This gorgeous green Kale Pesto is a fast, easy, and most importantly delicious way to get a supershot of greens, magnesium, and other anti-inflammatories. It's perfect to mix into a grain bowl, toss with pasta, spread onto flatbread pizzas, you get the picture!
What is Kale Pesto vs Regular Pesto
When we say "pesto," many of us usually think of Italian basil pesto, that herbal green, supremely fragrant Italian sauce made with garlic, basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese that gets mixed into pasta. Italian basil pesto is a quintessential summer food when basil is naturally in season and abundant, almost too abundant!
Kale Pesto is the cooler cousin of basil pesto, literally "cooler" because kale is actually in season in the fall and winter months. For Kale Pesto, keep the garlic and lemon of the usual pesto, and swap out the basil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese for equivalents kale, pumpkin seeds, and salty umami nutritional yeast.
This pesto is great for: brownricebowlsandwichaiolipastaflatbreadpizzasaucedressingstirintosoupdip.
So basically, everything.
- What is Kale Pesto vs Regular Pesto
- Why Kale Pesto?
- Health Benefits of Kale Pesto
- Ingredients You Need for Kale Pesto
- Instructions How to Make Kale Pesto
- What Kind of Kale to Use for Pesto
- Additional Ingredients Notes and Resources
- Ingredient Substitutions
- Make Ahead and Storage
- Tools and Equipment
- How to Use Kale Pesto
- Kale Pesto Variations
- Kale Pesto Recipe
Why Kale Pesto?
Ok, so here's the REAL reason we make kale pesto regularly in this kitchen all year, and near-weekly in the fall and winter. I LOVE the absolute powerhouse nutritional profile of kale, but I personally kiiiiinda don't love eating kale raw. Don't get me wrong. It's not the flavor of kale, which is vegetal, earthy and slightly bitter, all of which I love. It's the texture of kale when it's raw.
You know I would and could eat a salad three times a day every day for the better part of the rest of my life, but the appeal of salad (for me) is the high crunch and hydration factor of lettuces and other vegetables. Raw kale salad offers none of those, just dry and chewy, and not "chewy" in a fun, fruit rollup kind of way. It doesn't matter how much of a spa treatment you give kale with an oil massage and sea salt exfoliation to break down the fibers, it still doesn't have that refreshing, salad-y vibe.
If I make and eat a raw kale salad, it is very very very specifically prepped, i.e. chopped super fine and overdressed with high acid.
So I'm not a kale salad girl, and tbh I am also not a smoothie girl. Smoothies are an incredibly efficient way to get a large volume of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables into your system. If you like smoothies, I wholeheartedly encourage you to get some power nutrition that way! But smoothies are not my taste preference (yet).
If you blend a bunch of ingredients into something drinkable, it better be ice cold and have tequila in it.
Better yet, if you blend a few ingredients, the majority of which is kale, might as well make it something salty, savory, ultra garlicky and make it into a pesto that YOU LOVE TO EAT. Why force something yourself to eat something you don't like just because everyone else is when there are better ways to get the same nutrition that taste better to you?
Health Benefits of Kale Pesto
This Kale Pesto recipe as printed is:
- vegan/100% plant-based
- keto, paleo and Whole 30 compliant
One quick note: some of the recipe substitutions may render the pesto not-paleo or not Whole30-compliant, e.g. substituting miso, which is made from soybeans, will make the pesto not compliant with paleo or Whole30 diets.
All the diet labels aside, the most important factor is that this Kale Pesto 1) tastes good and 2) is made up of entirely anti-inflammatory ingredients.
Ingredients You Need for Kale Pesto
- pumpkin seeds aka pepitas
- nutritional yeast, or substitute miso
- olive oil
Instructions How to Make Kale Pesto
To make this recipe, you will:
- "flash blanch" kale—don't worry, it's not as fancy as it sounds
- throw the kale and everything else into a food processor or blender
- let 'er rip until you get pesto!
Pro-tip: Depending on whether you use a blender or food processor, there might be some rhyme or reason to the order in which you add the ingredients. The general rule for blenders is to put the liquids in first, then sturdy vegetables, then hard things like nuts. The liquid in the bottom will create a whirlpool effect and pull the other ingredients down toward the blades. However, the order is mostly for helping the mixture get blended, not for the final taste.
What Kind of Kale to Use for Pesto
Any type of kale—curly green, lacinato, red—works for the pesto, and the nutritional profiles across the types are generally fairly similar. Some varieties are milder in flavor than others, but in a pesto, the differences are not noticeable because of the strong flavors of the other ingredients. The big difference will actually be in the final color of the pesto.
The pesto in these photos is made with darker green lacinato/Tuscan/dinosaur kale, which has long skinny, "bumpy" leaves. The reason I generally prefer this kind of kale in cooking applications is that it's just easier to wash. Sometimes you gotta just go with practicality.
Curly kale, lighter, brighter green with the ruffled edges, makes the pesto a brighter, slightly more vibrant green.
Baby kale has the mildest flavor and tbh, I could eat this version of kale in a salad.
Additional Ingredients Notes and Resources
- Pumpkin Seeds aka Pepitas. When we think of "pesto," we usually think of Italian basil pesto, which utilizes pine nuts. Not that I have anything against pine nuts—which are actually seeds and not true tree nuts anyway—but why not use something that's more affordable and accessible? Pumpkin seeds fit that bill exactly. I use these organic sprouted pumpkin seeds.
- Nutritional Yeast. I trust this brand of nutritional yeast, but use whatever nutritional yeast is most affordable off the shelf.
- Olive Oil. I use this extra-virgin olive oil for every day uses like pesto.
- Kosher Salt. I only ever use this one in the burgundy box.
- Any and all other produce, organic, from local farmers' markets or Whole Foods Market
Other greens for kale. Substitute up to half the kale with another leafy green, especially if you are still getting used to the flavor of kale. Baby spinach is the mildest and most familiar flavor. Basil will take it closer toward the traditional Italian/Genovese pesto.
Other Seeds for the Pumpkin Seeds. If you prefer not to use pepitas, and want to stick with something in the seed category try sunflower seeds, which will taste familiar. Flaxseeds will add their own distinct flavor, so use them if you're into it! The only seeds I would not use for this pesto are chia seeds.
Nuts in place of Pumpkin Seeds. Use any kind of toasted nut you like. I have used almonds, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts. The key factor here for any kind of nut is to make sure they are toasted, which adds back some of that umami element that we will miss from leaving out parmesan cheese from this pesto recipe. Here are notes for each of the specific nuts:
- Almonds are slightly harder than other nuts, especially when toasted, so the final pesto will be less smooth and creamy and have more little bits of almonds, even when using a high-power blender.
- Cashews and walnuts are softer, so they blend well into the pesto. One thing to note is that walnuts, especially if they still have their thin papery brown skins attached, are a little more bitter than other nuts, so combined with the slightly peppery, bitter flavor of kale, will make the final pesto stronger in flavor.
- Pistachios are amazing because the pesto turns an even brighter green, but also cost a little more than other nuts.
Parmesan cheese instead of nutritional yeast. If your diet includes regular dairy, by all means use an equivalent amount of grated Parmesan (cow) or Pecorino (sheep) cheese.
Make Ahead and Storage
Kale Pesto is the perfect sauce to make ahead because the kale is slightly "cooked" and the pesto doesn't oxidize (turn brown) the way basil pesto does. If you're getting the big ol' blender out anyway, might as well make double the recipe, because you can also freeze it! To store:
- Up to 3 Days, store Kale Pesto in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. The pesto will stay fairly bright in color for those 3 days. If it does darken a little, that's ok, it's still good to eat.
- After 3 Days, freeze Kale Pesto in re-sealable bags with all of the air forced out keep in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Pro-tip: Freeze kale pesto in a cube tray into smaller size portions that you can take out piece by piece to use in dishes.
Tools and Equipment
As I always say, you can absolutely make this Kale Pesto with nothing but a sharp knife on a sturdy cutting and a lot of time. However, ain't nobody got time for that. To make it truly fast and easy, you will want to buzz it in either a food processor, or even better, a high power blender. These are the tools I have in my kitchen that I use for making Kale Pesto:
High Power Blender. This is the one I have. The smoothie cup attachment (instead of the full size pitcher) is just the right size for this size batch of Kale Pesto.
Food Processor. This is the small, compact food processor I have had for 800 years. It still works well. The small size is just the perfect size for sauces like Aji Verde and this Kale Pesto.
Salad Spinner I can't live without this to really dry off the greens.
Large pot for boiling water to blanch kale. This is the brand of pots and pans I have and use every day.
Colander to drain blanched kale. This over-the-sink style has changed my life.
Cutting Board. My favorite every day cutting board.
Garlic Press. You only need the press if you're doing this by hand. Otherwise, you'll just toss whole smashed cloves into the blender or food processor. As a side note, the most ridiculously expensive garlic press I've ever seen better come with a happy ending.
How to Use Kale Pesto
Kale pesto is considered a "master sauce" in this house, which means it gets dolloped, drizzled, slathered, and stirred into and onto just about everything from hard boiled eggs to flatbread pizza. Here are some specific ideas for how to use kale pesto:
- Toss Kale Pesto with any roasted vegetables. It's the perfect savory balance to Roasted Honeynut Squash, pictured above
- Toss Kale Pesto with pasta like fettuccine or linguine and some blanched spring vegetables to the pasta and make it a Pasta Primaverde, a.k.a green pasta primavera
- Spread Kale Pesto on toast to make a super flavorful Avocado Toast
- Use Kale Pesto as the sauce base for a flatbread pizza
- Stir Kale Pesto into a mix of roasted baby potatoes, green beans, and hard boiled eggs for an easy BBQ side dish
- Shake a few tablespoons of Kale Pesto with lemon juice and olive oil for an instant salad dressing
- Add a dollop to your grain bowl
- Swirl it into labneh or thick yogurt for a dip for chips, bread, and crudites
Kale Pesto Variations
- Kale Pesto with Miso, recipe video
- Pistachio Pesto Pasta
- Green Goddess Pesto recipe, with kale, anchovies, no nuts nor cheese
All the Green Sauces You Need
- Italian Salsa Verde recipe
- Peruvian Aji Verde recipe
- Green Harissa recipe
- Arugula Pesto recipe
- Avocado Basil Pesto
- Pistachio Pesto
- Green Goddess Dressing/Dip
- Ginger Lime Dressing
- Cilantro Lime Dressing recipe
- Pesto Vinaigrette recipe
- Mexican Salsa Verde (tomatillos)
- Ginger Scallion Sauce recipe
Kale Pesto Recipe
- 1 bunch of kale, leaves pulled from stems and roughly chopped, about 3½ cups
- 3 cloves garlic
- ¼ cup pepitas
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 teaspoon salt plus more to taste
- juice from half a lemon
- ⅓ cup extra virgin olive oil + more for consistency
- optional: finely grated lemon zest
- Place kale leaves in colander in sink. "Flash blanch" the kale by pouring boiling water over the kale, then immediately rinse the kale with the coldest water from the tap. If you are making pasta, you can do double duty and drain the pasta and boiling water in a colander over the kale.
- Smash garlic cloves and remove green stem inside. Add garlic, pepitas, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, lemon zest if using, and salt in food processor or high power blender. Chop in food processor until roughly chopped, stopping machine to scrape bits off sides and back down into food processor or blender bowl.
- Tightly squeeze as much water as you can from the blanched kale. Add kale and to the food processor or blender. Pulse until combined. Everything will still look pretty choppy.
- With the food processor running, drizzle olive oil until the pesto is the consistency you want. I like my pesto on the thicker side, spreadable as opposed to pourable.
- Taste and add more salt or lemon juice as needed. Remember that straight pesto out of the food processor should taste saltier than is "comfortable" for you. The flavor will dilute when you add it to pasta, or whatever dish you're using it on.
- Pesto keeps for about three days in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. It will darken in color after 1 day, but it will be fine to eat.