Cowboy Pasta Salad with the BEST Dressing!

This Cowboy Pasta Salad is purely addicting loaded with juicy ground beef, bacon, sweet corn, black beans, tomatoes and cheese smothered in tangy, creamy southwest barbecue sauce! 

This Cowboy Pasta salad is a TexMex Pasta Salad at it’s most tantalizing. It is fully loaded with everything delicious and makes not only a crowd pleasing potluck side but is a stand-alone dinner as well.  You can make the entire salad ahead of time and just add the bacon before serving for easy entertaining or meal prep.  This Cowboy Pasta Salad is delicious slightly chilled but equally delicious served warm. No matter how you serve it, this Cowboy Pasta Salad is one for the “favorite recipe file!”

up close of Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

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cowboy Salad

This summer has been the year of pasta salads at Carlsbad Cravings from Italian Pasta Salad with Tortellini to Po Boy Shrimp Pasta Salad to Cubano Pasta Salad with Mojo Dressing and many more listed below.  But none of these pasta salad recipes boast juicy, ground beef – until today.  Think taco salad – but even dreamier.

And not just dreamy for cowboys.  I guarantee that every cowboy and cowgirl alike will be singing your praises for this Cowboy Pasta Salad Recipe.  It’s creamy, tangy, smoky, boasts layers of textures and flavors of TexMex glory and did I say bacon already?

If you consume this Cowboy Pasta Salad the “proper way,” serve it alongside some cowboy favorites of Nashville Hot Chicken, Oven “Fried” Chicken, Slow Cooker Barbecue Ribs, or Slow Cooker Beef Brisket but I was so enamored by this Cowboy Pasta Salad I couldn’t stop sneaking it from the refrigerator – when I wasn’t even hungry.  I would eat it cold and I would eat it warmed in the microwave.  Both arguably delicious.  Make it, try it both ways, and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

top view of easy Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

How to Make Cowboy Pasta Salad

  • Cook pasta just until al dente according to package directions. Rinse with cold water and drain.  Add to a large serving bowl and toss with half of the dressing.
  • Brown meat with onions in a large skillet over medium heat. Drain off excess grease. Stir in green chiles and all spices.  Set aside to cool while you chop your veggies.
  • Add beef and all remaining salad ingredients to pasta except bacon. Stir in desired amount of dressing. Add bacon if serving immediately or cover and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve then add bacon.
  • Cowboy Pasta Salad can be served cold, at room temperature or warmed through.
showing how to make Cowboy Pasta Salad by adding ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and barbecue sauce,

Dressing for Cowboy Pasta Salad

A pasta salad is only as good as its dressing and this Cowboy Pasta Salad has the best dressing AKA Creamy Southwest Barbecue Sauce! It’s punchy, tangy, creamy and as spicy-as-you-like- it depending on if you use mild, medium or hot salsa and if you want to amp up the heat with hot sauce.

You can choose to get even more flirty with you Cowboy Pasta Salad Dressing by adding some chipotle or cilantro to the dressing – it’s entirely up to you! Just know that as written, the ingredient list may seem long, but it takes minutes to whisk up and you will be salivating that you did.

I first made the dressing for the Cowboy Pasta Salad as written (and loved it) but I was worried it seemed a little lengthy and I didn’t want anyone to get intimidated or turned off by the long yet easy-dump-and-run ingredients, and be cheated out of its deliciousness –  so I made it again – with 2 different dressings.

My first dressing is what made it into the recipe:

  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • ⅓ cup mayonnaise
  • ⅓ cup sour cream
  • ¼ cup salsa
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ tsp EACH smoked paprika, salt, pepper
  • Hot sauce to taste

(Just as promised – easy, pantry staple, dump-and-run ingredients!)

My second dressing was a simplified version swapping the barbecue sauce for the ketchup, mustard, etc.  And although it was good – it was not dynamite good like my original Cowboy Pasta Dressings,  And you deserve dynamite good.  Get ready to taste dynamite good.  And get ready for the inevitable insatiable Cowboy Pasta Salad cravings that follow.

best Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

HELPFUL TIPS TO MAKE Pasta Salad:

  • Turkey Substitute.  You can substitute the lean ground beef with turkey in this Cowboy Pasta Salad.  If you do this, I like to brown my turkey with a little olive oil and 2 teaspoons beef bouillon.  If you add beef bouillon, omit the salt called for in the recipe.
  • Pasta Substitute.  I like to use mini farfalle in this Cowboy Pasta Salad recipe but any medium or small pasta will work great.  Rigatoni as well as macaroni would work great.
  • Don’t overcook pasta.  No one wants a mushy Cowboy Pasta Salad!  It is important to not overcook your pasta – you want it al dente so it still has a little bite otherwise the pasta salad will be soggy.
  • Stop Pasta from Cooking.  To stop your pasta from cooking after it’s removed from the heat, rinse and drain it in cold water then stir in some of the dressing to keep it from sticking together.
  • Thick-Cut Bacon.  It is essential to use thick-cut bacon in this Cowboy  Pasta Salad recipe so it retains its meaty texture when covered in the creamy dressing.
  • Cool Pasta.  Unlike vinaigrette dressings, you will want to make sure the pasta is completely cool before mixing in the creamy dressing to ensure the dressing doesn’t separate.
  • Customize Veggies.  Feel free to add/substitute any other veggies your heart desires like  avocado!
  • Canned Jalapenos.  I highly recommend canned jalapenos as opposed to fresh because they are pickled which adds a fabulous tang that compliments the richness of the dressing.
  • Customize Dressing.  You can also choose to make your dressing tangier by additional apple cider vinegar or sweeter by the addition of brown sugar.   Make it spicier by adding hot sauce to taste, keeping in mind the salad will also have chopped canned jalapeno peppers.
  • Prep Dressing Ahead.  You can make the dressing ahead of time and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  • Make Salad Ahead.  This Cowboy Pasta Salad keeps fabulously with the exception of the bacon.  If you know you are going to have leftovers and want the bacon to stay crispy, then hold the bacon and add to individual servings or just part of the salad you’re serving.
top view of easy Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

PREP AHEAD Cowboy PASTA SALAD

Although this Cowboy Pasta Salad requires a few steps to make, you can prep almost everything in advance:

  • Beef: Can be browned and combined with green chilies and spices, cooled and stored in an airtight container 48 hours in advance.
  • Bacon: Cook and crumble and store in an airtight container in the fridge. Pre-cooked bacon won’ be quite as crispy.
  • Vegetables:  can be prepped/chopped 24 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  • Pasta:  can be cooked al dente, rinsed in cold water, drained then drizzled with olive oil to prevent it from sticking. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 72 hours.
  • Dressing:  can be made 72 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

CAN I MAKE cowboy PASTA SALAD AHEAD?

You can go one step further and almost prep this Cowboy Pasta Salad 100% in advance. To make ahead, gently toss all the ingredients together except the bacon with only HALF of the dressing, cover and refrigerate.  When you are ready to serve, toss with desired amount of remaining dressing.  If you use all of the dressing initially your pasta may soak up all the dressing and will taste dry.

HOW LONG DOES cowboy pasta SALAD LAST IN THE FRIDGE? HOW TO STORE?

Cover leftover Cowboy Pasta Salad with plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container.  Store in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. It might sound funny, but I like to microwave my leftovers for 15 seconds or so because I think it tastes better at room temperature.  The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the drier it can become.  If your leftovers taste too dry, then drizzle with a little olive oil to taste. 

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up close of Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

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best Cowboy Pasta Salad with ground beef, black beans, corn, tomatoes and barbecue sauce in a metal bowl

Cowboy Pasta Salad with the BEST Dressing!

This Cowboy Pasta Salad is purely addicting loaded with juicy ground beef, bacon, sweet corn, black beans, tomatoes and cheese smothered in tangy, creamy southwest barbecue sauce!  Perfect for potlucks or make ahead dinners!
Servings: 10 -12
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

Pasta Salad

  • 1 pound mini farfalle or other small pasta such as rigatoni or shells
  • 1 pound lean ground beef or turkey see note
  • 1 4 oz. can mild diced green chiles
  • 1 tsp EACH chili powder, ground cumin
  • 3/4 tsp EACH garlic powder, onion powder, salt (omit salt if using ground turkey and bouillon)
  • 4-6 tablespoons diced canned jalapeno peppers (from 4 oz. can)
  • 1 green bell pepper chopped
  • 1 15 oz. can black beans rinsed and drained
  • corn from 1 ear sweet corn
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes halved
  • 1 cup cubed sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 small red onion chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 pound thick center cut bacon cooked and chopped

Dressing

  • 1/3 cup ketchup
  • 1/3 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/3 cup sour cream may sub plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup salsa medium if you like a kick
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp EACH smoked paprika, salt, pepper
  • Hot sauce/Tabasco to taste

Instructions

  • Whisk together all of the Dressing ingredients in a medium bowl. Add plenty of Tabasco to taste. Set aside.
  • Cook pasta just until al dente according to package directions. Rinse with cold water and drain. Add to a large serving bowl and toss with half of the dressing.
  • Brown meat in a large skillet over medium heat. Drain off excess grease. Stir in green chiles and all spices. Set aside to cool while you chop your veggies.
  • Add beef and all remaining salad ingredients to pasta except bacon.
  • If serving immediately, add bacon and stir in desired amount of dressing. If not serving immediately, hold bacon and dressing and add when ready to serve. Add hot sauce for spicier, apple cider vinegar for tangier, brown sugar for less tangy if desired.
  • Cowboy Pasta Salad can be served slightly chilled, at room temperature, or heated through. Leftovers are equally delicious heated in the microwave.

Notes

HELPFUL TIPS TO MAKE COWBOY Pasta Salad Recipe:

  • *Turkey Substitute.  You can substitute the lean ground beef with turkey in this Cowboy Pasta Salad.  If you do this, I like to brown my turkey with a little olive oil and 2 teaspoons beef bouillon.  If you add beef bouillon, omit the salt called for in the recipe.
  • Pasta Substitute.  I like to use mini farfalle in this Cowboy Pasta Salad recipe but any medium or small pasta will work great.  Rigatoni as well as macaroni would work great.
  • Don’t overcook pasta.  No one wants a mushy Cowboy Pasta Salad!  It is important to not overcook your pasta – you want it al dente so it still has a little bite otherwise the pasta salad will be soggy.
  • Stop Pasta from Cooking.  To stop your pasta from cooking after it’s removed from the heat, rinse and drain it in cold water then stir in some of the dressing to keep it from sticking together.
  • Thick-Cut Bacon.  It is essential to use thick-cut bacon in this Cowboy  Pasta Salad recipe so it retains its meaty texture when covered in the creamy dressing.
  • Cool Pasta.  Unlike vinaigrette dressings, you will want to make sure the pasta is completely cool before mixing in the creamy dressing to ensure the dressing doesn’t separate.
  • Customize Veggies.  Feel free to add/substitute any other veggies your heart desires like  avocado!
  • Canned Jalapenos.  I highly recommend canned jalapenos as opposed to fresh because they are pickled which adds a fabulous tang that compliments the richness of the dressing.
  • Customize Dressing.  You can also choose to make your dressing tangier by additional apple cider vinegar or sweeter by the addition of brown sugar.   Make it spicier by adding hot sauce to taste, keeping in mind the salad will also have chopped canned jalapeno peppers.
  • Prep Dressing Ahead.  You can make the dressing ahead of time and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  • Make Salad Ahead.  This Cowboy Pasta Salad keeps fabulously with the exception of the bacon.  If you know you are going to have leftovers and want the bacon to stay crispy, then hold the bacon and add to individual servings or just part of the salad you’re serving.

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50 Comments

  1. Linda B says

    Your photography makes the salad look irresistible, I can almost taste the dressing from your description. Do tell, though, is your site named for the place, or I see there a Carl with bad cravings in your life? Had to ask. Jen, I look forward to trying your lovely salads. Thanks

    • Jen says

      Thanks Linda, I hope you loved the salad! You are not the first to think my site is named after Carl’s bad cravings (honestly a much more interesting name) but it named after Carlsbad, California where I live – a coastal city in San Diego 😉

  2. Nancy says

    I just made the Cowboy Salad for dinner and it was a hit. We love all of your recipes and haven’t hit a bad one yet. I did like the salad dressing also and tweeked to our taste by adding lots of tabasco and cilantro. It also was very good with the canned jalapenos and can see why fresh wouldn’t work as well. Thank you so much for the great recipes and keep them rolling.

    • Jen says

      I’m so happy to hear this is a repeat favorite Nancy, thank you! I love that you went heavy on the Tabasco – yum! Thanks for making my recipes!

  3. Jennifer Fulk says

    Hi Jen! Making this this weekend. What hot sauce do you recommend ?

    • Jen says

      I like Cholula but any brand will work, enjoy!

  4. Renea says

    Made this tonight and it turned out great. Loved the dressing and how easy it was to tweak the flavor. I used the pickled jalapeño and it added a zip of flavor. Great salad to bring to a neighborhood BBQ.

    • Jen says

      Thanks so much Renea, I’m so pleased it was a hit!

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