Pesto and sourdough meet in these twisty knots

Food52's resident bread baker Maurizio Leo is here to tell us all about it.

Published June 5, 2021 1:31PM (EDT)

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leavened, enriched dough is the perfect starting point to get creative in the kitchen. Of course, baking the dough straight away without any embellishment would be delicious enough — think brioche! — but it's also a foundation that can be taken in myriad directions. I've folded, braided, cut, twisted, balled, laminated, and now knotted the basic dough, each yielding a completely different result. And the final shape isn't simply an aesthetic affectation. It also serves to modify the final eating experience. In some cases, like with these savory pesto knots, it is a way to trap a delicious filling between layers of the tender, buttery dough.

Why twist and knot the dough?

When baking, the structure and shape of the treat is almost as important as the ingredients and process. Take, for example, a baguette, with its long and slender shape, compared to something like a boule, which is round and hefty. The smaller diameter of the former results in bread that bakes faster, as the oven's heat penetrates through the dough in less time, resulting in a thin, crispy crust — the hallmark of a good baguette. Conversely, a round boule takes longer to bake due to its increased diameter and thickness, meaning the crust ends up thicker and heartier.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

Similarly, you can compare these knots to something like my Sourdough Savory Rolls With Parmesan & Ricotta, which are two different shapes yielding two different eating experiences. Both recipes have an enriched dough base (that is, dough with added egg, dairy, and/or sugar), but where the rolls have more layers and more filling overall, these knots have less filling, and tend to exhibit more softness and tenderness rather than crispy-crunchiness.

The twisting and tying of these savory knots are not only for the sake of appearance. The areas of each knot that are "hidden" from the heat of the oven — specifically, all the nooks and crannies — remain tender and delicate. The areas that see more direct heat crisp up just enough to give each knot added structure and crunch. The result: a delightful contrast that keeps the palate excited. Though it doesn't hurt that the knotted shape is appealing in its design — visual appeal does go a long way toward enjoying what you're eating!

What other fillings can you use with these knots? 

Because it's not yet full-on summer here, my garden isn't quite up to producing enough basil for me to make from-scratch pesto, but that's okay. This recipe will work just as well with a premade pesto, especially if it's high-quality. And while pesto is always a solid choice in my book, this dough — without sugar and decidedly savory — is adaptable for almost any other savory filling that would taste good with a slightly buttery dough. (Which is to say: just about anything!)

Here are a few ideas to get you started making these sourdough knots with a twist:

Photo by Maurizio Leo
  • Olive oil, chopped garlic, and herbs (parsley, thyme, or cilantro)
  • Chopped sun-dried tomatoes (with their oil) and chopped olives
  • Grated pecorino and cracked black pepper
  • Grated cheddar and minced jalapeños

When swapping out the pesto for another filling, be sure to keep in mind how much you'll be spreading on the dough. The more filling you add, the more difficult it will be to shape the final knots. However, don't let this discourage you from being creative here! Even if it's challenging, as long as you get the piece of dough into a tight mound, it'll bake up wonderfully.

A battle of washes: Milk and egg versus olive oil 

In developing this recipe, I wanted to try various methods for promoting browning of the knot's crust. Typically, I'll use an egg wash, a standard way to get that beautiful golden shine you'll find on rolls and buns. However, since these knots include olive oil in the dough (for flavor and texture) and in the pesto, I wanted to test the effectiveness of brushing olive oil onto the shaped knots just before baking.

Photo by Maurizio Leo

As you can see above, the olive oil resulted in a moderately shiny crust, but nowhere near the levels attained when using a milk and egg wash. The proteins and sugars found in the milk and egg promote increased browning through the Maillard reaction, resulting in knots with a deeper golden color and a shinier crust. In the end, either route will work well, but the egg wash wins out. If you do choose to go with an olive oil wash, I'd also recommend lightly dotting the knots with oil after baking to give them a little more shine and suppleness.

What toppings can you finish these knots with? 

When they finished baking, I topped the knots with finely chopped pine nuts, echoing the nuts found in a typical basil pesto. Not only do the nuts bring a little more buttery flavor, but they also add extra crunch and visual appeal.

Depending on your filling of choice, consider what other toppings might work well. For example, a fresh grating of cheese would highlight just about any savory filling; a sprinkle of dukkah can brighten each knot with the added spices; an Espelette and black pepper blend can kick it up a notch and bring some heat. Of course, you can never go wrong with a light dusting of coarse sea salt for added texture and flavor, especially if you opted to brush the knots with olive oil after baking.


Recipe: Sourdough Knots With Pesto

Prep time: 37 hours 30 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Makes: 9 knots



  • 66 grams unsalted butter
  • 265 grams water
  • 146 grams ripe sourdough starter (100% hydration)
  • 442 grams bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 large egg (about 53 grams)
  • 9 grams fine sea salt
  • 18 grams extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup basil pesto

Egg wash:

  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 tablespoon whole milk
  • Topping:
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
  • A small handful of pine nuts, finely chopped (optional)


  1. Mix the dough (9:00 a.m.).

    Cut the butter into small pats and place on a plate to sit out at room temperature and soften. In a small pot, heat the water to about 76°F (24°C). Warming the water will help increase the final dough temperature at the end of mixing to ensure strong fermentation activity.

    In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, mix the sourdough starter, flour, egg, salt, and warm water on low speed until combined and no dry bits of flour remain. Increase the speed to 2 and mix for 3 to 5 minutes, until the dough starts to clump around the dough hook — it won't completely come off the bottom of the bowl.

    Let the dough rest, uncovered, for 10 minutes in the bowl.

    The butter should be at room temperature by this time — a finger should easily push into a piece without much resistance. If the butter is still cold, place it in the microwave for a few seconds at a time until it's soft to the touch.

    Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly stream in the oil. Once all of the oil is absorbed and the dough comes back together around the dough hook, add the butter, one piece at a time, waiting until each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next. Continue to mix until the dough is smooth and once again begins clumping on the dough hook, about 5 minutes total. The dough will be homogeneous and moderately elastic (strong) at the end of mixing, but still sticky.

    Transfer the dough to a clean bowl, cover with reusable plastic or a silicone lid, and bulk ferment.

  2. Bulk ferment the dough (9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.).

    Let the dough rise at warm room temperature (76°F/24°C) for a total of 3 hours. During this time, you'll give the dough three sets of "stretches and folds" (see the next step for explanation) to give it additional strength. The first set is performed 30 minutes after the start of bulk fermentation, and the next two sets at 30-minute intervals, then the dough will rest for the remaining 2 hours 30 minutes. Set a timer for 30 minutes and let the dough rest, covered. After 30 minutes, give the dough its first set of stretches and folds.

    To stretch and fold, with wet hands, grab the north side (the side farthest from you) of the dough and stretch it up and over to the south side. Then fold the south side up over the north. Perform two more folds, one from east to west and one west to east. Finally, let the dough rest, covered, for 30 minutes.

    Perform the remaining two sets of stretches and folds in the same way, with 30 minutes of rest in between. After the third set, let the dough rest, covered, for the remaining time in bulk fermentation.

  3. Chill the dough (12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., or up to 24 hours later).

    After bulk fermentation, place the covered bowl in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 24. This time in the fridge will chill the dough, making it easier to roll out, cut, and twist into knots.

  4. Roll out the dough, spread the pesto, cut, and shape the knots (1:30 p.m.).

    Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper. Remove the bowl from the fridge, uncover, and liberally flour the top of the dough and a work surface. Using a plastic or silicone bowl scraper, gently scrape the dough onto the floured surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a rough 10x14-inch rectangle so the long sides are at your left and right. Using an offset spatula or the back of a spoon, spread the pesto onto the dough from edge to edge.

    Next, fold the top of the dough farthest from you down toward your body, overlapping about two-thirds of the dough-rectangle. Repeat for the bottom edge of the dough, folding it up over the dough so it completely overlaps and makes a three-layered rectangle in front of you, with short sides to your left and right — imagine folding up a letter you're sending to your pen pal (is that still a thing?). Using a sharp chef's knife, cut the rectangle into 9 (1-inch) strips.

    Starting with one strip, hold the opposite ends of a strip in each hand and begin twisting. After a few revolutions, the strip of dough dangling between your hands can now be knotted. Hold one end still and, using your other hand, coil the twisted strip around your stationary hand one or two times, ending by tucking the end of the dough in the moving hand into the center circle of the coil, twisting the whole thing to make a twisted knot. Place the knot on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining strips, arranging in three rows of three knots.

  5. Proof the shaped knots (2:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.).

    Cover the baking sheet with a large, airtight bag and let the dough proof on the counter at room temperature for 2 1/2 hours. Be sure to heat the oven 15 to 30 minutes before the full 2½-hour proof time.

  6. Bake the knots (preheat oven at 4:00 p.m.; bake at 4:30 p.m.).

    Place a rack in the middle of the oven; heat to 400°F (200°C).

    In a small bowl, whisk the egg and milk until frothy. Uncover the baking sheet. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the egg wash onto each knot in a thin, uniform layer.

    Bake the knots for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F (175°C) and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, until the tops are golden. Avoid over-baking to ensure the knots are only slightly crunchy on the outside but have a soft interior.

    Remove the pan from the oven. Lightly brush with the oil and top with the pine nuts, if using. Let the knots cool for a few minutes, then enjoy. They're wonderful while still warm.

    Once cooled, the knots can be stored in an airtight container on the counter for several days. Reheat in the microwave or a warm oven before serving.

By Maurizio Leo

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