I’ll admit it; there are days when I just don’t have the inclination or the time to cook what I want — times when I just want to open a jar of ready-made pesto and pour it on pasta. But hey, you ask, isn’t pesto so simple to make you could whip it up sleeping?
To improve the store-bought pesto, identify what your taste buds find lacking in it and add those ingredients. Taste it. Add more parmesan cheese if pesto is lacking creaminess. If it’s lacking in aroma, it could use the addition of fresh basil. If it’s lacking in savor, add garlic.
True, homemade pesto is easy. When you have all the ingredients – and if everyone at home can eat fresh pesto.
I have family members allergic to basil, especially if it’s fresh. Since most of the time I’ll be eating pesto alone, it’s just so much easier to open a jar.
However, I’ve yet to find a brand that satisfies me the same way Mom’s fresh pesto did.
So I’m always on the lookout for ways to dress up my store-bought pesto or use it in quantities small enough for the whole fam to eat.
Why is Store-Bought Pesto Different?
While I wouldn’t condemn all store-bought pestos as inferior to Mom’s, there are things about the ready-made stuff that can be quite different from homemade.
Some of these differences are to shave costs to keep a price point, and some of these are choices made for the sake of shelf life. And some have to do with the manufacturing and canning process.
Let’s start with the sheer quality: you get what you pay for. The fewer dollars you shell out, the more likely some of the oil in that jar isn’t from olives.
Or the manufacturer didn’t use the highest quality pine nuts, garlic, or cheese. Or the manufacturer simply didn’t put as much cheese as Mom would, because of course, cheese is expensive. Or the manufacturer padded the nut content with nuts other than pine nuts, such as cashews.
I’m guessing most manufacturers no longer expect you to use their bottled pesto as is, but rather as a quick and handy base that you can customize at will.
That said, there are brands made by smaller, artisanal companies that are pretty decent on their own. However, no commercial manufacturer of bottled pesto can avoid one huge factor that limits their quality of process: food safety laws.
The law requires canned and bottled foods to be heated to a certain temperature for a certain time to sterilize them, but unfortunately, this changes the flavors of some of the pesto ingredients.
The key to homemade pesto’s flavor is the herby freshness of the basil leaves, which in turn comes from its essential oils.
These oils can evaporate away or change in aroma and flavor when heated, so there’s no way legally bottled pesto can be exactly like Mom’s.
And that, friends, is why the first thing to do after opening a jar of store-bought pesto is to jazz it up.
How to Improve Taste of Store-Bought Pesto
Many ingredients can be added to improve store-bought pesto, and most of them are readily available.
One of the simplest ways to enhance store-bought pesto is to add more cheese. Grate in whatever moderately hard, aged cheese is on hand, preferably Parmesan.
Other cheeses that work well are Pecorino Romano, Asiago and Grana Padano.
But that’s just the very tip of the iceberg. Here are some more ideas I’ve tried and liked for improving a pesto:
Add More Basil Leaves
You can add more basil leaves to pesto to freshen its flavor. Use the freshest basil leaves you can get.
Basil is easy to grow in pots, so if you want to have an easy way to enhance store-bought pesto anytime, try growing your basil at home!
You get fresh, free basil whenever you want it, and you never have to worry about buying more than you can use again.
Add More Garlic
Add a clove or two more fresh garlic to your pesto for a brighter flavor.
If you have a mortar and pestle, smash that garlic well in the mortar – pounding garlic releases more of its essential oils and allows them to blend better with the sauce.
Add Roasted Garlic
Instead of adding fresh garlic to pesto, why not try roasted garlic?
To make a small quantity of roasted garlic, preheat your toaster oven, remove the outer skin from the garlic bulb and cut it in half, then lay the halves cut side up in a baking pan.
Drizzle them with a little olive oil and pop in the oven until lightly browned.
Garlic caramelizes when roasted, giving it a sweeter, rounder flavor, and is easier on the stomach. If you’re feeding anyone whose tummy is easily upset by raw garlic, roaster garlic will be more tolerable for them.
Add More Pine Nuts
If you like a nuttier flavor, try adding more toasted pine nuts to your pesto.
If they’re unavailable in your area or too pricey for now, other nuts that work well with pesto are walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews, sunflower seeds, and macadamias.
Each kind of nut will bring its unique flavors to your pesto.
How can you go wrong with bacon in your pesto? Salty, sweet, and smoky bits of crisp bacon are simply magic in pesto. Just chop some up and fry to a crisp.
Add Blue Cheese
Blue cheese marries very well with pesto, adding a nice sharp kick to its flavor. Choose a hard, crumbly blue cheese like Mountain Gorgonzola for best results.
Add Roasted Bell Peppers
Roasted red or yellow bell peppers add smokiness and sweetness to pesto.
Give your pesto a summertime barbecue spin by roasting bell peppers whole in the oven or oven toaster, with a light brushing of olive oil.
To peel the peppers, place them on a plate and invert a bowl over them, so they steam as they cool, which loosens the skins. Peel the peppers, deseed them, and chop finely before adding to your pesto.
Add Roasted Tomatoes
Roasted tomatoes also work great on pesto with pasta and even better on pesto pizza. Cut the tomatoes in circular sections and roast on a pan in the oven or oven toaster, with a light brushing of olive oil.
Add Roasted Onions
The perfect complement to roasted peppers or tomatoes, roasted onions can be prepared the same way and made on the same pan. Yellow and Vidalia onions, being sweet, come out well roasted.
Add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to your pesto for some citrusy brightness. This could help improve commercial pestos containing oils other than extra virgin olive oil, as the lemon will cut through the taste of the oil.
Make Creamier Pesto
You can add heavy cream, or more cheese, or a combination of both, to make your pesto creamier in texture. The cream will also lighten and round out the flavor, which might make it more appealing to kids.
Turn Pesto Into Carbonara
You can turn your pesto into carbonara by adding eggs.
This adds creaminess and protein without milk and gets even better if you also add bacon!
Just whisk one or more eggs into your pesto, depending on how many you’ll be serving, then pour freshly cooked pasta into it. The residual heat of the noodles will cook the eggs to just the right creaminess!
One of the wonderful things about pesto is its sheer versatility. Its bold flavor marries well with many other ingredients and treatments – it’s good in salad, in pizza, in sandwiches, soups, and more.
Many of these call for just small amounts of pesto, so they’re also good ideas for finishing leftover bottled pesto.
Make Pesto Vinaigrette
Just add a little olive oil and vinegar, preferably white wine or apple cider vinegar, to pesto to make a nice salad dressing. You can also add some lemon juice, adjusting the vinegar quantity as needed to allow for the lemon’s acidity.
Make a Pesto Dip
Add pesto to greek yogurt or mayonnaise to make a zesty dip for breadsticks, chips, or crudites.
Make Pesto Pizza
Spread pesto instead of tomato sauce on your pizza. This works especially well with simple, rural-Italian style toppings like fresh cheeses and vegetables.
Make Pesto Frittata
Make a hearty potato frittata zing with a drizzle of pesto on top.
Marinade Meats With Pesto
You can marinade meats with pesto for baking or grilling over charcoal. Add lemon juice or vinegar for the necessary acid.
Make Sandwiches With Pesto
You can mix pesto with mayo to spread on sandwiches, or brush pesto alone or thinned with a little olive oil on toast or bruschetta. For a creamier pesto mayo, try using the Japanese brand Kewpie.
Have Potatoes With Pesto
Pesto is great with baked and mashed potatoes! This is even better if you add more garlic or roasted garlic.
Make Soups With Pesto
You can add pesto to a variety of soups like minestrone and chicken soup.
Bake Bread With Peso
Spread pesto on bread dough, then fold or roll into any shape you want for really fragrant bread.
Add Pesto to Hummus
Add a spoonful or two of pesto to a bowl of hummus to brighten its flavor. For added zing, also add some lemon juice.
With these simple tips and tricks, you’ll be able to enhance your store-bought pesto and use it in many new ways.