Lemon Pesto Pasta is an easy weeknight dinner or side dish recipe that combines the zesty brightness of lemons with the aromatic fresh basil pesto and your favorite al dente noodles.
Why You Will Love This Recipe
In Italy, they call this recipe Spaghetti al Pesto di Limone. It sounds fancy, and honestly, it tastes fancy too, but this is a quick dinner that is perfect for busy nights!
Easy to Make: With simple ingredients and just a few steps, this lemon pesto pasta dish is a breeze to prepare.
Bursting with Flavor: The combination of zesty lemon juice, fragrant basil, and nutty Parmesan creates a delicious medley of flavors.
Twist on a Classic: The addition of a little fresh lemon juice and zest adds a refreshing and tangy element and is a delightful twist on traditional basil pesto.
See the recipe card at the bottom of this post for the full list of ingredients, including measurements.
Pine Nuts: Pine nuts add a creamy and nutty flavor to the pesto. If you do not have pine nuts, substitute them with your favorite nuts, like walnuts, hazelnuts, or almonds.
Parmesan Cheese: Use freshly grated cheese for the best texture. Romano or Asiago cheese can also be used.
Lemon: Look for a brightly colored lemon that is smooth and shiny as it will be the juiciest and most flavorful. This recipe uses both the juice and the zest for maximum flavor. Zest the lemon with a zester or a vegetable peeler, being careful not to get any of the white pith.
Garlic: Fresh garlic is best for this recipe. Just peel the garlic cloves and cut them in half. I do not recommend garlic powder as a substitute, as it won't add the same flavor and freshness.
Basil: Basil should also be bright and free of blemishes. Basil with dark spots is edible but may taste bitter. Remove the stems for a smoother texture.
Best Pasta for Pesto
When it comes to pairing pasta with pesto, certain pasta shapes work exceptionally well in soaking up the flavors and clinging to the sauce. Here are some top choices:
- Spaghetti: The long, thin strands of spaghetti are a classic and popular choice. They provide a perfect canvas for the sauce to coat each strand evenly.
- Bucatini: Bucatini has a similar shape as spaghetti, but is a little thicker and has a hollow center. This allows the pesto sauce to seep inside the noodle for an extra burst of flavor
- Fusilli: With its corkscrew-like shape, fusilli captures and holds onto the pesto sauce effectively.
- Penne: Penne's tubular shape and ridges make it an excellent option for pesto. The sauce easily gets trapped inside the hollow tube, ensuring a burst of flavor in every bite.
- Farfalle: Also known as bowtie pasta, farfalle adds a whimsical touch to pesto dishes and its shape holds the sauce well.
- Orecchiette: This small, ear-shaped pasta hails from Southern Italy and works wonderfully with pesto. Its cup-like shape captures lots of sauce.
- Gnocchi: Although not technically a pasta, these potato dumplings can be an excellent alternative. Their soft and pillowy texture pairs beautifully with the vibrant pesto sauce.
How to Make Lemon Pesto Pasta
1) Toast Pinenuts
- Cook the pine nuts in a small saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute.
- Stir continuously. The nuts can go from uncooked to burned quickly, so this is a hands-on process.
- Once the pine nuts have turned golden brown remove them from the heat.
- Set 2 tablespoons of pine nuts aside for the topping.
- Transfer the remaining pine nuts to the bowl of a food processor.
2) Blend Pesto
- Add all of the pesto ingredients, except for the oil, to the food processor.
- Pulse the ingredients a few times to give them a rough chop.
- While the processor is running, slowly pour in the oil through the feed chamber and continue processing until you achieve your desired consistency.
3) Cook the Pasta
- Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water. Cooking times vary based on brand and type.
- Follow the package instructions for an al dente pasta texture.
- Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining the pasta.
4) Toss and Serve
- Add the drained pasta to a large bowl (or you can put it back in the pan).
- Add the pesto and about a half cup of the reserved pasta water.
- Gently toss the pasta with the pesto until the noodles are coated.
- If you want a creamier sauce, add a little additional pasta water.
How to Keep Bright Green Color
- Blanch the Basil: Before blending the basil with other ingredients, blanch it in boiling water for about 15 seconds, then immediately transfer it to an ice bath. This quick blanching process helps preserve the vibrant green color.
- Use Fresh Ingredients: Opt for fresh basil leaves and lemons to ensure the brightest color and flavor. Freshness is key when it comes to maintaining the vivid green hue of your pesto.
- Add Lemon Juice: This recipe will naturally stay greener because the acid in the lemon lowers the pH levels of the pesto, reducing oxidation.
- Add Oil On Top: If you are making the pesto in advance, store it in an airtight container and cover the surface with a thin layer of olive oil. The oil will keep oxygen from getting to the pesto.
- Remove the pine nuts from the pan as soon as they are done toasting. If you leave them in the pan they will continue to darken from the residual heat.
- Remember to save your pasta water! It is key in creating a smooth and creamy dish.
- Add extra lemon flavor and a nice presentation by zesting two lemons. Put half of the zest strips in the pesto and sprinkle the remaining strips on top of the pasta.
- Save a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts to add to the finished pasta dish. It adds great texture and flavor
- This recipe is great for vegetarian dinners and can also be a side dish.
- Protein: For a heartier meal, add grilled chicken breasts or shrimp.
- Veggies: Fresh green peas, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, or spinach add color, texture, and flavor to this recipe.
- Spicy: If you like spice, red pepper flakes are a great addition! Sprinkle a ½ teaspoon over the dish before serving.
- Creamy: Make a creamy sauce by stirring ¼ cup of heavy cream or a few tablespoons of cream cheese in with the warm pasta.
- Nuts: Replace the pine nuts with walnuts, almonds, or your favorite nut.
- Gluten-Free: This can easily become a gluten-free recipe by using your favorite gluten-free pasta!
Transfer the leftovers to an airtight container or cover tightly with plastic wrap. Store it in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
I think the leftovers are best enjoyed cold. However, if you prefer to have it warm, you can gently reheat it on the stovetop. Add a little olive oil or a splash of chicken broth to help revive the dish.
Warm the pasta over low heat, stirring gently until it reaches the desired temperature.
Bitterness in pesto can stem from two factors: the quality of the olive oil, as rancid oil can introduce bitterness, and over-blending the basil, which releases compounds that contribute to the bitter taste. Ensure you use fresh, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and blend until the ingredients are the texture of coarse sand.
Absolutely! While homemade pesto offers a fresh and vibrant flavor, you can certainly use store-bought pesto as a time-saving alternative. Just stir the lemon zest and juice into 8 ounces of your favorite pesto.
If you forgot to save pasta water and find yourself in need of a substitute, don't worry. You can create a makeshift alternative by whisking 1 teaspoon of cornstarch into 1 cup of warm water.
More Easy Dinner Recipes
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Lemon Pesto PastaRecipe by:
- ½ cup (70 grams) pine nuts plus 2 tablespoons
- ¾ cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan
- 2 garlic cloves peeled and sliced
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) lemon juice
- 4 cups (about 3 ounces) loosely packed basil leaves 2 ounces after stems are removed
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
- 1 pound pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, fusilli, etc.)
- shredded Parmesan cheese and basil leaves to serve
- Cook the pine nuts in a small saucepan over medium heat for about 1 minute, stirring continuously. As soon as they turn golden brown remove the pan from heat and transfer 2 tablespoons of pine nuts to a small bowl and add the remaining nuts to the food processor.½ cup (70 grams) pine nuts
- Add the Parmesan cheese, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, basil leaves, and salt to the food processor. Pulse several times until the ingredients are roughly chopped.¾ cup (2 ounces) freshly grated Parmesan, 2 garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon lemon zest, 2 tablespoons (30 ml) lemon juice, 4 cups (about 3 ounces) loosely packed basil leaves, ¼ teaspoon salt
- Turn the food processor on and slowly pour the olive oil in through the feed chamber. After all of the oil has been incorporated, scrape the bowl and check the consistency. Continue processing until it reaches your desired consistency.½ cup (120 ml) olive oil
- Cook the pasta to al dente in a large pot of salted water, according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup of pasta water before draining.1 pound pasta
- Transfer the drained noodles to a bowl. Add the pesto and ½ cup of pasta water and toss to coat. Add additional pasta water, if needed.
- Sprinkle with the reserved toasted pine nuts, then garnish with additional basil leaves and Parmesan cheese, if desired.shredded Parmesan cheese and basil leaves