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We scooped up seven traditional basil pestos (also called pesto Genovese), priced from $2.99 to $11.49 per container. We sampled each pesto plain and tossed with hot pasta.
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What You Need To Know
We like basil pesto tossed with pasta or roasted potatoes, spooned over grilled chicken, and as a flavorful spread on pizza and sandwiches. When fresh basil is in season, it’s easy enough to make pesto from scratch. But for a quick weeknight meal, especially in the colder months, store-bought pesto is a tempting option. We scooped up seven traditional basil pestos (also called pesto Genovese), priced from $2.99 to $11.49 per container, including shelf-stable glass jars, a shelf-stable squeezable tube, and a refrigerated tub. We sampled each pesto plain and tossed with hot pasta.
Packaged Pestos Are Generally Disappointing
We’ll cut to the chase: Most samples were subpar. Traditional pesto Genovese is made from just basil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, and olive oil. But several products in our lineup had long lists of ingredients that included outliers like yeast extract, potato flakes, and cashews. One brand bulked up the basil with cheaper spinach, a move our tasters emphatically disapproved of. And even if the pestos had the classic ingredients, too much salt or garlic could overwhelm the basil flavor. Worst of all, many of the products also had odd musty, bitter, and sour off-flavors. In fact, just one of the pestos earned our full approval. It didn’t have the same concentrated basil flavor as homemade, but its thick, creamy texture and pronounced cheesy flavor (it contains both Parmesan and Romano) made it the clear favorite in both of our tastings.
Why Do So Many of Them Taste Oddly Sour?
After confirming that none of the products was near its expiration date, we started searching for something to explain those off-flavors. Nuts and olive oil go rancid quickly when exposed to light or air (a process called oxidation), and basil’s flavor starts to fade once its leaves are chopped. Any of these ingredients can go bad before packaging and may develop off-flavors over time in the jar. As a result, many manufacturers rely on preservatives like lactic acid and acetic acid. Although they’re intended to ensure freshness, they have the unfortunate side effect of adding noticeable sourness.
Our Favorite Prepared Pesto Products
The best product was the only refrigerated pesto, one of just two products that lack preservatives. The other, our runner-up, was a cheese-free, shelf-stable pesto sold in a glass jar. They both use primarily olive oil, which is slower to oxidize and go rancid than vegetable oils. But the jarred pesto, although it was our runner-up, was polarizing. Many tasters missed the sharp, creamy bite of Italian cheese; others liked that the “nutty,” buttery flavor of cashews and pine nuts stood out. As ...
Everything We Tested
The only refrigerated product in our lineup was head and shoulders above its competition. Testers liked its “creamy flavor and texture” and the richness that comes with two kinds of cheese. We just wish the vibrant, peppery flavor of basil was a bit stronger.
Recommended with reservations
With more chopped cashews than traditional basil and pine nuts, this pesto had rich, nutty flavor and a pleasant chunky texture. That said, some tasters bemoaned the lack of cheese. Shelf-stable without the addition of acidic preservatives, it avoided the sour flavors that marred lower-ranked brands.
Tasters liked the “chunky,” “rustic” texture of this pesto, but our panel easily detected the spinach mixed in with more traditional ingredients. Some found this pesto simply “vegetal,” but others bemoaned the “briny” taste and the “overcooked” flavor of “wilted spinach.”
The “pungent garlic flavor” of this nut-free pesto overwhelmed the basil and cheese. Tasters also complained about “tough” and “chewy” stems.
White balsamic vinegar and phosphoric acid combined to make this pesto overly tart. It was also “mealy” and “harshly salty.” Some tasters noticed a “fusty” note that’s often found in rancid olive oil.
We thought that this squeezable tube would be convenient. Unfortunately, this finely chopped pesto was overly salty and chockablock with “astringent” and “funky” off-flavors that may be due to citric acid and/or oxidized ingredients.
Not only was this pesto “grainy” and “stringy,” but it also had an “oddly sour” flavor and a “bitter aftertaste.” These serious flaws landed it at the bottom at both tastings and prove that potato flakes have no place in pesto.
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