This vegan pesto recipe is packed with fresh basil, spinach and walnuts along with dairy free alternatives for a traditionally cheesy taste. It’s the perfect balance of rich herb flavor with the sharp bite of garlic, some salty-cheesy notes and smooth olive oil.
Homemade vegan pesto is easy to make using a food processor. While this isn’t the traditional technique, it’s super quick and makes a delicious pesto with ease.
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Is Pesto Sauce Vegan?
Traditional pesto is an Italian sauce made from basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil. Due to the cheese, this classic recipe is not vegan.
There are a few simple ways to substitute the parmesan cheese to create a delicious pesto that’s dairy free! My favorite is to use nutritional yeast, salt and walnuts, which creates a rich, nutty cheese flavor when blended together.
Making Pesto Less Expensive
While classic pesto is amazingly delicious, it can be quite costly to buy enough pine nuts, olive oil and cheese. Even the vegan substitutions for the cheese (nutritional yeast) can be expensive.
To enjoy this recipe more often (it’s one of my all-time favorite sauces), it’s helpful to use slightly less expensive ingredients. This is why I use lots of spinach and choose walnuts instead of pine nuts.
Spinach and walnuts are both nutritious and delicious in pesto. While they aren’t the cheapest ingredients themselves, they are less expensive compared to pricey basil and pine nuts.
You can always use what you like and have access to!
Vegan Pesto Ingredients
In this pesto sauce recipe, I’ve tried to stay close to the flavors found in a classic basil pesto while keeping the ingredients simple and vegan.
- Basil: This flavor-packed fresh herb is the base ingredient for classic pesto recipes.
- Spinach: I like to cut through the basil by adding some fresh spinach. Spinach adds extra nutrients and has a mild flavor that works well with other ingredients. If you want a fully basil-flavored pesto, substitute the spinach for extra basil, or use a different leafy green (ex. kale).
- Olive oil: For a smooth and delicious pesto, olive oil is a classic and essential ingredient.
- Walnuts: Rather than using expensive pine nuts, I like to make pesto with walnuts (which are still pricey but less than half the cost of pine nuts where I live). Measure the walnuts after they’re crushed. You could substitute for basically any nut or seed (ex. almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds).
- Nutritional yeast: This tasty ingredient is how I replace parmesan cheese in vegan pesto recipes. Nutritional yeast has a slightly nutty and very cheesy flavor that works well as a dairy free cheese replacement!
- Lemon juice: While not a super traditional ingredient, I love the fresh flavor, acidity and brightness that lemon brings to this recipe. The slight tartness of lemon juice adds a depth of flavor that may lack without true parmesan cheese.
- Hemp seeds: This ingredient is optional and can be replaced with extra walnuts (or whatever nut/ seed you use). I like to toss some hemp seeds in for a boost of nutrition!
- Garlic: I love garlic and it’s an essential ingredient in pesto. While you can adjust the amount of garlic to your taste preferences, keep in mind the garlic is raw and has a very pungent flavor when uncooked.
- Salt: Some salt pulls all the flavors together! This recipe uses very little salt so you may want to add more to your taste preferences. Since this recipe doesn’t use cheese, extra salt will help the pesto taste more like a traditional sauce (cheese is typically very salty). If you’re used to a cheesy pesto, you may be disappointed in the flavor without extra salt.
How to Make Spinach Walnut Pesto
This recipe is quick and easy to make using a food processor. While it isn't a traditional method of preparing pesto, it’s certainly the fastest and easiest way to enjoy this tasty sauce.
Step 1: Prep Ingredients
Gather and measure all your ingredients.
Make sure the walnuts are crushed before measuring. Also, I like to pre-chop the garlic so there aren’t any large chunks in the final pesto. Since it’s left raw, a large piece can be unpleasant to eat.
Step 2: Blend into Pesto
Add all the ingredients, except for olive oil, into a food processor.
Process on high speed until the ingredients are evenly blended and finely chopped. I like pesto to have some chunkier texture, but you can process to whatever texture you prefer.
You’ll need to scrape down the edges of your food processor a few times while blending.
Once you’ve mixed the base ingredients, turn the processor to low speed and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Pour the oil until your mixture comes together like a sauce.
Scrape down the edges and blend one final time to ensure everything is well combined.
At this point, taste the pesto and adjust to your preferences (more or less salt, walnuts, garlic, etc.).
How to Create a Balanced Vegan Meal
I consider a balanced meal one that contains protein, carbohydrates, fats and veggies. This pesto sauce offers healthy fats from the walnuts and olive oil along with some non-starchy vegetables (basil and spinach).
To create a balanced meal, it’s best to serve the pesto alongside a good source of plant-based protein and some healthy carbohydrates (grains or starchy veggies!).
Of course, pesto is most often served over pasta. To add protein, simply toss in some chickpeas or white beans to create a more balanced meal!
Vegan Pesto Variations
You can easily modify this recipe using the base formula of 2 cups of a leafy herb (basil, parsley, cilantro), 1 cup of leafy greens, ⅓ of a cup nuts/seeds and ½ a cup of olive oil.
Then get creative!
You can use pretty much any nuts or seeds you like in place of the walnuts and hemp seeds. Any herb can work in place of the basil and any leafy green could work in place of the spinach (ex. kale would be a simple substitution).
You can use as much or as little garlic and/ or lemon juice as you like. I also highly recommend using nutritional yeast to get that cheesy flavor.
How to Refrigerate and Freeze Leftover Pesto
Refrigerate leftover pesto in an airtight container or jar with tight fitting lid for up to 5 days. It’s best to eat the pesto within 3 days.
The top of your pesto sauce will turn brown as it sits in the fridge. While it’s not pretty, you can still eat the browned pesto. To help minimize this, add a small piece of plastic wrap directly to the surface of the pesto before storing.
Pesto is also easy to freeze. Simply place into any freezer safe container, jar or bag and freeze for up to 3 months. I’ve never tried it, but it’s a common trick to freeze pesto in an ice cube tray then transfer the frozen cubes into a freezer bag/ container for storage.
This makes it easy to take out just the amount of pesto you want at one time. Thaw frozen pesto in your fridge or melt into whatever you’re cooking (ex. melt into a pot on the stove to use as a pasta sauce).
Classic Vegan Pesto with Walnuts and Hemp Seeds
Step 1: Prep Ingredients
- Gather and measure all the ingredients (measure walnuts after they’re crushed; I like to pre-mince the garlic).
Step 2: Blend into Pesto
- Add all ingredients (except for olive oil) to a food processor. Process until the ingredients are finely chopped and well mixed. You’ll need to scrape down the edges of your food processor a few times while processing to ensure even mixing.2 cups fresh basil, 1 cup fresh spinach, ¼ cup walnuts, 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast, 3 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons hemp seeds, 2 cloves garlic, ¼ teaspoon salt
- Once the ingredients are finely chopped, turn the processor to low speed and slowly pour in the oil. Once added, scrape the edges down and blend one final time so everything is well mixed.⅓ - ½ cup olive oil
- Taste the pesto and adjust ingredients to your liking (may want to adjust salt, nutritional yeast, walnuts, basil, garlic, etc.).
More Vegan Snack Recipes
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About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a long-time vegan with a Masters of Science in Food and Nutrition.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes.