"As thin and watery as broth-based soup."
Pesto from a packet seems almost heretical. Its verdant hue, herbaceous aroma, and light, fresh consistency embody the spirit of spring, whether tossed with pasta or spooned over shrimp. If I were a better person, I would be making big batches right now to freeze and use all year long.
But short of time and patience, I decided to try McCormick's Pesto Sauce Mix, available in most supermarkets for less than $2. I was especially interested in testing the mix because the ingredient list was surprisingly short (as opposed to a veritable paragraph of unpronounceable chemicals), and the first four listed were basil, salt, Parmesan cheese, and garlic. It didn't seem like anything an Italian grandma would serve on Sunday night, but maybe—just maybe—it would do the trick for me.
The mix itself bore a strong resemblance to matcha powder. It also smelled a lot like dried oregano, which I found odd—why not dried basil? To prepare the pesto, I combined the mix in a small saucepot with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 cup of milk. (The instructions indicated that water could also be used, but milk would, obviously, yield a creamier sauce.) Then I heated it to barely a simmer, just until it was warmed through.
I had expected the sauce to thicken, like a pudding or custard, but once the pesto was "done" the consistency was exactly the same—as thin and watery as broth-based soup. I'm not one to go for pesto that's as thick as hummus, but I do like a little heft. One of the best parts of eating it is discovering the little nuggets of cheese and basil hidden in the curve of a piece of orecchiette or inside the tube of ziti.
Ever hopeful, I tossed the pesto with a bowl of pasta and took a tentative bite. I was pleased to taste real basil flavor, even if it wasn't half as potent as the flavors found in fresh pesto. While thin, the sauce did a good job of coating the pasta with a light, creamy film. I was reminded of how Mario Batali always says it's important to taste the pasta, not just the sauce. Unfortunately, the mix was also much too salty. Each mouthful—and I only had a few—was overwhelmingly brackish and briny. I felt like I needed a glass of water or a slice of bread to sooth my assaulted taste buds.
In the end, I would not recommend this mix prepared as a sauce for pasta. However, if the popularity of onion soup mix is any indication, I bet it would make an addictive dip when mixed with sour cream. Its low price certainly makes it party friendly.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.