How to Make Pesto in a Pestle & Mortar

There are many ways to make pesto, from using a pestle and mortar to chopping ingredients with a good, sharp chef’s knife. But any cook worth their salt (including world pesto-making champions – yes, that’s a thing) knows that nothing tops pesto made in a pestle and mortar. In fact, the word pesto comes from the Italian word ‘pestare’, which means to pound.

Why You Should Use a Pestle & Mortar for Pesto

The manual crushing motion you achieve with a pestle and mortar coaxes out the flavour of the garlic, herbs, and nuts gradually – as opposed to using a food processor or knife, which cuts them abruptly and does not give the flavours time to meld and develop. The texture of pesto is also creamier and more uniform when you use a pestle and mortar, which coats pasta in a more bracing, cohesive way.

How to Make Pesto in a Pestle & Mortar

Whether you are making classic pesto Genovese (with basil and pine nuts) – like the recipe below – or varying the ingredients, the order in which you add pesto ingredients to a pestle and mortar is key. In fact, it is more important than a recipe, as pesto can always vary – i.e. if you want more garlic, to use more than one herb, or to use different nuts. We’ve added amounts to our guide below, but taste as you go and adjust the ingredients accordingly.


2 garlic cloves, peeled
30g pine nuts
80g basil
25g Parmesan cheese
25g Pecorino-Romano cheese
160ml extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste


  1. Add garlic to the mortar with a pinch of salt and pound into a paste.
  2. Heat pine nuts in an empty frying pan until they smell fragrant. Add the nuts to the garlic and pound into a paste, using a circular motion.
  3. Wash basil and dry with a tea towel; you don’t want to be too thorough, as the bit of extra water helps it form a paste quicker. Add a handful of basil to the mortar; pound and grind it in a circular motion, adding a pinch of salt as you go. Continue adding and grinding the basil a bit at a time, adding a pinch of salt every time. Keep going until you have a fine paste. Be patient – this part takes the longest.
  4. Finely grate the Parmesan and Pecorino-Romano cheese (you should have 50g total) with a Microplane zester. Add it to the mortar and mix it gently with the rest of the paste.
  5. Slowly drizzle the olive oil into the mortar, swirling and crushing the ingredients as you go to ensure the texture is creamy and properly emulsified.

How to Make Different Kinds of Pesto

Pesto is fundamentally flexible. It can be made with several different herbs, nuts and other ingredients; for example, Pesto Trapanese from Sicily, which is made with almonds, basil, and tomatoes. Here are some ways you can vary the ingredients of pesto:

  • Use Different Leafy Greens: Any soft green makes a great contender for pesto – parsley, mint, marjoram, sage, watercress, carrot tops, Thai basil, spinach or watercress, for example. Mixing different herbs is a great idea, especially if you need to balance out the strong taste of a particular green. If you’re using a tougher green for pesto, such as Cavolo Nero or broccoli, make sure they are cooked and well-dried. Wild garlic is a lovely option too, but remember to skip the garlic when you use it and balance the taste with other herbs.

  • Add Vegetables: You don’t need to limit pesto to leafy greens! Add sun-dried tomatoes, grilled courgettes, roasted red peppers, and other cooked vegetables alongside the herbs; make sure to adjust the cheese, oil, and other ingredients to taste.

  • Use Different Nuts: You can use any nut or seed for pesto, all of which will lend a slightly different flavour profile.

  • Use Different Cheeses: Parmesan and Pecorino-Romano work in pesto because they are hard, dry, salty, and grainy. Not many other kinds of cheese meet this profile, but if you are keen to try, we’d recommend very-aged Manchego or Gouda. You can also make a ‘white pesto’ by using a mix of ricotta and Parmesan cheese and skipping the herbs; but that’s not the goal of pesto, is it? That being said, mixing a bit of ricotta or mascarpone into a finished pesto makes for a wonderfully creamy texture.

  • Use Different Oils: While there is no hard and fast rule against using oils other than olive oil for pesto, olive oil is one of the dominant flavour notes in pesto, so we’d advise against it. Use the best quality you can find.

What Is the Best Pestle & Mortar for Pesto?

Pesto can be made in any pestle and mortar that is big enough to hold the ingredients. However, we have a favourite for this task: the John Julian Porcelain Ball Pestle and Bowl Mortar / 23cm. Made in England and completely unique, the mortar has a wide shape that gives you plenty of control over swirling and crushing ingredients, while the pestle is designed to ‘rock’ against the sides of the mortar, making the circular motion needed for pesto (and all grinding) effective and intuitive. Best of all, it’s made from ultra-durable porcelain, a material used in the pharmaceutical industry for its excellent resistance to odours and stains.