Pistou and pesto are both green sauces that have wide-ranging uses in the kitchen. If you’ve ever tasted pesto then you’ll be familiar with pistou too, even if you haven’t tried it. Each sauce has some subtle differences so we’ve created this uber-helpful comparison guide.
What’s the difference between pistou and pesto?
Pistou is an uncooked French sauce traditionally made with basil, olive oil, garlic, and a hard cheese like Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. It can be used as a condiment or ingredient in cooking.
Pesto is a similar, more popular, Italian sauce that uses the same ingredients but reduces the amount of cheese and includes nuts like pinenuts or walnuts. It is best known as an addition to pasta but is also excellent served with eggs, steak, salads, and much more.
How does each sauce differ in flavor?
The addition of basil to both sauces results in a combination of sweet, savory, and minty flavors. They’re aromatic and herbaceous with a vibrant green shade that looks mouth-wateringly good on the plate.
While both sauces have a strong taste of basil and garlic, pistou has a more dominant savory, cheesy flavor. Pesto has a more complex flavor profile thanks to the addition of nuts.
Culinary uses for each sauce
Both sauces can be used to add punchy flavor to food, whether they’re stirred into other ingredients or used as a condiment. The biggest difference is that pistou is a key ingredient in soupe au pistou. This is a classic white bean and vegetable soup from the south of France that gets topped with pistou before serving.
Other popular uses for pistou and pesto
- Smeared on toast, pizza, or bruschetta
- Tossed through pasta or vegetables
- Dolloped onto soups
- Mixed into dips and dressings
- Stirred into risotto and other rice dishes
- Spread over toast and topped with eggs
Recipes for each sauce can vary depending on the region, town, or chef who’s making them. The following ingredients are most commonly used:
Pistou: basil, olive oil, garlic, and grated hard cheese.
Pesto: basil, olive oil, garlic, nuts, and grated hard cheese.
While Italians use regular basil in pesto recipes, authentic French pistou is made using pistou basil. This herb has smaller leaves than the regular basil variety. They offer a mild, sweet flavor with a delicious fragrant aroma once crushed.
Compared to pesto, you’ll often find that pistou recipes use a higher ratio of cheese. So, while pistou may combine an equal amount of basil leaves and cheese, pesto uses basil in much higher quantities as the key ingredient.
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Origin of pesto and pistou
Pesto, or pesto alla Genovese, originated in Genoa which is in the Liguria region of northern Italy. The modern variety of pesto was first mentioned in 1870 by Giovanni Battista Ratto.
The southeast of France borders Italy and they share similar flavor preferences. Having no pine nuts in the Provence region, the French created pistou, their own version of pesto.
Commonly asked questions
Can I replace pistou with pesto in cooking?
It is perfectly fine to use pesto in place of pistou in recipes as they are very similar. If you decide to use pesto, you may want to add some extra hard cheese like asiago or parmesan.
What does pesto translate to in English?
The term pesto derives from the word “pestare“, meaning “to crush” or “to pound”. This is a reference to the traditional preparation which involved crushing in a mortar and pestle.
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Pistou and pesto are both excellent sources of vitamins A, C, and K as well as manganese and iron. They also provide a good source of magnesium, calcium, and omega-3. These benefits come from the basil.
With the addition of pine nuts, pesto is rich in zinc, iron, and protein. Pistou offers more calcium as it generally has more cheese added.
- 1 ¼ cups fresh basil
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- 1 Tbsp sunflower seeds
- 2 garlic cloves, halved
- ¾ cup Parmesan, shredded
- 6 Tbsp olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 355°F (180°C). Line a baking tray and lay the pine nuts and sunflower seeds in one even layer. Bake for 5-7 minutes until toasted. Allow to cool completely.
- Boil a jug of water and pour one cup into a bowl. Drop the basil into the water for 10 seconds to blanch the leaves then use tongs to transfer them into a bowl of ice water. Submerge them to stop the cooking process then dry them with a towel. This step gives the basil a much more vibrant shade of green.
- Add pine nuts, sunflower seeds, basil, garlic, and Parmesan to a blender and process until all ingredients are finely chopped.
- As the processor continues, slowly pour in the oil until it gets absorbed and all ingredients are well combined.
- Scoop the pesto into a suitable airtight container until you’re ready to use it.
Be sure to check out our full recipe on how to make pesto which includes handy tips.
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- Chop the garlic finely using a knife and chopping board.
- Add basil, parmesan, and garlic to a food processor and blend for a few seconds.
- While the processor is on, slowly drizzle the oil into the other ingredients until pesto reaches a suitable thick puree consistency. Season with salt and pepper and process briefly.
- Transfer to an airtight container and store refrigerated for 2-3 days.
-If necessary, stop the processor and scrape down the sides, then keep blending.
-You can toss the garlic cloves into the blender whole, but we chop them first to ensure big lumps of garlic don’t get missed by the blender.
Pistou and pesto are essentially the same sauce, with subtle variations. Pesto is an Italian cold green sauce made from basil, garlic, nuts, and olive oil. Because nuts were difficult to source in France, they left them out and upped the cheese to compensate.
Both sauces are delicious spooned over finished savory dishes, stirred into food, or spread over practically anything. Feel free to use them interchangeably in your recipes.