Traditional Pesto Sauce, and a little Food for Thought

Pesto in mortar

Many people may not realize it, but the word pesto literally means: to pound or to crush, in Italian. It seems obvious when you think of similar sounding words like mortar and PESTLE, but for some reason, until recently, I never made the connection.

Homemade pesto sauce was almost a weekly tradition for me and my sister growing up. Both my stepfather and my stepmother each had their own unique and delicious methods for preparing the sauce, but unfortunately both methods involved the use of a food processor. Neither of them realized how much better their sauce could have been had they made it the traditional way: with a mortar and pestle. I should give them the benefit of the doubt though, as they were both hard working people with more to think about than gourmet food preparation, and the ones largely responsible for developing my lust for good food. Perhaps they did realize it would have tasted better the old fashioned way, but gave in to the allure of modern convenience and efficiency in a world of conflicting priorities. I won’t judge them negatively for their choice, but I will insist that something was lost in their process(ing). I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is, but having tried both now, I’ve concluded that pestled pesto just tastes better. It’s sweeter, more aromatic, colorful, and flavorful.

Many of the finest distilleries in the United States made a comparable mistake while re-outfitting their whisky stills shortly after the repeal of Prohibition. With new capital, new technology, and the desire to make things bigger, better, and longer lasting, they started using stainless steel to build their stills instead of the traditional copper. A copper still typically has a life expectancy of only around ten years, depending on production levels, whereas a stainless steel still lasts indefinitely. A description of the result, is best made by Jim Murray, author of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible. When asked what whisky would taste like without copper used in the distillation process.

“That’s an easy one,” he said. “As often as not, diabolical. The less copper you get, the less sweetness and honey tends to be around. Often you pick up a cabbage water aroma—at its worst, it takes me back to the old days when my mum used to boil hankies. Copper adds a sparkle to the nose; stainless steel stills offer something often flat and lifeless.”

It took years of research and large sums of money to discover why copper was so necessary in the distilling process. Turns out that one of the major reasons is that it acts as a catalyst, extracting sulfur and other nasties from the passing vapors. Much is still unknown about copper’s benefits, and perhaps will be left a mystery for many more years to come.

The moral of this whisky tangent, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, is that in most areas of life, it’s best to adhere to the time honored methods our ancestors developed over thousands of years. They work!

Here we go again… you’re probably thinking, another article by Will or Rose on how to spend an entire day in the kitchen making something that could be bought pre-made, or should only take a few minutes using modern technology. Let me assure you, that the following method only takes about 5 minutes more than the food processor method. I personally find the grinding process to be a labor of love, and I think my wife Mary can taste the difference.

Traditional Ligurian Pesto



  1. Combine basil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, and salt in your mort ar.
  2. Grind with pestle in a pounding and/or rotating motion until a paste is formed, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add cheese; grind until combined.
  4. Briskly stir pesto with a wooden spoon while drizzling in the olive oil.
  5. Drizzle pesto with more oil until desired consistency is reached.
  6. Let rest while cooking your pasta.
  7. Stir pesto into drained pasta while still hot.
  8. Garnish with extra cheese and crushed pine nuts.
  9. Try throwing a handful of chopped tomatoes on top (my mom ‘s touch)
  10. Enjoy!

    Pesto Pasta

8 Responses to “Traditional Pesto Sauce, and a little Food for Thought”

  1. At last! Someone who makes REAL pesto. I see so many “chop everything real fine” recipes and “throw it in the blender” recipes, and I sigh. The mortar and pestle method is by far the best, and i think it is because there is no metal involved, and no cutting. It is all about grinding.

    Once you get used to the process it is very easy and very quick, and much more enjoyable than other methods.

    Eat! Enjoy! VY

  2. VY-It’s nice to see at least one other person agrees with me. Thanks for the feedback!

  3. do you recommend a stone or wooden mortar and pestle for this?

  4. Wow. It never occurred to me to use a mortar and pestle for pesto—or that the origin of the word pesto came from the Italian word for crushing. I love food blogs that are more than just recipes, where I feel as if I’ve learned something. So of course, I also enjoyed the sidebar about whiskey and copper.

  5. Banana,
    That’s a good question. Until recently I used a wooden pestle and a tupperware bowl. I know, a pretty lousy solution, but it did work. The light weight plastic bowl would move all over the place though making the job difficult. I needed something much bigger and heavier, but hadn’t bought one because they can be quite expensive. While shopping at my local Asian market the other day I noticed some huge mortars carved out of stone for only $20 (I think they must charge a dollar a pound for these things cause they’re very heavy!) and it was a done deal. I like the weight of the stone mortar as well as the rough texture of the bowl which helps to break down the basil better.

    Terry B,
    Thanks for your kind words!

  6. I love it! This makes me want to buy a mortar and pestle. That pesto looks fabulous!

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