The peppery bite of arugula makes a delicious twist on traditional basil. This arugula pesto recipe uses garlic, walnuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil to create a sauce you’ll want on everything from pasta to veggies and meat to fish.
I’ve shared many pesto recipes on this site over the past 12 years. This arugula pesto dates back to early 2012, but for some reason, I took pictures of the pesto yet provided no recipe. I have no idea what I was doing in some posts back then, but they are comical to reflect on now.
I probably make pesto without using basil more often than with the traditional ingredient. There are two reasons for that:
- Fresh basil is expensive; you need at least two or three bunches to make pesto.
- When I try to grow it myself, I never get the prolific yield I do with other herbs.
On the other hand, I have grown arugula from seed, and that stuff grows like an absolute weed. The first year of my raised bed garden, I made this pesto almost weekly to try and keep up with the yield.
Recipes like this arugula pesto or zucchini pesto are the perfect answer to overflowing gardens. If you’re wondering what you can do with a lot of arugula, this pesto is the answer! And if you don’t have a garden, a massive container of baby arugula is less than the cost of one bunch of fresh basil, so it’s a much more economical variation than a classic pesto recipe.
If you love the fiery, peppery bite of arugula, I think you’ll more than enjoy this recipe. I use walnuts instead of pine nuts because their robust and meaty texture and taste help balance the flavor of the arugula. Still, everything else is traditional to a pesto recipe. Walnuts are also a lot more budget-friendly than pine nuts. I don’t know why pine nuts cost as much as a mortgage payment, but I try to use them sparingly because of their price.
It goes just as well tossed with pasta as dolloped onto roasted vegetables or served with meats and fish. It also comes together using a food processor in just a few minutes and stores well in the refrigerator and freezer.
Ingredients for making arugula pesto
- Arugula — I prefer baby arugula leaves, if possible, as they’re a touch less bitter than the full-grown leafy vegetable.
- Parsley — Adding herbs is optional, but just a little fresh parsley adds a nice fresh pop to the pesto and complements the intense arugula flavors.
- Walnuts — These are used in place of traditional pine nuts. Typically, I will toast nuts when making pesto, but you don’t need to in this recipe.
- Garlic — I am not a fan when garlic overpowers all the other ingredients in pesto. Using just one clove in the recipe adds flavor while still letting the earthy arugula flavor shine. Using roasted garlic is another option for an incredible yet subtle garlic flavor.
- Lemon juice — This helps keep the pesto light and bright. This citrus pesto plays up the citrus flavor even more if you like the tart freshness of lemon.
- Extra virgin olive oil — Olive oil adds richness and that distinct smoothness to the pesto you love. A good quality olive oil makes all the difference in a no-cook sauce like this.
- Parmesan cheese — Nutty parmesan is vital to a good pesto. While you can use replacements like nutritional yeast in vegan pesto recipes, nothing entirely mimics the authentic flavor of parmesan. Pecorino Romano is an acceptable substitute if preferred.
How to make this arugula pesto recipe
Pesto is traditionally made using a mortar and pestle, but even if you have those tools in your kitchen, most of us don’t have the time to put some serious elbow grease into that process. A good food processor turns pesto-making into a much more convenient method. Plus, a mortar and pestle results in chunkier pieces of arugula in this pesto. I prefer a smooth sauce consistency to my pesto rather than one akin to salsa.
Add all the ingredients except the olive oil into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture appears finely chopped. Stop the processor a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Slowly drizzle in the olive oil with the processor running until the pesto becomes smooth and silky. You can add more olive oil to attain the desired consistency.
*Pro tip — A wallet and waist-friendly tip is using water instead of olive oil to thin out the pesto.
How to serve the pesto
There are so many ways to enjoy pesto. Of course, the most common approach is to toss it with fresh pasta for an easy meal, and while that never disappoints, you can get creative with the arugula pesto and try some other options.
- Spread it on toast and make a delicious crostini appetizer.
- Toss it with potatoes. Roasted pesto potatoes are an easy way to make a regular side dish into something more unique.
- Use it in a casserole to add flavor without much effort.
- Spread it on a sandwich for flavor, or use it to make something like this chickpea pesto sandwich.
- Serve with any roasted vegetables. I enjoy it paired with air fryer spaghetti squash for an easy way to add flavor.
- Serve the arugula pesto on the side of any grilled meat or fish or even dolloped into a bowl of soup or stew for a taste of freshness.
- Use it to make a pesto pizza.
How to make arugula pesto less bitter
If you find this pesto too much on the bitter side, a touch of honey for natural sweetness works well.
The most common cause for a bitter pesto is olive oil, which has started turning rancid or of poor quality. When making recipes like pesto, where the flavor of the olive oil is front and center, it’s best to choose a good quality brand. Cold-pressed and organic olive oils from a single source are best.
More pesto recipes to try
If you love this arugula pesto and want to try some others, we have plenty to choose from:
- Ramp pesto — This is an excellent recipe for the short period when fresh ramps are in season.
- Radish greens pesto — Reduce food waste by using the green tops of radishes in this peppery pesto, which is very similar to arugula.
- Garlic scape pesto — Make this creamy pesto recipe that tames the intense flavor of fresh garlic scapes with indulgent ricotta.
- Trapanese pesto — Falling somewhere between a vodka sauce, roasted red pepper dip and a tomato pesto sauce, this recipe is different but delicious.
If you make and love this recipe, please leave a ★★★★★ review below! I’d love to know how it goes. Leave a comment below if you have any questions. Tag @runningtothekitchen on Instagram & Facebook.
- 4 cups baby arugula packed
- 1/2 cup fresh parsley packed
- 1/2 cup walnuts
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino Romano
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 lemon juiced
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- Combine all the ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped, scraping down the sides a few times as needed.
- With the food processor running, slowly pour in the olive oil until the pesto is smooth and creamy.
- Add more olive oil or water as needed to reach desired consistency.
- Transfer to a bowl and use as desired.
This website provides approximate nutrition information for convenience and as a courtesy only. Nutrition information can vary for a variety of reasons. For the most precise nutritional data use your preferred nutrition calculator based on the actual ingredients you used in the recipe.
Gina Matsoukas is the writer, founder, photographer and recipe developer of Running to the Kitchen — a food website focused on providing healthy, wholesome recipes using fresh and seasonal ingredients as much as possible. Her work has been featured in numerous media outlets both digital and print, including MSN, Huffington post, Buzzfeed, Women’s Health and Food Network.