipes in which to use it—in this space. I still adore that recipe, but with two types of cheese, two kinds of nuts, and a handful of other ingredients, it’s not the quickest or cheapest recipe in town.

Inspiration for a new recipe came last year while enjoying lunch at Tom+Chee with my friend Pam. The fast-casual restaurant, which Pam owns and runs with her husband, Bret, uses sunflower seeds instead of pricey pine nuts for a nut-free, budget-friendly pesto. The taste was outstanding, so I set about making my own version at home.

My pesto-loving family gives this edition its stamp of approval, and it has become a favorite of a friend whose son has a severe nut allergy. Pesto was something he had always wanted to try, but conventional recipes had always been off-limits for him. (I have an excellent dairy-free, vegan option, too—feel free to comment if there’s a need.)

So once you’ve transformed freshly picked basil into a fragrant green sauce, what are some good ways to use it? Pesto is incredibly versatile, so consider the following ideas and then feel free to experiment.

  • Use it as a sauce for pasta or zucchini noodles
  • Marinate shrimp in it before grilling
  • Mash pesto into a baked potato
  • Toss cooked veggies in it
  • Spread pesto on a sandwich, pizza, or flatbread
  • Fold into scrambled eggs or an omelet
  • Whisk it into salad dressing
  • Stir a spoonful into marinara sauce or soup
  • Dollop over grilled steak or chicken
  • Make pesto bread instead of garlic bread
  • Add a smear to a grilled cheese sandwich….or a tomato sandwich
  • Toss rice or your favorite grain with pesto


With so many ways to enjoy this flavor-packed sauce, I like to make several batches of this easy-to-make sauce throughout the summer. It freezes well and will provide a taste of summer all winter long.

(Hint: If you make the pesto this week, save enough for quick and easy Pesto Baked Chicken. You’ll need 1-2 tablespoons per person, and it will reward you with a nearly effortless meal.) 

And if you have leftover grilled veggies, I highly recommend a Grilled Pesto Veggiewich.  💚

With two types of cheese and two kinds of nuts, Asiago Pesto Spread (pictured below) is a slightly fancier option that’s brimming with fresh flavor.  If your basil plants are flourishing, you may wish to try this recipe, too.  Both freeze very well.

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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  1. Mary McGovern

    Anne, your sunflower basil pesto is easy and delicious! We had your pesto chicken two nights ago and then made your pasta suggestion last night with leftover pesto. My husband, who’s not a big pasta guy remarked, “This is really good!” Thanks for another great recipe!

  2. sharon

    Thanks for an easy delish pesto recipe. I had basil and sunflower seeds on hand and did a google search. It’s perfect! I plan to serve it with grilled shrimp and angel hair pasta.

    1. Ann Post author

      Hi Elle, I have a separate recipe that I can share if there’s interest. It uses sunflower seeds instead of nuts and nutritional yeast in place of the Parmesan. The proportions of that recipe are slightly different than in this one.

  3. Jane Post author

    I made this exactly as written and it was fabulous. Now I want to grill some vegetables and make that grilled veggiewich pictured above. Yum!

  4. Harriette Stoudt

    this pesto is delicious! I used pecans because we don’t have nut allergies, and it is really special! Thanks so much

    1. Ann Post author

      I’m delighted that you enjoyed, Harriette, and truly appreciate your thoughtful feedback!