What Is Vegan Pesto?

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  • Written By: C. K. Lanz
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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A vegan pesto is a variation of traditional pesto that does not include any ingredients derived from animals. In most recipes, this means substituting the cheese. A traditional pesto is typically made with a grated hard cheese like parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino, while a vegan version would eliminate this ingredient because it is an animal product. Although it is believed that pesto originated in Genoa, variations of the red and green versions are found throughout the world.

Pesto is the Italian word for sauce and is traditionally made with a mortar and pestle but more commonly in a food processor. Garlic and pine nuts are pounded with the pestle or processed until reduced to a paste. To this mixture are added basil leaves and coarse salt. The ingredients are ground together until creamy, and then the cheese and a little olive oil are incorporated.

If making red pesto, sundried tomatoes or red bell peppers are added instead of basil leaves. Almonds are sometimes substituted for pine nuts, and some variations mix mint leaves in with the basil. The Sicilian version adds tomato and reduces the amount of basil.


Vegans do not consume any animal products or byproducts, including meat, dairy, and honey. As a result, vegan pesto is a variation of the traditional recipe that eliminates or substitutes the cheese ingredient. Most vegan pesto recipes either eliminate the cheese or include more pine nuts or a different nut like cashews or walnuts. Some vegan pesto recipes may also call for a little miso paste, which adds the saltiness normally imbued by the cheese.

Vegan pesto generally mimics the consistency and flavor of traditional pesto and can be served in the same fashion. Pastas like trofie or trenette are commonly served with pesto, and the sauce can be used on pizza. Pesto can also be used as a topping on tomatoes and boiled potatoes. Pesto is also traditionally served on sliced beef, but vegans would not consume the meat and therefore vegan pesto should not be offered to a vegan in this way.

Many different kinds of nuts and vegetables can be used to make vegan pesto and to include nutritious foods into a picky eater’s diet. Substitute spinach and parsley for basil and use walnuts and nutritional yeast to reduce fat and increase the nutritional value. Other vegan variants may call for cilantro, pumpkin seeds, and chili powder. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Some traditional and non-Italian versions of pesto are naturally vegan and do not need to be modified to meet a vegan’s dietary requirements. The variation native to Provence, for example, is called pistou and is made with basil, garlic, and olive oil only. Italian-inspired versions found in Germany and Peru eliminate cheese and incorporate black olives, mushrooms, or spinach.


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