The Ultimate Guide to Finding the Perfect Substitute for Basil in Pesto

The best substitute for basil in pesto

Basil pesto is a versatile and flavorful sauce that adds a rich flavor to many dishes. However, if you don’t have basil or simply don’t enjoy its flavor, there are several substitutes you can use to create a delicious pesto. In this article, we will explore the best alternatives to basil in pesto and discuss their unique characteristics and flavors.

Traditional Pesto Ingredients

Traditional pesto is an Italian sauce with specific ingredients that vary from family to family. The foundation of pesto is basil, preferably young and fresh basil leaves finely chopped into a thick paste. Other essential ingredients include high-quality extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, aged Parmesan cheese, and creamy pine nuts.

The Best Substitutes for Basil in Pesto

Basil is a leafy herb, so there is plenty of room for experimentation when substituting it in pesto. You can use alternative herbs, leafy greens, or even combine the two for a unique flavor profile. While there are several substitutes available, the following suggestions have proven most successful in our test kitchen.

Using Greens for Pesto

If you find the strong flavors of herbs overwhelming, using leafy greens in your pesto can be a great alternative. Leafy greens have a milder taste than herbs, but still contribute to a flavorful sauce when combined with nuts, cheese, and olive oil. Here are some greens you can use to replace basil in your pesto:

  1. Spinach: Spinach is the mildest flavor substitute. It pairs well with herbs such as cilantro or mint, which add a stronger flavor. Fresh spinach, baby spinach, or regular spinach can be used, but keep in mind that spinach’s watery nature makes for a thinner, smoother pesto.
  2. Kale: Kale has a bolder flavor than spinach. When using older or heartier varieties of kale, it is recommended to blanch or massage the leaves before adding them to the pesto. This helps break down the fibers, resulting in a less stringy and more tender texture.
  3. Arugula: Arugula is an underrated leafy green with a tangy and unique flavor profile. It can be used as a substitute for basil, either on its own or in combination with spinach or other herbs. Arugula’s peppery flavor pairs well with fresh cilantro.
  4. Watercress: Raw watercress can have a pungent taste similar to mustard greens or radish sprouts. To reduce the spiciness, blanch or cook watercress for a few minutes before using it in pesto. Combining watercress with seaweed can create a spicy and salty variation on the traditional pesto.
  5. Seaweed: Substituting seaweed for basil in pesto creates a unique and delicious flavor combination. The salty, earthy green flavor of seaweed complements the buttery goodness of pine nuts and rich olive oil. Soaking the dried seaweed leaves before use is necessary to achieve the best flavor.

Using herbs for pesto

Since basil is an herb, it makes sense to replace it with another herb when looking for a substitute. However, due to the leafy nature of basil, some herbs may not add the desired body to the pesto sauce. The following herbs not only add wonderful flavor, but also contribute to a proper sauce or spread:

  1. Parsley: Parsley is one of the most common herb substitutes for basil in pesto. It has a familiar flavor that is not overpowering when used generously in a sauce. Adding a squeeze of lemon to parsley pesto enhances the flavor and balances any bitterness.
  2. Coriander: Cilantro is an herb that people either love or hate because of its distinctive flavor. If you like coriander, coriander pesto can be addictive. The nutty flavor of fresh cilantro combined with the citrusy spice, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese creates a fresh and green pesto.
  3. Mint: Mint pesto may seem unusual, but it offers a bright and original flavor profile. Adding a hint of lemon or lime to the mix enhances its freshness. Mint pesto pairs well with parsley and can be a surprise hit at parties.
  4. Sage: Sage works exceptionally well in pesto because of its pine-like flavor that complements a variety of nuts. The smaller leaves of sage can be combined with spinach or baby kale to add volume to the pesto without overpowering the herb’s flavor.
  5. Tarragon: Tarragon, with its licorice-like flavor, is another herb that can be used in pesto when combined with another basil substitute. Pairing tarragon with parsley enhances the flavors of both herbs, resulting in a delicious pesto sauce.

Easy Basil Pesto Recipe

In most modern kitchens, making pesto is a straightforward process. Here’s an easy recipe for making a classic basil pesto:

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packaged
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. In a food processor or blender, combine the basil leaves, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts and minced garlic. Pulse until the ingredients are finely chopped and well blended.
  2. With the processor running, slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Give it a final pulse to incorporate the seasoning.
  4. Transfer the pesto to a jar or container and store in the refrigerator. It can be used immediately or stored for up to a week.


While basil is the traditional choice for pesto, there are many substitutes that can give this classic sauce a unique and delicious twist. Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, arugula, watercress, and seaweed offer milder flavors and textures. Herbs like parsley, coriander, mint, sage, and tarragon add their own distinctive flavors to pesto. Feel free to experiment and combine different substitutes to create your signature pesto flavor. Whether you stick with traditional basil or explore the alternatives, pesto is a versatile sauce that can enhance a wide range of dishes with its vibrant and delicious flavor.


What can I use to replace basil in pesto?

Answer: There are several alternatives you can use to replace basil in pesto, including spinach, kale, arugula, parsley, coriander, mint, sage, tarragon, watercress, and even seaweed. You can also experiment with combinations of these ingredients to create your own unique pesto flavor.

Can I use other leafy greens in pesto instead of basil?

Answer: Yes, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, arugula, and watercress can be used to replace basil in pesto. They provide a milder flavor compared to herbs and can contribute to a delicious and lively pesto sauce when combined with other ingredients such as nuts, cheese, and olive oil.

Are there any herbs that work well as a substitute for basil in pesto?

Answer: Absolutely! Herbs such as parsley, coriander, mint, sage, and tarragon can all be used as substitutes for basil in pesto. Each herb brings its own unique flavor profile to the sauce and can create a refreshing and aromatic pesto variation.

How do I make pesto with the basil substitutes?

Answer: Making pesto with basil substitutes is easy. Just follow a basic pesto recipe, but replace the basil with the substitute of your choice. For example, if using spinach, combine fresh spinach leaves, garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil in a food processor and blend until smooth. Adjust the amounts to achieve the desired consistency and flavor.

Can I combine different basil substitutes in pesto?

Answer: Absolutely! Combining different substitutes for basil in pesto can yield fantastic results. Feel free to experiment with different combinations of leafy greens and herbs to create your own unique pesto flavor. For example, you can combine spinach with parsley or arugula with mint to add depth and complexity to your pesto sauce.

How long can I keep pesto made with basil substitutes?

Answer: Pesto made with basil substitutes can usually be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. However, it’s best to consume it within a few days for optimal freshness and flavor. Before storing, be sure to coat the surface of the pesto with a thin layer of olive oil to preserve its vibrant green color.