Basil Bounty: Three Tips for Saving Money by Making Your Own Pesto (Recipe Included)

July ushers in the epitome of summer garden abundance here in Wisconsin. So I was disappointed to see my local supermarket in town selling a teeny “fresh” box of basil from California, a quarter of an ounce for $2.49. With these high ingredient prices, it’s no wonder making your own pesto hasn’t evolved to higher home culinary status.

But ignore that price tag. With a little planning, you can make the amazing homemade, local pesto that will keep you savoring summer all winter long. Here are a few frugal tips to get you started:

1. Grow Your Own Basil

There’s a reason why fresh basil comes with such a high price tag: the herb is incredibly hard to keep fresh. From the moment it is cut, the leaves start to wilt, making transport very difficult. One of the most economical ways to get your feet wet in gardening is to grow basil (or any fresh herb you use frequently), which can readily be grown in a container or pot.

Another option if you have befriended a grower at your local farmers’ market is to see if you can buy “leftover” basil at their end of their sale day. Any leftover basil will probably be at that wilted stage. While the looks aren’t perfect, the flavor still will be and you’ll be chopping it into the pesto anyway so the look of the leaf won’t matter. The farmer will be happy to get rid of it and may cut you a nice clearance special price.

2. Experiment with Different Nuts

Pine nuts may be the local nut of choice in traditional Mediterranean pesto, but it comes with another high price tag when making the American version. Other nuts work equally well, such as walnuts, pecans and almond. I’ve even used peanuts and pistachios in a pinch. The nut will alter the pesto flavor, so experiment with small batches to see what nut alternatives you like best.

3. Stock Up the Freezer for Winter

Eating pesto in the winter is the frugal equivalent of jetting to Tuscany, at least with a cheaper point of entry. But remember to stock up and make big pesto batches when fresh basil is at its peak. My husband, John Ivanko, is our resident pesto maker and he will typically quadruple the recipe below since it freezes very well. We freeze the pesto in one-cup freezer containers but, for smaller households, try freezing the pesto in individual compartment in an ice cube tray. “Pop” the pesto cube out and place in a freezer bag for easy, individual servings.

Basil Pesto

From Edible Earth: Savoring the Good Life with Vegetarian Recipes from Inn Serendipity

This is very much one of those “mix to taste” type of recipes. Don’t feel the need to go off this ingredient list exactly; experiment and play with the various flavors to create your own custom pesto.


1 c. firmly packed, washed fresh basil leaves

½ c. pine nuts, walnuts or pecans

½ c. Parmesan cheese or other hard cheeses such as Gruyere, grated

2 cloves garlic, minced

½ t. salt (or to taste)

2 T. olive oil

Dash of lemon juice

* In a food processor, combine basil, nuts, cheese, garlic, olive oil and salt. Cover; blend or process with several on-off turns until a paste forms, stopping the machine several times and scraping sides.

* With the machine running slowly, gradually add the oil and process until the consistency of soft butter.

* Transfer to a storage container. Refrigerate for a couple days or pack into freezer containers to freeze.

Yields: 5-7 servings.

Photo credit:  Lisa Kivirist

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About the Author

Lisa Kivirist embodies the growing “ecopreneuring” movement: innovative entrepreneurs who successfully blend business with making the world a better place. Lisa is co-author, with her husband, John Ivanko, of Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life, capturing the American dream of farm living for contemporary times. Her latest release, ECOpreneuring: Putting Purpose and the Planet Before Profits is a compact, dynamic tool kit for a fresh approach to entrepreneurial thinking, blending passion for protecting and preserving the planet with small business pragmatics. As a W.K. Kellogg Food & Society Policy Fellow and Director of the Rural Women’s Project, Lisa champions a voice for women farmers and rural ecopreneurs through media, speaking and advocacy work.

Lisa runs the award-winning Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast in southwest Wisconsin, completely powered by renewable energy and considered amongst the “Top Ten Eco-Destinations in North America.” Her culinary focus on local and seasonal cuisine – with most ingredients traveling less than 100 feet from her organic gardens to B&B plates – earned recognition in publications from Vegetarian Times to Country Woman and inspired her cookbook, Edible Earth: Savoring the Good Life with Vegetarian Recipes from Inn Serendipity. In addition to feature writing for publications such as Hobby Farm Home, Mother Earth News and Wisconsin Trails, Lisa is the lead writer for Renewing the Countryside, a non-profit organization showcasing rural entrepreneurial and agricultural success stories. Lisa also penned Kiss Off Corporate America: A Young Professional’s Guide to Independence.

Lisa shares her farm with her husband, their young son, a 10kw wind turbine and a colony of honeybees.

  • Basil is the king of herbs, and my personal favorite. When cooking for myself I use it like other chefs use parsley, which is to say that I put it in everything!

    I love the idea of having a backyard, or roof deck stash of herbs ready at my disposal…though my 5th floor walk-up with but one window makes that next to impossible. Cooking with fresh herbs (in my opinion) makes everything taste like summer. Check out this recipe for Caprese Basil Boats with the Basil Lady on my blog, Kimberly Belle: Food Maven,

  • Hi Lisa,
    My neighbor just brought me some homemade pesto. She made it with a bumper crop of basil and then–froze it in ice cube trays. Its the way I made baby food years ago. Once frozen, I put the cubes in freezer bags and used them, one or two at a time, as I needed.

    Thanks, and good luck with this year’s bounty!