Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad

Caesar Pasta Salad is the best of Caesar Salad and Pasta Salad together at last, busting with hypnotic texture and bright, tangy, garlicky dressing!

This Caesar Pasta Salad is as addictingly scrumptious as they come, make ahead friendly and will have everyone talking at potlucks, picnics and parties!  It’s a hypnotic blend of tender pasta, fresh, crisp Romaine lettuce, crunchy croutons and rich, salty Parmesan all bathed in my WAY-better-than-store-bought, bright, tangy, garlicky, Caesar Dressing. Turn this salad into Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad with grilled chicken, rotisserie chicken, or my featured, downright swoon worthy Blackened Chicken that truly elevates this recipe to the best!

Pasta salad recipes aren’t only a hit at gatherings, they make the best sides to practically every meal!  Try out these favorites:  Italian Tortellini SaladGreek Pasta SaladMexican Pasta Salad, Orzo Pasta Salad, Cowboy Pasta Salad, Pesto Pasta Salad, Bacon Ranch Pasta Salad and Creamy Bacon Pea Pasta Salad. 

HOW TO MAKE caesar pasta salad VIDEo

up close of serving Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad in a white bowl with freshly grated Parmesan cheese

caesar PASTA SALAD ingredients

  • Pasta:  I love the texture of farfalle (bow tie pasta) in this Caesar Pasta Salad, but any medium pasta shape will work such as rotini or penne.
  • Lettuce:  Romaine is the fresh, crispy lettuce of choice for Caesar Salad which holds up well against the creamy dressing. I prefer Romaine hearts as opposed to the whole head because they are fresher, sweeter and crunchier than whole heads without the wilted outside layers. You’ll need 4 hearts (or 3 larger hearts) for this recipe.
  • Parmesan: A must for Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad with its salty, umami flavor and satisfying rich, cheesy texture.  Look for imported Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy for its great bite and sharpness, as opposed to domestic Parmesan which pales in comparison (they will be labeled Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan). 
  • Croutons:  You are welcome to use store-bought croutons or homemade. For homemade, use any crusty bread like French or artisan, but I especially like sourdough.  Just toss the cubed bread with some olive oil and seasonings and toast while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
  • Tomatoes:  These are optional but their bright, tangy freshness adds welcome dimension to the salad.  Use ripe cherry tomatoes for the best texture and sweetness. 
  • Bell peppers:  Again optional, but offer welcome pops of sweet crunch.  Choose between yellow, orange or red bell peppers for their crunchy sweetness. I don’t recommend green bell peppers here because they are more earthy than sweet.

caesar Dressing ingredients

Your Caesar Pasta Salad is only as good as your Caesar Dressing, so you can proceed with confidence because this recipe is the BEST! Traditional Caesar Dressing is made with whole anchovies, extra virgin olive oil, raw egg yolk, freshly squeezed lemon juice, tangy Dijon mustard, spicy raw garlic, salty Parmesan and pepper.  My recipe differs slightly by using sour cream and mayo instead of raw egg and olive oil and the results are hypnotic and extra easy!

  • Sour cream:  This provides the base of the homemade dressing with a little help from the mayo.  By using a majority of sour cream instead of mayonnaise, it keeps the dressing lighter because it also gets pumped with richness from the Parmesan and anchovies. 
  • Mayonnaise:  Fully from-scratch Caesar Dressing recipes call for olive oil and egg yolk which turn into mayonnaise as they emulsify in the blender.  Instead, we’re going to take the easy way out and use store-bought mayonnaise.  The mayonnaise adds the depth of creaminess and binds all of the ingredients together.  Even if you don’t like mayo, I don’t suggest skipping because it prevents the dressing ingredients from separating – and your dressing will not taste like mayo! 
  • Parmesan cheese:  Adding cheese directly to the dressing is crucial for the nutty, salty, umami flavor.  Make sure to grate the cheese on the finest whole of your box grater so it becomes powdery. 
  • Anchovies:  Anchovies are the secret ingredient in Caesar Dressing but I’ve included substitutions below.  You will need 8 anchovies from a can or jar usually located next to the tuna fish. These anchovies have been filleted, salt-cured, and stored in olive oil.  This curing process produces the intensely salty flavor we want for this Caesar Dressing recipe.  To use the anchovies, lift them out of the can, plop them onto a cutting board and dab off excess oil with a paper towel.  Don’t be alarmed if you spy any tiny bones, they are harmless and undetectable.  Finely mince the anchovies then use the side of your knife to mash them by pressing down and sliding the knife against the cutting board to create a paste.
  • Garlic:  Fresh garlic cloves punctuate the dressing with the signature spicy raw garlic kick.  Use a garlic press or mince the garlic finely by hand.  You can of course use more or less garlic. It’s easy to start with less and add more to taste.
  • Worcestershire sauce:  A flavor bomb all packed into one bottle. Just a splash deepens the complexity of the homemade Caesar dressing and makes it taste complete.  Worcestershire boasts intense umami flavor from the anchovies (or vegan versions use soy sauce) mingled with tamarind and vinegar for sourness, molasses and sugar for sweetness, and dimension from the cloves, celery seed, and chili pepper extract.
  • Lemon juice:  A little citrus cuts through the creaminess of the dressing and highlights the rest of the flavors with its fresh, vibrant pop of citrus without tasting “lemony.”  Freshly-squeezed is always best but you may use bottled in a pinch.
  • Dijon mustard: Please don’t skip!  Dijon mustard adds a delicious zesty, tangy zip to the dressing and helps bring all the flavors together, without being discernable in the final product.  It also helps with emulsification, meaning it helps bind the ingredients together to make the dressing extra creamy. 
  • Balsamic vinegar:  This is not traditional, but I love pairing it with lemon juice to help cut through the richness with its fruity tang, mellow tartness and rich, complex sweetness. Use quality balsamic vinegar for the best flavor.
showing how to make Caesar Pasta Salad by whisking the homemade Caesar Salad Dressing ingredients together until smooth and creamy

  • Mayonnaise substitute: Use avocado-based mayo or your favorite vegan mayonnaise substitute.  Readers have said great things about grapeseed oil Vegainase.
  • Sour cream: Fat-free sour cream can be used but remember, fat equals creaminess and flavor so adjust your expectations accordingly.   You may also substitute with plain Greek yogurt or vegan mayonnaise.
  • Parmesan substitute: If you’re vegetarian or vegan, try Whole Foods 365 or BelGioioso brands of Parmesan, which are truly vegetarian (most Parmesans contain animal rennet).
  • Anchovy substitute:  Use any of the above listed anchovy substitutes.
  • Vegan Caesar dressing:  Use vegan sour cream, vegan mayonnaise, vegan Worcestershire sauce, vegan Parmesan and replace the anchovies with 2 tablespoons minced and mashed capers.
  • Tomato substitute: Grape tomatoes will work as well, however, cherry tomatoes are inherently sweeter than grape, so aim for cherry if you can.  You can also chop up a few Roma tomatoes but make sure to seed them first.
  • Mustard: If you don’t have Dijon mustard, swap it for any mustard such as regular yellow mustard, spicy brown mustard, French, whole grain, etc.
showing how to make Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad by chopping up the chicken
up close of Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad showing how creamy it is
  • Rotisserie chicken:  You’ll need about 2 ½ cups shredded rotisserie chicken.
  • Simply seasoned pan seared chicken: Slice two breast sliced through the equator and pound with the side of a can or meat mallet to an even thickness to tenderize the chicken and to help it cook more evenly. Season the chicken by brushing it lightly with olive oil and sprinkling with garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, paprika, salt and pepper or any of your favorite seasoning mixes.  Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large non-stick skillet or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Once very hot, add pounded chicken and cook, undisturbed, for 3-4 minutes, or until deeply golden on one side.  Flip chicken over, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Cook for approximately 5-7 more minutes (depending on thickness of chicken), or until chicken is cooked to 160 degrees F.
  • Baked chicken:  Slice, pound and season chicken per above instructions. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for 15 – 20 minutes, or until cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F.
  • Grilled chicken:  Slice, pound and season chicken per above instructions. Grill chicken undisturbed for about 5 minutes per side, or until chicken is cooked through. (An inserted thermometer should read 160 degrees F.)  The cooking time will vary depending on the thickness of your chicken. 
  • Homemade shredded chicken:  Season chicken with salt, pepper and any other desired seasonings.  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken on both sides, then carefully cover with 1 inch of water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer until the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer and is tender enough to shred.  An 8-ounce chicken breast will need to simmer for about 10 to 12 minutes. Shred or chop once cool enough to handle. 
  • Leftover chicken:  Chop up any leftover chicken for the tastiest leftovers!
  • Pesto chicken:  The chicken is enveloped in aromatic pesto bursting with basil and garlic as well as additional seasoning to ramp up the flavor.  You can bake the chicken, grill the chicken or cook it on the stovetop.
  • Caesar dressing marinated chicken:  Increase the dressing recipe and marinate the chicken in about ⅓ cup dressing.  Grill, bake or cook in a skillet.

HOW TO MAKE caesar pasta salad

This Caesar Pasta Salad will blow your mind with its hypnotic layers of flavor thanks to the homemade Caesar Dressing and Blackened Chicken.  Let’s take a closer look at how to make it (full recipe measurements in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):

  • Step 1:  Prep anchovies.  Start by chopping the anchovies until finely minced.  Next, use the side of your knife to mash the anchovies by pressing down and sliding the knife against the cutting board to create a paste.
showing how to make Chicken Caesar Salad by mincing then mashing the anchovies for the homemade Caesar Salad Dressing
  • Step 2:  Make the Caesar dressing. Add all of the dressing ingredients to a mixing bowl except the Parmesan and mix until smooth; then mix in the Parmesan. Chill the dressing in the refrigerator while you make the chicken and cook the pasta.
showing how to make caesar pasta salad by whisking together the homemade Caesar dressing ingredients in a bowl:  sour cream, mayonnaise, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies, garlic and Parmesan cheese

  • Step 3:  Make chicken fillets.  Slice the chicken through the equator to create 4 fillets. Cover the fillets with plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet, side of a can or rolling pin to an even thickness, about ½-inch.  This not only helps the chicken cook evenly, but makes it extra tender without the need for a marinade!
showing how to make Caesar Pasta salad by pounding the chicken to an even thickness with a meat mallet
  • Step 4:  Spice rub the chicken.  Mix all of the Blackening Seasonings together in a small bowl. Pat the chicken dry and lightly coat with olive oil. Season both sides of the chicken with the seasonings.
showing how to make Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad by whisking the seasonings together for the chicken
  • Step 5:  Cook the chicken.  Cook the chicken in butter and olive oil for 3-4 minutes per side or until deeply blackened.  Let rest 5 minutes before chopping.
showing how to make Caesar Pasta Salad by cooking chicken until deeply golden
  • Step 6:  Assemble the pasta salad.  Toss the pasta, chicken, tomatoes and half of the dressing together in a large bowl.   
showing how to make Caesar Pasta Salad by adding pasta, chicken and tomatoes to a large bowl
  • Step 7: Chill the pasta salad.  Store the salad in the refrigerator for an hour or until ready to serve so the ingredients have time to meld.   
showing how to make Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad by adding half of the dressing to the pasta and chicken and tossing to combine and then chilling the salad
  • Step 8:  Add remaining ingredients. When ready to serve, add the chopped Romaine, croutons, remaining dressing and freshly grated Parmesan. Toss to combine then dig in!
showing how to make Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad by adding the Romaine lettuce and the rest of the Caesar Dressing to the salad
top view of Caesar Pasta Salad with chicken, Parmesan, Romaine and Caesar Dressing with chicken
  • Swap in tortellini:   These cheesy stuffed pasta pillows are one of my favorite pastas in salads. You can use any type of cheese tortellini, even sausage tortellini would be yummy!  Make sure you use fresh, refrigerated tortellini and not dried tortellini on the shelf.
  • Make it gluten-free: Use your favorite gluten-free medium pasta and gluten free croutons or make your own croutons with gluten free bread. You’ll also want to pay attention to use gluten free Worcestershire sauce in the dressing.
  • Make your own croutons:  This is easy to do by cubing half a loaf of sourdough or French bread into small pieces. Toss the cubes with ¼ cup olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon EACH dried basil, dried parsley, garlic powder and some freshly cracked salt and pepper on a baking sheet.  Bake for approximately 12-15 minutes or until golden, stirring halfway through.
  • Use a different protein:  Rotisserie chicken, leftover chicken, sauteed shrimp, grilled Shrimp, salami, pepperoni, leftover chopped pork tenderloin, ham etc. If adding salami, pepperoni, bacon or ham, reduce the salt in the recipe and add salt to taste.
  • Add bacon: If you skip the smoky blackened chicken and just use rotisserie chicken (or skip the chicken altogether), then I suggest adding smoky, salty bacon.  Use thick cut bacon so the bacon doesn’t get lost and retains its meaty texture when enveloped in the dressing. You can cook the bacon chopped or in slices on the stovetop or bake it in the oven.
  • Use different greens: I love how crunchy yet neutral Romaine is but you can also use half Romaine, arugula, kale, butterhead lettuce, shaved Brussels sprouts, etc., but be aware these stronger greens will impact the flavor.
  • Add avocados:  Add sliced or chopped avocados for a satisfying creamy burst to complement the crunchy textures.  Make sure you use ripe avocados but not overly ripe or they will turn to mush.  To tell if an avocado is ripe, squeeze it gently. A ripe avocado should yield slightly to pressure but not feel overly soft.  If your avocados ripen before you are ready to use them, pop them in the refrigerator to dramatically slow down the ripening process.  For more detailed information on how to select avocados, see my guacamole recipe.
  • Add eggs: Add 2-4 hard-boiled eggs.
  • Add corn: Add two ears sweet corn on the cob.  You can slice the kernels directly off of the cob OR char them for an amped up layer of smoky, juicy YUM like I do in my Corn Salsa, Avocado Corn Salsa, and Mexican Salad recipes.
  • Add pepperoncini:  They are slightly sweet but mostly tangy with a slight zip of heat.  Pepperoncini typically come in a glass jar and are easy to find at your grocery store next to the sandwich condiments such as pickles, banana peppers and jarred roasted red bell peppers.
  • Add olives: Gems of dark, rich salty flavor.
  • Add pickled jalapenos:  For a spicy, tangy kick!  Start with just a little and stir in more to taste – you don’t want to ruin your entire pasta salad by making it too spicy!
up close of serving Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad in a white bowl with freshly grated Parmesan cheese
top view of of serving Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad in a bowl garnished with Parmesan cheese

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top view of Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad with Parmesan, Romaine and Caesar Dressing with chicken

Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad

This Caesar Pasta Salad is as addictingly scrumptious as they come, make ahead friendly and will have everyone talking at potlucks, picnics and parties!  It’s a hypnotic balance of tender pasta, fresh, crisp Romaine lettuce, crunchy croutons and rich, salty Parmesan all bathed in my WAY-better-than-store-bought, bright, tangy, garlicky, Caesar Dressing. Turn this salad into Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad with grilled chicken, rotisserie chicken, or my featured, downright swoon worthy Blackened Chicken that truly elevates this recipe to the best!
Servings: 12 servings
Total Time: 1 hr 50 mins
Prep Time: 40 mins
Cook Time: 10 mins

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Ingredients

PASTA SALAD

  • 16 oz. bowtie/farfalle, rotini, penne or other medium pasta
  • 4 hearts of Romaine lettuce, 1-inch chop (6 cups)
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 orange bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 cups croutons
  • ½ cup freshly shredded Parmesan cheese, more or less to taste

BLACKENED CHICKEN

  • 2 large chicken breasts
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tsp EACH smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder
  • 1 tsp EACH salt, dried oregano, dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Caesar Dressing (Or Store-bought)

Instructions

DRESSING

  • Mince the anchovies, then use the side of your knife to mash by pressing down and sliding the knife against the cutting board to form a paste. 
  • Combine with the remaining dressing ingredients in a mixing bowl except the Parmesan; mix until smooth. Finally, stir in the Parmesan. Refrigerate until ready to use.

CHICKEN

  • Slice the chicken through the equator to create 4 fillets. Cover the fillets with plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet, side of a can or rolling pin to an even thickness, about ½-inch.
  • Mix all of the seasonings together in a small bowl. Pat the chicken dry and lightly coat with olive oil. Season both sides of the chicken.
  • Melt 2 tablespoons butter in 2 tablespoons oil in a large, heavy bottom skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add chicken and cook for 4-5 minutes per side until blackened and cooked to 160 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and wait at least 5 minutes before chopping.

PASTA SALAD

  • Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions just until al dente. (You can chop your salad ingredients while the pasta is cooking.) Drain, rinse with cold water and transfer to a very large servig bowl. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking together.
  • Add the chicken, tomatoes, bell pepper and half of the dressing, stir to evenly coat. Refrigerate pasta salad and remaining dressing separately until ready to use (best served the same day).
  • When ready to serve, add the chopped Romaine and croutons and toss with the remaining dressing. You may need to thin the dressing a little with a couple tablespoons of milk before using. Garnish the salad with freshly shredded Parmesan cheese. Season with plenty of freshly cracked pepper to taste. Dig in!

Video

Notes

Tips and Tricks and substitutions

  • Use the homemade dressing – it’s 1000X better than any store-bought variety!  I know it is extremely tempting to pick up a bottle of dressing, but I promise, nothing tastes as fresh and fabulous as your own Homemade Caesar Dressing – and it takes MINUTES to whisk together!
  • Chicken substitute: Use about 2 ½ cups shredded rotisserie chicken, leftover chopped chicken or your favorite pan seared or grilled chicken.
  • Recipe variations: Try adding bacon (not needed if using the smoky blackened chicken), salami, avocados, eggs, corn, pepperoncini, olives, pickled jalapenos, etc.
  • Anchovies:  These are a key ingredient so please don’t skip!  Anchovies are the key, umami rich ingredient that add saltiness and a savory, complex depth to this otherwise flat dressing without leaving it “fishy-tasting.” The anchovies you want for this recipe are sold in cans packed in olive oil, usually located next to the tuna fish.
  • Leftover anchovies:  Store leftovers submerged in olive oil in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 months or frozen for 6 months. To use up the leftover anchovies, whip up a batch of Pasta Puttanesca, add them to pizza, Niçoise toasts, potato salad, etc.
  • Anchovy paste: Whole anchovies will impart the best flavor but you may substitute with 1 tablespoon anchovy paste if needed.  Anchovy paste is found in a tube next to the canned anchovies and tuna fish. 
  • Anchovy substitute?  Nothing is as good as the real thing but here are some options to choose from: 1) increase the Worcestershire sauce to 2 tablespoons, 2) add 1 teaspoon fish sauce plus more taste, 3) add 2 tablespoons, minced and mashed capers.   Adjust any of these quantities as needed. 
  • Vegan Caesar Dressing: Use vegan sour cream, vegan mayonnaise (like grapeseed oil Vegainase) vegan Worcestershire sauce, vegan Parmesan (try Whole Foods 365 or BelGioioso brands of Parmesan) and replace the anchovies with 2 tablespoons minced and mashed capers.
  • Gluten-free:  Use your favorite gluten-free medium pasta and gluten free croutons or make your own croutons with gluten free bread. You’ll also want to pay attention to use gluten free Worcestershire sauce in the dressing.

Prep Ahead 

This Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad can be assembled with the pasta, chicken, tomatoes, bell peppers and of half the dressing up to 24 hours ahead of time or you can prep the individual components further in advance and then wait to toss everything together:
  • Vegetables: Lettuce, tomatoes and bell peppers be chopped 24 hours in advance and stored in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator.
  • Croutons:  Can be made up to one week in advance and stored in an airtight container at room temperature.
  • Pasta: Can be made 48 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator tossed with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Dressing: Can be made one week in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Storage

Cover leftovers with plastic wrap or transfer to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the softer the croutons will become but the lettuce should mostly stay crispy. If your leftovers taste too dry, then toss with a drizzle of olive oil or leftover dressing if you have some.

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2 Comments

  1. Judith says

    After draining any pasta, I use just enough PAM spray to prevent sticking together. To me, it is less heavy than oil.

    • Jen says

      That is a great suggestion, thanks Judith!

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