Some herbs and spices are used to provide the substance of a dish as well as its aromatic essence. A puree of fresh herbs, as in the Italian pesto sauce made from basil, is thick because the herb’s own moisture is already bound up with various cell materials. And thanks to the abundance of those cell materials—mainly cell walls and membranes—such purees also do a good job of coating oil droplets and so creating a stable, luxurious emulsion.

Basil Sunflower Seed Pesto

By Peggy Trowbridge Filippone  

Jar of homemade pesto
 Westend61/Getty Images
  • Total:10 mins
  • Prep:10 mins
  • Cook:0 mins
  • Yield:1 1/2 cups (4 to 6 servings)
Nutritional Guidelines (per serving)

 See Full Nutritional Guidelines(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)

The word “pesto” in Italian means “pounded,” so conceivably anything that is pounded can be considered a pesto. A pesto, in the traditional culinary sense, refers to an uncooked sauce made with fresh basilgarlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil.

Since this is an uncooked sauce, use good-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin oils are smoother and lighter and won’t compete with the other ingredients so their flavors will shine through. This pesto sauce recipe gets a little shake-up by substituting sunflower seeds for the pine nuts and adding butter with the olive oil.

Once made, it is tossed with hot pasta for a quick, vegetarian meal or side dish. This sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated, covered, for up to two weeks.


  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves (coarsely chopped)
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds (raw, hulled)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 2 cloves garlic (crushed)

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.
  2. Blanch and refresh the basil to preserve color.
  3. Place basil, sunflower seeds, olive oil, Parmesan, butter, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Process to a purée, frequently scraping down the sides.
  4. Transfer pesto to a small bowl with a lid. Press a sheet of plastic wrap to the surface of the pesto, then seal with the lid until ready to use.
  5. Let the pesto come to room temperature before tossing with pasta.

Recipe Variations

Alter your pesto in a multitude of ways:

  • Use walnuts in place of pine nuts.
  • Try using Pecorino Romano cheese in place of Parmesan.
  • Substitute baby spinach or arugula for the fresh basil.
  • Add sautéed, poached, or grilled chicken, shrimp, or salmon for a more filling meal for the carnivores in your household.
  • Add 2/3 cup very warm heavy cream to every 3/4 cup of pesto sauce for a creamy pesto sauce.

How to Use Pesto Sauce

When you are combining pasta with a refined sauce like pesto, the best pasta to use is one that has holes or twists and turns that will sop up more of the sauce. Choose penne, fusilli, bucatini, campanelli, cavatelli, ditalini, and others, but don’t count out straight pasta like fettuccine if that’s all you have.

  • Cook 1 pound of pasta of choice in salted water.
  • When pasta is cooked al dente, remove from the heat and drain.
  • In a large bowl, combine 3/4 cup room-temperature pesto with 2/3 cup hot pasta water. 
  • Add drained pasta to the bowl and toss to combine.
  • Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Toss again and serve immediately.

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