Homemade Pesto and a Canning Lesson

*disclaimer: there is controversy over canning pesto.  It may not be the best way for your family to make and store pesto. Here’s my story.


My  basil was getting out of control. We hadn’t used any, really, since Gary’s been too busy to make more pizza dough. He makes at least 6 balls of dough at a time and he’s changed the original recipe a little so I’m afraid to tackle it. It’s on his honey-do list this weekend. Meanwhile, our basil is out of control.
I cut most of it down and made pesto this morning. I don’t have a food processor and the blender leaks so I had to do this by hand. A terrific website called “101 Cookbooks” had a great article called “How to Make Pesto Like an Italian Grandmother”. It talked about chopping the pesto and other ingredients with a knife like they did before convenience appliances. A novel idea so I went for it. The recipe I used was from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa) and I’ll give the links at the end of this article.
Since I was going to do this by hand, I should make a lot. I checked out canning info for pesto and found that it would be easy also. I don’t have your typical canning stuff; just a spaghetti pot with an insertable strainer and I bought a set of 8 ounce Ball jars from Publix.
The recipe calls for 5 cups, packed, of basil. Do you realize how much that is? I didn’t either. It took a while to cut that stuff but I figured using kitchen scissors and then finishing the process with a chopping-type knife worked best. I got a finely-chopped-yet-chunky basil. I chopped half of the 1/4 cup of pine nuts finely, almost mealy, and finished the rest with a rough chop. Ok, yes, my arm was hurting but in a culinary sort of way, I thought a little texture might be interesting.
After mixing all of the ingredients together I tasted it. OMG, how awesome. Gary liked it, too. By itself, it was a little salty but when we mixed it with pasta for lunch it was incredible.
I filled 3 8-ounce canning jars and saved the rest for lunch. The canning instructions said to fill the pot with water and once it was boiling set the jars, upright, in the water making sure it covered the tops and boil for 30 minutes. I had to add hot water during the 30 minutes due to evaporation. When 30 minutes ended I took the jars, set them on a cooking rack (the cookie rack was fine) and left them. I was worried I did something wrong because I thought the vacuum seal would happen while the jars were in the pot. It didn’t until after about an hour; there was a great concave feel to the lids. Awesome.
So, there is my first ever attempt to making pesto, chopping and canning.  I don’t really spend much time in the kitchen since I married a chef. 
Travis, my 14-year old chef-wannabe said: “Awesome pesto, Mom. This stuff’s better than that stuff from the store!”  ‘Nuff said!
Here are the links to the sites I used:
For the article on the Italian Grandmother: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/001570.html
Ina Garten’s large pesto recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/pesto-recipe/index.html

16 thoughts on “Homemade Pesto and a Canning Lesson

    1. I saw one article to that effect. Canning turned out great but the garlic got stronger. I will try freezing it next time. We were thinking of moving when I had all of that basil to harvest and I figured if I froze anything I’d lose it in the move. We ended up not moving. I saw either Jamie Oliver or David Rocco (Cooking Channel) make pesto and he simply made a large jar of it and said to store it; it would last a while. We went through ours very quickly (my boys loved it) so that’s another option. Thanks for your note.

  1. Thanks for all your information! I made my pesto today and tried sealing it in boiling water for 30 minutes. I’m a bit paranoid and wanted to ask you…you used the canned pesto with no tummy aches? In Chile we make pesto up in the mountains with no electricity and use it for months with no problem…I always try to cover it with olive oil to seal out the air and then just leave it on the counter. I would really appreciate your answer on this because I don’t want to rely on assumptions (that canning is bad) . Thank you for all your work. Mary in California

    1. I’ve received so many letters about the dangers of canning pesto that I have to respond. Unfortunately, my PC crashed (dead motherboard)and on it is the article I got my canning info from. If I can swipe it from the hard drive I’ll review it for my readers. I remember reading about how to can pesto and how to can using a pressure cooker. Since I don’t have a pressure cooker I did the regular canning. When I canned the first time, I had several jars that were full to the top with pesto and oil. I stored them in my pantry which didn’t last long since the family loved it so much we ate a lot in a short amount of time. I don’t know what it would be like a year later; we ate it too quickly. No tummy aches. The next 2 times I made pesto I followed Jamie Olivers recipe, made only one jar at a time and stored it in the refrigerator. As we ate down on it, the basil turned a muddy brown, the pesto stunk and tasted rancid. I threw half a jar out. I tried it a few times (still muddy brown) and this last time canned it again. I only made one jar, opened it immediately and stored it in the refrigerator. I don’t know if, because I heated the pesto first, the canning process preserved the basil but it hasn’t yet turned brown. I decided, after the deluge of notes from readers, and further researching the internet using different search terms that it might not be a great idea to can, that pesto should be pressure cooked and freezing might be the way to go. I emptied half a jar into an ice tray. Haven’t tried it yet. But I do like the flavor of the canned-then-refrigerated jar. I should have a disclaimer: this pesto canning process worked for me and my family and we did not get sick from canned pesto but you should do this at your own risk. As for me, I’ll continue to heat-can the pesto before eating it. It seems to stay fresher.

  2. It’s not so much that it’s a bad idea to can pesto…it’s a bad idea to can it in a regular water bath canner, however, you are able to can it in a pressure canner with no problems. The trick to knowing what is safe and not safe to can in a water bath canner is knowing the level of acidity in your finished products. For instance, Tomatoes have a high level of acidity…you can process them in a water bath canner…unless your making a tomato sauce with lots of added ingredients then it’s safer to use a pressure canner. Most jams and jellies are safe in a water bath canner because there is a large amount of sugar used and that will prevent bacterial growth. As the above poster mentions Alessi cans pesto with no problems, the difference there is that they use industrial pressure canners to do it with. The only problem I would see is the olive oil potentially going rancid if kept for too long. I would say if you’re going to do a big batch to just freeze it.

  3. OR…if the oil content in the canning is an issue for possible rancidity….replace half of the oil with water (you won’t know the difference) OR use half the oil volume with water….can that, and then reblend with a little oil when you open the jar. It is just a thought…and my $.02!

  4. Pesto is a low acid concoction and should be canned in a pressure cooker according to a time/temperature formula for its pH. The oil will retard aerobic bacteria for awhile, but when it happens it’s invisible. Don’t eat anything water canned that isn’t fruit/acidic before canning! Botulism alert!!!

    1. Jackie, Thx for your answer. I’ve been searching for the recommended time and pressure for pesto – do you have this info?

  5. I’ve been canning for years but only use a pressure canners. I run all my canning thru it, even jelly. I bring up to 10 lbs and then take it off the heat. When the pressure goes down I take the jars out and invert on a towel. Let the jars cool in this position. By doing this I’ve never had a hard not seal, before I had problems.
    I found this site because I was wanting information on pressure canning Pesto. I’ve never been comfortable with water bath canning. Years ago when my children were young, I canned 500 jars a year.

  6. Can you can pesto in a regular pressure cooker? I don’t know if there is a

    difference between a pressure canner and a pressure cooker.

  7. No there’s no difference between a pressure canner or pressure cooker. As long as you can get the correct amount of pressure needed, you’re fine. They’re just smaller.

    1. I think reading the linked attachment above would be worthwhile for anyone truly interested – it says there IS a difference in the outcome and safety.

  8. Thanks so much for all this information and backstory. Just one quick note of wonderment though… you married a chef… and don’t own a food processor??? I respect cooking like an Italian Grandmother…but in today’s world, such a ubiquitous kitchen appliance as a food processor makes chopping 5 cups of basil, parsley, pine nuts, walnuts, cheese, etc. literally a couple minutes’ work at most. In fact, years ago I bought one JUST to make pesto, and it’s been worth every penny for the killer pesto that results. 🙂

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