This delicious vegan cashew basil pesto is so easy and fast to prepare and goes well with just about everything, such as pizza, soups, salads, pasta, sandwiches, etc. Includes fresh herbs, cashew nuts (no pine nuts!), zesty lemon juice, fresh garlic and nutritional yeast. It is so simple yet bursts with amazing fresh flavors! 100% vegan, dairy-free and naturally gluten-free.
One of my favorite way to enjoy fresh basil is by making pesto! And here I'll show you how to make the most delicious vegan cashew basil pesto sauce within 5 min.
We make homemade pesto very often and for a good reason: it is SO easy, quick, versatile and delicious. Traditional basil pesto sauces are such a great way to flavor pasta, rice, salads, vegetables, sandwiches, etc with bold and fresh flavors without having to put in much effort.
Plus, making your own pesto sauce from scratch means that you can make it exactly the way you like it. I make a traditional pesto sauce for pasta often (check out this pasta al pesto recipe), but sometimes I like to tweak a classic pesto recipe depending on what I have available in my house. My oil-free vegan walnut pesto works well for dipping and spreading in sandwiches, but I'll often use cashew nuts to make vegan pesto, which is such a bliss.
I actually think cashews are one of the best substitutes for pine nuts in basil pesto recipes. It adds a nice creaminess to the pesto sauce while making it slightly sweet and nutty as well, plus you won't have to break the bank to make it. This recipe is definitely a favorite pesto sauce to use for pasta recipes as it really gets unbelievably saucy and rich when you also include some pasta cooking water to the mix.
Also, I make pesto completely vegan without any compromise on the flavor (I promise!) by adding a generous amount of nutritional yeast. It adds a nice boost of cheesy and umami flavors and replaces the typical parmesan cheese to make this recipe completely dairy-free.
There is such a nice flavor coming from the fresh garlic and lemon juice, which you will be able to add to taste depending on your preference. You will need a large handful of fresh basil to make it, which is perfect in the summer when there is an abundance of basil in the gardens and farmer's markets.
As a side note, I typically use way less (or even not at all sometimes) olive oil to make my pesto sauces, making them healthier. I'll show you an easy trick to make them still as creamy, rich and tasty even if lower in fat!
I hope you enjoy your meal! ❤️
Why this recipe works
- Ultra easy recipe that's packed with bold and fresh flavors
- Endless ways to serve this recipe
- Other than fresh basil, this recipe uses simple plant-based ingredients you probably already have on hand.
- Healthier recipe made with less oil (with an option of making 100% oil-free!)
- Amazing combination of fresh garlic, zesty lemon and cheesy flavors
- Ready within 5 minutes without any cooking required, perfect for easy weeknight dinners
- Rich in omega-3 fats, vitamins, fiber and even plant-based protein. Basil also is packed with antioxidants!
- 100% vegan and dairy-free and naturally gluten-free
Why making pesto with cashews is amazing
Classic basil pesto is typically made with pine nuts, which are tiny nuts that turn super creamy when blended. They provide such an amazing nutty flavor to pesto and are usually a favorite.
BUT, here is why I love to make pesto using cashews instead:
- Pine nuts are expensive! Cashews aren’t that cheap either, but they a lot more affordable compared to pine nuts.
- Cashews also are easier to find and can be more accessible depending on where you live.
- Raw cashews are one of my favorite ingredients to replace dairy products in vegan recipes for their mildly sweet and nutty flavor. When paired with nutritional yeast, it really tastes similar to cheese, which is perfect for making cheese-free pesto!
- Cashews blend easily to a super creamy consistency, making pesto sauces feel so rich, even if made healthier with less olive oil.
Ingredients you'll need
- Raw unsalted cashews: look for unroasted cashews without added salt, which is best for blending and making sauces.
- Fresh basil: You will need 2 packed cups of fresh basil to make this recipe. There are many different kinds of basil and you can experiment using whatever type you can find, although Genovese or sweet basil is the classic basil for making pesto.
- Garlic: what would be pesto without fresh garlic? I like my pesto quite garlicky so I'll typically add 2 large cloves of garlic, but you can start with one and see how much more you want to add.
- Nutritional yeast: you can omit it if you don't have it, although it makes vegan pesto super cheesy and rich in flavors.
- Lemon juice: brightens up the flavor and the color of the pesto.
- High-quality extra virgin olive oil: I like to include about 2 tablespoons per batch of pesto and then afterward, I prefer to adjust the consistency with water instead of adding more oil. That way, the pesto is saucy and creamy without being too oily.
- Salt: add to taste.
How to make vegan cashew basil pesto
This pesto recipe should be ready within 5 minutes!
Process into a paste
Add the whole cashews and roughly chopped garlic to a food processor and then, process into a crumbly mixture. Make sure there are no large pieces of cashews or garlic before adding more ingredients.
Then, add the nutritional yeast, lemon juice (start with 2 tablespoons), salt (start with ½ teaspoon) and fresh basil.
Process until it forms a thick paste. Use a spatula to stir in the ingredients and scrape the walls of the food processor.
Add oil and water
Then, process again while pouring the olive oil through the "feed tube" of the food processor. Take another break to stir in the ingredients and then process again while adding some water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you reach desired consistency (about 2- 3 tablespoons total).
Taste and adjust
Once the texture of the pesto looks good, then be sure to taste and adjust the flavor to your preference: add more lemon juice, salt, garlic and nutritional yeast if needed.
- If making pesto pasta, then make sure to keep some pasta cooking water aside. That way, you can use it to loosen up the sauce and create the most unbelievably creamy texture.
- Lemon juice adds a nice strong fresh and zesty taste to a pesto sauce, which can help limit the amount of salt you add to reach a perfect bold yummy taste. So, be sure to add enough lemon juice and also serve with extra lemon wedges!
- I like to first roughly chop or even crush the garlic before adding it to the food processor, even though it will be processed. That way, I make sure the pesto will not have any larger pieces of raw garlic left.
- Use fresh young basil leaves for best flavors. Basil that's left in the garden for a while before being harvested can turn a little bitter, which would not be great in such a basil-focused recipe.
Vegan cashew pesto serving suggestions
There are so many ways to serve pesto! It definitely is a good kitchen staple to be able to whip together quickly to make mealtime so fast and easy, especially for weeknight dinners.
Our go-to meal using this recipe simply is to toss the pesto with our favorite pasta (linguini or fettuccini) and serve with extra roasted vegetables. To help the pesto combine better with the noodles and to turn the texture more saucy, you can add some pasta cooking water to the noodles or even, add a little bit of vegan plain cream (I like this vegan cream from Nut Pods) to make a vegan pesto cream sauce.
As seen in the pictures, I served my pasta meal with roasted tomatoes: roast them in a pan or in the oven (400º) until they break slightly and start to soften, which you can do while the noodles are cooking. Just top your bowl of pesto noodles with the yummy saucy tomatoes. Roasted zucchini or red pepper would also be amazing.
This pesto sauce also is amazing layered in lasagnas, especially if added to this vegan white sauce lasagna. Or pair with zoodles (zucchini noodles) to add more veggies to your meal.
Other than in pasta, here are other ways you can serve this recipe:
- Sandwiches: or in veggie burgers. I have a roasted vegetable sandwich on the blog where you can use this pesto recipe with.
- Soup: you can use this pesto as a garnish and flavor booster over creamy soups, such as this cauliflower potato soup, creamy gnocchi soup or this broccoli pea soup.
- Salads: you can loosen up the consistency of the pesto and use as a salad dressing, especially for pasta salads, quinoa salads or couscous salads. Or simply toss with halved fresh cherry tomatoes and cucumber for a simple and super fresh side dish.
- Pizza: make pizza night super fun + different and swap the regular tomato sauce for this pesto sauce! Check out this vegan pesto flatbread recipe for inspiration. You can also serve with homemade focaccia bread.
- Dip: simply add a few spoonfuls to some vegan plain yogurt with an extra squeeze of lemon juice to make a delicious fresh dip for bread sticks, pita bread or raw veggie sticks.
Variations to the recipe
Pesto is one of those recipe you can easily adjust the ingredients to your taste. I recommend following the recipe as is, but then make sure to taste the pesto and add more salt/lemon juice/olive oil/water/garlic to your preference.
You can also add extra ingredients to the food processor and experiment by including:
- A different mix of nuts or seeds alongside some cashews, such as almonds, pine nuts, sunflower seeds or walnuts.
- More herbs, such as parsley or cilantro. You can also add some dried herbs to change the flavor profile, especially dried oregano.
- More greens such as baby spinach, which is mostly flavorless, but will add extra nutrients to your pesto sauce.
- More veggies, such as sweet peas or sun-dried tomatoes. Also, similarly to my protein guacamole recipe, you can add some frozen + thawed edamame soybeans to add extra protein and nutrients to your meal.
- Spicy: you can add some red pepper flakes to the food processor to add some heat.
Pesto stores pretty well, although it tends to darken over time after being in contact with ambient air.
To try to prevent this oxidation process from happening and help the color to stay brighter, you can first transfer the pesto sauce to an airtight container and then:
- squeeze some extra lemon juice over (limits oxidation reaction) AND
- place a plastic film right over the pesto touching its surface (limits contact with ambient air).
Also, pesto freezes very well, giving you the option to make a larger batch and then freeze some for later. The best way to freeze it is to transfer the pesto to ice cube trays. That way, you can only grab and thaw the pesto cubes that you need to flavor soups, sauces, dips, etc.
No, I don't soak cashews when making pesto. The texture stays a little more coarse and somehow crumbly, but still becomes creamy, which works well for pesto.
If you only have roasted cashews, then I would still use them. Be sure to taste before adding any extra salt since most roasted cashews also include salt. But, I still recommend using raw and unroasted cashews for best result if possible!
Yes, you can use a blender to make pesto. In that case, use a high-speed blender if possible to help crush the cashews very finely and take multiple breaks to scrape the walls of the blender.
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I hope you like this vegan cashew basil pesto recipe as much as we do! If you try it, please leave a comment below and rate the recipe to let me know how it was. Your feedback is so helpful!
Vegan Cashew Basil Pesto
- Food processor
- 2 packed cups fresh basil
- 1 cup raw cashews - unroasted and unsalted
- 2-3 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 cloves of garlic - roughly chopped
- 3 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 2 tbsp olive oil - or more to taste, see notes for an oil-free recipe
- water - enough to reach desired consistency, about 1-3 tablespoons
- To a food processor, add the cashews and garlic. Then process until fine and crumbly.
- Add the nutritional yeast, salt, lemon juice and fresh basil. Then, process until a thick paste forms. Use a spatula to stir and scrape the walls of the food processor.
- Then, process again and pour the olive oil through the "feed tube" while it processes. Stir in the food processor.
- Then, process again and add 1-3 tablespoons of water through the feed tube while it processes. Keep adding water in small amounts at a time until you reach desired consistency.
- Taste and adjust flavors to your preferences. Serve with pasta, pizza, sandwiches, soups, etc.
- Storage: pesto stores well, although it tends to brown over time. To slow down the oxidation process, you can squeeze extra lemon juice over the pesto and place a plastic film touching its surface before transferring it in the fridge (it stores well for about 3 days).
- You can also freeze pesto using an ice cube tray for up to 3-4 months. Then, thaw and use as many cubes as you need to flavor soups, pasta or sauces.
- If serving with pasta, then be sure to keep some the pasta cooking water to stir in the sauce and help combine everything together.
- I recommend checking out the blog post to find out ways to customize your pesto sauce!