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Cheese Up Your Pesto Game

After long autumns and winters of subsisting on dried herbs, fresh pesto is a wakeup call to the senses, reminding us all how delicious summer basil can be. And when brainstorming simple but creative summer meals, a big batch of the stuff can be your best friend. 

When it comes down to it, pesto is simply a cocktail of herbs, nuts, and cheese– all delicious ingredients that lend themselves to creative substitutions. So have fun and experiment! Decide what qualities you want in your spread (earthy? fresh? extra salty?) and mix and match until you find your balance. 

Our favorite way to mix it up? Changing up the cheese, of course! 


There’s a reason parmesan is the most widely-used cheese in pesto. Sharp, dry, and loaded with umami, parmesan complements the richness of pine nuts and offsets the freshness of the basil in traditional pesto recipes. And it does a hell of a job satisfying a salt craving. If you’re looking for a rich, yet mild pesto, without the bite of raw garlic, try this parmesan pesto recipe from Food52, which substitutes in fresh summer garlic scapes. Author Kenzi Wilbur advises,

Toss it with pasta, spread it on toast; thin it with more olive oil and it’ll become a happy alternative to whatever you’ve been dressing your salads with. 


Parmesan’s pungent cousin, pecorino, is perfect for making pesto with a bit more attitude. The sheep’s milk cheese cheese goes well with similarly bold and earthy ingredients, which is why Food & Wine dreamed up a recipe that pairs pecorino with kale and cuts the palate wth zesty lemon. Toss it into a bowl of rigatoni as the recipe suggests, or simply go a it with a spoon. We won’t judge. (Or maybe use it to top more cheese??)


For pesto with a bright taste and light, fluffy texture, try substituting one of our favorite warm-weather varieties, ricotta. This recipe from Bon Appetit makes an absurdly creamy spread that, while refreshing, remains decadent with the addition of hazelnuts. Summer crostini, anyone?


If you’re the type that can’t help but resort to cheddar for every cheese-based dish, we don’t blame you. The sharp, nutty cheese goes with…well, pretty much everything. For an earthy, rich pesto spread, try Busy in Brooklyn’s recipe, which uses cheddar, spinach, and walnuts. 

Happy blending!

Photo: Food52

Amanda Minoff

Amanda recently graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine with a degree in English Literature and Art History. She is a reader and writer of fiction and loves cheese that tells a good story.

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