The Italians knew what they were doing when they made pesto alla Genovese. It’s a gorgeous green condiment made from only a few good-quality, fresh ingredients.
Traditional basil pesto contains crushed fresh garlic, European pine nuts, coarse sea salt, fresh basil leaves, and hard cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan cheese) or Pecorino, all blended with extra-virgin olive oil.
Today, pesto is available in many flavours and is no longer exclusively used in Italian cuisine. It is an incredibly versatile sauce that makes weeknight cooking quick and easy!
The word pesto means pounded in Italian. And, while traditional pesto gets pounded in a marble mortar and pestle, you can use a food processor.
Or, even better, use Samin Nosrat’s hybrid method as I do in this delicious homemade basil pesto recipe.
What are pine nuts?
Pine nuts (or pignoli) are the edible seeds inside hard, inedible casings found in pine cones. Harvesters remove the pine nuts from their protective encasement by hand. Hence the hefty price tag.
The soft, ivory-coloured seeds are sweet and buttery with a pleasant nutty crunch.
In addition to pine nut allergies, the fear of the taste disturbance called pine nut syndrome (or pine mouth) has some of us searching for the best pine nut alternatives. And let’s not forget the expensive price tag.
The best pine nut substitutes and pesto alternatives
While traditional pesto Genovese calls for these expensive nuts, many homemade pesto recipes use other whole nuts.
For the best pine nut substitute in classic pesto, we need to replace this small, tear-shaped, soft, buttery nut with something similar.
I list some great, cheaper alternatives to pine nuts in pesto. But, I also explore other nuts and seeds that may not be that similar yet make delicious homemade pesto.
1. Cashew nuts
Raw, unsalted cashew nuts are the best substitute for pine nuts in traditional pesto. They have a similar texture and sweet taste.
To enhance the nutty flavour, roughly chop cashew nuts and lightly toast them in a hot, dry pan. You want them to be lightly golden, not burnt. So keep a close eye. It should take around one minute.
Substitute a tablespoon of pine nuts with an equal amount of cashews, chopped roughly into the size of pine nuts.
2. Macadamia nuts
Unsalted macadamia nuts are another great option. They have a sweeter taste with an intense buttery texture thanks to their high fat content. Roast the macadamia nuts to intensify their buttery notes.
Replace a tablespoon of pine nuts with a tablespoon of roughly chopped macadamia nuts.
3. Unsalted pistachios
Pistachio nuts are a popular choice in Mediterannean cuisine that make a delicious basil pesto.
Use unsalted pistachios as a direct substitute for pine nuts in pesto or to top sweet and savoury dishes that require pine nuts.
Serve pistachio basil pesto with cooked spaghetti for a taste of Southern Italy. Top it with a squeeze of lemon juice and lemon zest.
Almonds may not have the same buttery flavour as pine nuts, but they make a great pesto. In fact, the Sicilian version of Genovese pesto, known as pesto alla trapanese or pesto alla siciliana, contains almonds.
Typical ingredients in traditional Sicilian pesto are garlic, basil, almonds, grated pecorino cheese, tomatoes, salt, black pepper, and lots of extra virgin olive oil.
So, maybe give this different traditional pesto a try. Or use chopped almonds as a direct substitute for pine nuts in classic pesto.
5. Pecan nuts
The darker colour of pecan nuts makes them a less-than-ideal visual substitute for pine nuts in traditional Genovese pesto.
But, they have a wonderful flavour and creamy texture once pounded. So, the colour of your pesto will be less homogenous with dark flecks of pecan nuts. Yet it will have a delicious nutty flavour and creamy texture.
Use them to make pesto at home. Or scatter toasted pecan nuts, cut to the size of pine nuts, over savoury dishes that call for pine nuts.
Walnuts have a very similar fat content to pine nuts, but they can have a bitter flavour due to the tannins in their skins.
You can bash walnuts into a paste to use in pesto, but it will have a better flavour if you undertake the laborious task of removing their skins. I would settle for whole walnuts that yield a different-tasting pesto rather than take on that task.
Roughly chopped walnuts are also a great substitute in savoury dishes and dips that require a topping of pine nuts.
7. Blanched hazelnuts
Hazelnuts are a common ingredient in sweet Italian baked goods, like torta di nocciole (hazelnut cake), baci di dama (hazelnut cookie kisses), and gianduja (chocolate hazelnut spread).
But you can absolutely use them in savoury dishes too.
They don’t have the same buttery flavour as pine nuts. And the texture is not as soft. But they have a delicious intense nutty flavour.
Use blanched hazelnuts to avoid the dark hazelnut skins, and lightly roast them in the oven to intensify their nutty flavour.
Replace every tablespoon of pine nuts with a tablespoon of chopped blanched and roasted hazelnuts.
8. Sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds are a good substitute for pine nuts if you want to keep it a nut-free pesto. Yes, pine nuts are also not nuts.
While cashew nuts make the best substitute for pine nuts in pesto, sunflower seeds are great if you have a nut allergy.
You won’t have the same buttery flavour, but sunflower seeds add texture and fat to balance all that herbaceous basil goodness.
9. Nut butter
Nut butter is not only a suitable pine nut substitute in homemade pesto, it’s also a bit of a kitchen hack. You can even use peanut butter. It’s the most accessible, inexpensive substitute that most of us have at home already.
Using nut butter instead of pounding nuts at home saves time and energy.
Whichever nut butter you choose to use, make sure it’s unflavoured, unsweetened and unsalted for the best results. I buy a pistachio and cashew nut butter that makes seriously good pesto.
Use a tablespoon of nut butter to replace a tablespoon of pine nuts. Stir nut butter into the chopped or bounded basil leaves. And reduce the amount of olive oil the recipe calls for and adjust the olive oil to taste at the end.
Why not make pistou instead?
The slightly less well-known French pistou sauce is a cold sauce with garlic, fresh basil and olive oil. It is similar to a nut-free, dairy-free pesto sauce. Though, modern versions may include grated hard cheese.
So, instead of substituting pine nuts in pesto, you can simply omit it in favour of pistou.
The best substitute for pine nuts in classic basil pesto is cashew nuts. But, if you have a nut allergy, you can use sunflower seeds or pepitas.
And while cashews are the best flavour and texture match for pine nuts in classic pesto, most nuts and seeds can make a delicious pesto sauce even if it is less authentic.
Use your chosen substitute in this vegan basil pesto recipe.