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Pesto: hand-chop or mortar/pestle?


alwang
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I've heard two old adages about making pesto, which seem at odds with each other. The first is that one should chop pesto with a sharp knife, to prevent the basil from darkening. The second is that one should make pesto by grinding in a mortar and pestle. Any opinions on which method is superior, hand-chop vs. grinding? And why does that mortar/pestle method not seem to darken the basil?

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al wang

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I used to prepare pesto with a mortar and pestle. Then I tried a taste-test between that method and preparing it in the food processor, and found no significant difference. Since then, I've always made it in the food processor: it's easier by a factor of ten and produces very good pesto.

I'm convinced that pesto is one of those overly-mythologized dishes, made to seem more fussy than it is with fetishized ingredients (only use Genoese basil, picked under the light of the full moon!) and preparation (use a wooden pestle, blessed by a priest!)

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Hand chopping seems a little overboard, and even with the sharpest knife it would be tough to chop your ingredients finely enough to resemble what we would think of as pesto without badly bruising the basil. For a more coarse, rustic version, chopping would be just the thing though.

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I use a food processor too. I do a large amount and freeze it- one thing I've noticed is I actually prefer the previously-frozen to the fresh stuff. Seems to mellow out a bit.

Usually I make it with walnuts, but tomorrow I'll be putting up a batch with pine nuts.

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Basil quality is the most important factor, I find.

This time of year I can grab just enough deep green leaves from the plant outside and then use the mortar & pestle for that night's dinner. If it's the end of season and time to make a big batch for the winter, I'll use the food processor and freeze cubes. I'm really into purple pesto this year.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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When Saveur did it's Pesto article I tried their procedure with a mortar, best pesto I ever made. It took about a hour though and since that day I've used a blender.

My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.

- Errol Flynn

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I do mine in the blender...but only the basil and the olive oil. I freeze it like that, and when I want pesto, I take it out, add the cheese, press some garlic and then use the garlic press to squash the pine nuts or walnuts or whatever. That way, I can use it just as basil puree if I want and it doesn't get wierd in the freezer.

Don't try to win over the haters. You're not the jackass whisperer."

Scott Stratten

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Always mash the garlic with salt first in a mortar, though, for sure.

Why?

The mashed garlic reacts with the oil to produce a nice stable emulsion. If you just bung the garlic clove into the blender you run the risk of the garlic not being sufficiently mashed, and then the pesto tends to split.

I think that chopping v mortar/blender are really talking about two different things. The former is the coarse modern style pesto that is often used as a dip or sandwich filling, the latter is the more traditional smooth emulsion that has creamy consistency that is better used as a pasta dressing.

I have a lovely marble mortar that I bought in Liguria, in 99% of cases I use a food processor ( I have an old machine that for some reasons produces excellent emulsion type sauces on its lowest setting).

Here is some images of pesto making and Ligurian cuisine in general.

Edited by Adam Balic (log)
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I generally start the garlic going in the robot coupe, add a little oil to get it nice and smooth, then add the basil and pine nuts, season, more oil, etc. Cheese at the end. I've never had a problem with it splitting.

I'm of the 'why clean more than one thing when one thing will get it done' school.

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not so much related to the method, but...

our kitchen accommodates guests with various food sensitivities (nuts, dairy), so pesto is always basil, garlic and oil, with seeds standing in for the pine nuts. If making ahead for freezing, I leave out the cheese, too, in case we need to re-purpose the pesto in a dairy-free dish.

But always with a food processor or blender. Because that's what we have.

Karen Dar Woon

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