Anyone can make a Pesto Pasta, but not everyone knows how to make a pesto pasta that’s slick with plenty of pesto sauce without adding tons of extra oil! Here’s how I make it.
Try this with homemade pesto. It’s amazing!
How to make a JUICY pesto pasta
If you’ve ever made pesto pasta and found that it a bit on the dry side, then tried to salvage it by adding more and more olive oil only to end up with an excessively greasy pasta, you’ll love the technique I’m sharing today:
Add pasta cooking water
It will thin out the pesto so it coats everything nicely and creates a glossy pesto sauce that coats every bit of pasta. The starch in the water emulsifies with the pesto, which simply means the fat in the pesto + starch in the water thickens. Just like when you shake up salad dressings – same thing.
It’s the “proper” way to make pastas, a technique used in every Italian household and restaurants all over the world. Regular readers here are sick of reading about it – I write about it in every pasta recipe, from Shredded Beef Ragu to classic Bolognese, to Spaghetti Marinara!
And THAT is the secret to making a JUICY pesto pasta that’s slick with pesto sauce without adding tons and tons of extra oil!
Best pasta for pesto
You can make pesto pasta with any pasta your heart desires. And even in today’s recipe video, I say to use your favourite pasta.
But I do have my preferences. My favourite is penne or ziti (which is just penne with a smooth surface). I find it’s the easiest to toss for even distribution and you get the “juiciest” pesto pasta.
Spaghetti and other thin(-ish) long strand pastas are my next favourite. I find that it’s not quite as easy to toss the pesto through and the more you work the pasta, the less saucy it becomes (though you just keep adding pasta cooking water, but there’s only so much you can add).
Twirls and other shapes with “crevices” rate lower just because there’s far more surface area so somehow, I just feel a bit pesto deprived.
Pesto pasta tips
I say that pesto pasta is one of the simplest pastas to make, but I do have a few tips to share – lessons learned from my own mistakes!
- Toss in a bowl, not the pot you cooked the pasta in – basil doesn’t like heat. It turns black. The heat from the pasta is ok – but if you add the heat from the pot, the basil won’t like it.
- Do not toss on the stove! Again – black basil.
- Take out 1 cup of pasta cooking water just before you drain (not earlier, otherwise it’s not starchy enough). Take out way more than you think you need, you might need it. You will be surprised how much the pasta can absorb – I used 3/4 cup for 300g/10oz pasta for the spaghetti in the video (because I kept tossing to film and it kept sucking up the sauce!)
- Salt the water – Pesto usually isn’t (and should not be) seasoned enough such that you don’t need to add any other salt once tossed through pasta. The best way to season Pesto Pasta is to salt the water.
- DO NOT REHEAT leftover pesto pasta! Again – black pesto. Eat at room temp – that’s the best you can do.
I’m sharing these tips on the assumption that you’re using a homemade pesto (basil or otherwise). I actually haven’t used store bought pesto enough to know if it will turn black from heat.
These recipe steps apply irrespective of what type of pesto you are using – basil, rocket/arugula, spinach etc – there’s a nice list of options in my homemade pesto recipe. The image below is a rocket/arugula and walnut pesto – I love the combination of the spicy rocket and slightly bitter walnuts.
Whatever type pf pesto you use, finishing with a nice sprinkle of parmesan is not optional! – Nagi x
Try these on the side
- Caprese Salad – juicy tomato and pops of tartness from the balsamic glaze are a great match!
- Any salad or steamed vegetables with Italian Dressing or Balsamic Dressing
- Toss some halved cherry tomatoes into the pasta, and/or a handful of spinach or rocket/arugula
And for Pasta Monsters
- Everybody’s favourite everyday Bolognese
- Slow Cooked Shredded Beef Ragu or try this Italian Sausage and Beef Ragu
- Baked Ziti – the mother of all pasta bakes!
- Creamy Chicken and Bacon Pasta
- Alfredo Pasta
- Browse all pasta recipes
Watch how to make it
JUICY Pesto Pasta!
Recipe video above. This is how to make a great pesto pasta that’s slick with pesto sauce without adding tons and tons of oil which makes it overly oily. The secret is using the pasta cooking water – it emulsifies with the oil in the pesto which makes it cling to every strand of pasta. A technique used in every Italian household! Make this with homemade pesto for the best flavour.
- 1 quantity homemade pesto ((Note 1))
- 300 – 350 g / 10 – 12 oz pasta of choice ((ziti, penne and spaghetti are my favourites, Note 2))
- 2 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup pasta cooking water
- Parmesan, for serving
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil with the salt.
- Add pasta and cook for the length of time per the packet.
- Just before draining, scoop out 1 cup of of the pasta cooking water.
Drain pasta in a colander, leave it for a minute.
- Transfer pasta to a bowl (do not use pasta cooking pot, too hot).
- Add pesto and 1/4 cup of pasta water. Toss to coat pasta in pesto, adding more water if required to make pasta silky and saucy, rather than dry and sticky.
- Taste, add more salt and pepper if desired.
- Serve immediately, garnished with fresh parmesan.
1. Pesto – This recipe is intended for use with this homemade pesto which I also shared today. But the same technique applies to store bought. If using store bought, use 1/2 cup+. Usually require less than when using homemade because they have a more concentrated flavour from basil extract.
2. Pasta – Ziti and penne are my favourites for pesto (explained in post). Spaghetti is next, then other long strand pastas.
- Use 300g/10oz for a really great coating of pesto sauce – 3 large servings, 4 smallish servings.
- Use up to 350g/12oz for “normal” amount of pesto sauce to pasta – 4 standard servings.
- Don’t use more pasta for one batch of homemade pesto, the pasta will lack pesto flavour.
- Never toss pesto pasta on a hot stove, heat will make basil black!
- Some people like a squeeze of lemon juice to finish
- Leftovers – store in fridge in super airtight container
- Do not reheat leftovers – will also make basil black. Just bring to room temp then consume – pesto pasta at room temp is so good!
Life of Dozer
Distressed that he’s on the wrong side of the bakery shop door….