Store-bought pesto loses a lot of its punch on the shelf

Store-bought pesto loses a lot of its punch on the shelf

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Prepared pesto — that brilliant blend of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts and parmesan — is one of our favorite go-to ingredients for shortcut cooking. Just a spoonful perks up everything from peas to pasta to sandwiches.

But with all the different brands available, it’s tough to pick just one. So, we decided to do a tasting, but we limited our choices to refrigerated pestos, mostly because pesto is uncooked and by nature a fresh product.

One of the first things we discovered was that store-bought pestos lose something in translation to the refrigerator shelf. Even our top-rated brands were missing that vibrant zing you get in just-made pesto.

So it makes sense that the brand we liked best is made locally — and for that reason might be fresher than the others. Pastaworks’ pesto (which we bought at New Seasons) also had the most recognizable list of ingredients (it read like a pesto recipe, in fact) and the least-processed flavor. But at $8.49 for 6 ounces, it’s also fairly expensive.

We weren’t so lucky with all of our other choices. One brand (sadly, the most readily available) looked like green glue. Another had a fibrous, stemmy texture. Yet another — a house brand from a store chain — had an off, cardboard-like aftertaste.

We did find, however, that once most pestos were tasted on pasta, some of the qualities we weren’t crazy about — funny acidic flavors, gummy or gooey textures — didn’t stand out as much. When you’re in a hurry to make something generally wholesome for dinner, even mediocre pesto appears to get the job done. Ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being best.

As a side note, Ciolo Basil Pesto came in second in our tasting, but between when our tasting and the editing of this column took place, Whole Foods stopped carrying the pesto in Portland (even though the manufacturer says the classic basil flavor is its most popular by a large margin).

This change means that our third-place winner, Safeway Select Pesto Sauce, moves up to second place, and our fourth-place winner, Angelino’s, is now third, although it almost tied with Safeway’s brand. Note that in some stores, such as the Fred Meyer in Raleigh Hills, we found refrigerated pestos in several places. So if you don’t see a particular brand, ask for help.

Does homemade pesto save money?
Some things, like cranberry sauce, are worth making from scratch while others, such as pumpkin purée, are a lot less messy and a lot more convenient when they’re store-bought. We wondered where pesto fell on the scale.

It’s easy to make pesto at home; most of the work is in washing and drying the basil leaves. And since you control the ingredients, you can avoid the odd acidic tastes and bland safflower oil that plague some commercial pestos.

But when we calculated how much it would cost to make the basic pesto recipe from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything,” we found out that homemade pesto isn’t cheap: it costs about $5.12 to buy the ingredients to yield 1 cup of pesto, and that’s if you don’t use very fancy parmesan cheese or top-shelf extra-virgin olive oil (which would set you back around $12). The average cost of a 7-ounce tub of store-bought pesto in our tasting is a little under $5.

Still, when you make pesto at home, you are the boss. Don’t have pine nuts? Use walnuts. Trying to watch your fat intake? Don’t add as much oil. Vegan? Skip the parmesan. And, come summer, there’s no better way to use up oodles of beautiful homegrown basil leaves.

So if you need a quick fix for a weeknight meal, there’s nothing wrong with using prepared pesto. But if you want the flavor in your dinner to sing, or you have nutritional considerations or find yourself with a crisper full of herbs and a surge of creativity, make your own pesto.

Rating: On scale of 1 to 5 (best)

First place, Pastaworks Pesto (average score 3.25)
$8.49/6 ounces at New Seasons

A “fresh and basil-y aroma” with a “nice emerald color” and a “chutney-like appearance” that some felt was “too chunky.” “Clean on palate.” “Not a lot of preservatives,” guessed one taster. “I taste cheese and greens.” Others found it to have a “mushy texture, like cooked spinach” and that it was “kind of flat, but at least it’s not acidic like others.”

Second place, Safeway Select Pesto Sauce (average score 2.6)
$5.29/7 ounces at Safeway

“Nice basil aroma,” and a “tangy aroma” that struck some as processed. “Creamy appearance,” “well-balanced” with a “vibrant, clean flavor.” Others found it “cheesy,” with “not enough basil flavor.” A number of tasters commented on this pesto’s saltiness, while one taster noticed a “gross dried oregano finish.”

Third place, Angelino’s Gourmet Basil Pesto (average 2.55 score)
$3.49/7 ounces at Fred Meyer

“Strong basil flavor, though not nearly as vibrant as what you get from homemade.” This taster also liked the coarser grind of the nuts. Another taster said it had a “nicely balanced basil and pine nut flavor,” while someone else called it “bright and acidic — almost a little too sharp.”

Also tasted: Trader Giotto’s Genoa Pesto Sauce, Buitoni Pesto Sauce, Cibo Naturals Classic Basil Pesto, Arthur’s Traditional Pesto, Ciolo Basil Pesto.

Pesto: Not just for basil
Classic pesto hails from Genoa, Italy, where basil thrives. It traditionally contains fresh basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. But it’s fun and easy to play with this herb-oil-aromatics template. Here are some suggestions:

Herbs: Use any leafy herb in place of the basil, or add some fresh woody herbs, such as thyme or rosemary. Just don’t go overboard, since they don’t purée as well as softer leaves and can overpower the flavor of your pesto.

Nuts: Try walnuts, pecans or pistachios. Or toast some pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and use those.

Herbs: Arugula adds a peppery bite; cilantro and mint, a soothing coolness; Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, a snappy green punch.

Hearty greens: Blanch kale leaves and use those in place of herbs for a pesto that will make a dent in your cold-weather CSA box and nicely complement winter squash.

Oil: For a decadent pesto, use softened butter in place of some of the olive oil. When you want a lighter flavor to pair with Asian-inspired fare, go for canola or peanut oil.


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