Traditional pesto is not vegan friendly – it isn’t even vegetarian. But do you want to be traditional? There are plenty of vegan pesto recipes to choose from.
Traditional Recipe: Is Pesto Vegan?
The traditionally-prepared recipe of pesto (including basil, oil, garlic and pine nuts) all sounds great until the final ingredient becomes apparent: Parmesan cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano). This granular hard cheese is made from cow’s milk and calf rennet. Definitely not a vegan cheese, or even suitable for vegetarians, because rennet is made from the enzymes of animal stomach linings.
This is why traditionally-made pesto (typically ‘pesto alla genovese’ – Genovese pesto) is not at all vegan.
However, just as with ‘cheese’ and ‘chocolate’ the word ‘pesto’ can be used to describe a fully vegan version too. There is no need to imply every time that all pesto is either traditionally-made or not. Having a vegan pasta and pesto dish, for example, needn’t come with any asterisks; just a great flavour!
In the same way that you can have red pepper pesto or sundried tomato pesto – you can have vegan pesto, gluten-free pesto, or keto-friendly pesto.
What Even Is Pesto? Vegan pesto recipe
Pesto is simply an oil-based pasta coating – rich in herbs, garlic and nuts. Something light and flavoursome to bring plain pasta to life, originally made from local ingredients, Well, local in southern Europe anyway.
First discovered in Genoa, Italy, in the 1800s, this new basil-based sauce was referred to by its method of preparation rather than in the sense of a true name. Pesto is the past tense of the verb ‘to pound’ – as in food crushed together in a pestle (same root as the verb) and mortar. Although, thank goodness it was named in Italian as ‘red pepper pounded’ doesn’t sound like such a great dish!
Similar sauces had been used in the region before, and there are many different versions in Italy alone, but this one from Genoa became the most widely-used today. Updated and changed by different families and regions, it remains roughly the same, and some countries were quicker off the mark than others in incorporating it into their diets as a staple. The U.S. for example didn’t really start using traditional pesto until well into the 1980s.
Can You Make Vegan Pesto?
As with everything – people have long been experimenting with ingredients to make a pesto that suited their needs. Even the Genoese use to use marjoram or parsley when basil was out of season.
Working with the all important texture and flavor of pesto (oily and sticky – plus great salty tang) it was easy for people to find alternative ingredients. Luckily, many of them are vegan, and with the advancement of tasty vegan cheeses and plant-based rennet, things have got so much more flexible. The main issue of the Parmesan cheese is now no longer an issue.
Vegan Parmesan cheese is readily available online and can actually be cheaper than traditional recipe versions. Other cheese types are also available of course – but nutritional yeast and cashew nuts are used together to great that same cheesy and salty taste (and cashews are cheaper than pine nuts if you are making it yourself).
Mixing up the different nuts (walnuts or almonds) or the herbs can help to adjust a home-made vegan pesto – and popular alternatives also consider vegetables like zucchini or kale as a more nutritious option.
You don’t have to make it yourself either because vegan pesto from commercial brands are available in stores and online. Usually for the same price as (or cheaper than) traditional pesto.
Is There A Gluten-Free Vegan Pesto?
All the traditional ingredients of pesto contain no gluten. Basil, olive oil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese are all 100% gluten free – so all you need to worry about to make a gluten-free vegan pesto is which ingredients you trade for the cheese.
Nutritional yeast is also gluten free – as are any other types of tree-nuts, herbs or vegetables – however, ground nuts and certain vegan cheeses might need to be avoided. Most vegan cheeses are gluten free anyway – but you will need to check.
A quick search online will find many commercial brands of gluten-free vegan pestos. Perfect for catering for many different lifestyle and dietary options all in one great recipe.
How To Make Vegan Pesto Keto Friendly:
A simple way to make keto-friendly vegan pesto – is to make something that acts the same as traditional pesto and sticks onto foods. However in these meals, it isn’t the pesto that would be the issue – it would be the pasta!
Pesto is keto friendly if you substitute out the pine nuts. Herbs and (tree) nuts are extremely keto friendly anyway – and cheese and oil are welcomed in all meals for sure. However, again, it is just checking on the carbs in your alternative cheese-based ingredient – especially if you went for the nutritional yeast version because cashews nuts are out (too high in carbs for most meals).
The best keto-friendly recipes can actually skip the cheese altogether anyway – where adding salt and lemon juice can still offer that well-loved tang. Try macadamia nuts or sunflower seeds instead for that crunch and to keep those carb levels low per serving.
Pesto can last up to 2 weeks in the fridge (if coated in a thick layer of additional olive oil) – great for planning ahead. And it easily freezes in an ice cube tray – so once made – you can have keto-friendly vegan pesto on hand every weekend for the next few months. Buying your ingredients in bulk saves money – and using up all your fresh produce at its peak traps in all those vitamins and minerals too.
Can You Make Vegan Pesto Without Garlic?
If you are not able to eat garlic or are following a FODMAP diet – then how can you take out the garlic without losing that pesto feeling?
Well, there are some great garlic-free vegan pesto recipes out there for you to try – usually substituting the garlic with chives or cilantro. If you are allergic to garlic then you need to try a variety of different combinations until you find one to suit. You may even just like the traditional recipe without the garlic – so much simpler if you still like the taste.
Remember that food is all about tasting great – so traditional pesto is just a starting point – an idea: like ‘soup’. If you want something oily and salty to add to a pasta dish – does it matter what is in it? As long as it is vegan and full of flavor – we are good to go.