Pesto pasta salad is vibrant, fresh and satisfying on your table in 25 minutes!
This Pesto Pasta Salad recipe is summer in a bowl! It’s bursting with pillowy cheese tortellini (or your favorite corkscrew pasta), sweet, juicy cherry tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, crunchy bell peppers, charred, caramelized sweet corn, zippy red onions, bright, meaty salami and buttery pearls of fresh mozzarella all doused in a bright herby, garlicky pesto vinaigrette. It’s a hypnotic blend of fresh, vibrant, hearty and comforting flavors and creamy, crunchy and crispy textures. Of course, you can omit ingredients or swap in your favs to make it YOUR favorite pesto pasta salad recipe! This pesto pasta salad can be served as a main dish or as a side and is always a crowd pleaser for potlucks, picnics and parties. It’s a quick chop and throw together recipe that can be made 100% percent ahead of time for the perfect stress-free side!
Pasta salad recipes are on repeat at house during the hot summer months, especially Italian Tortellini Salad, Greek Pasta Salad, Orzo Pasta Salad, Cowboy Pasta Salad and Creamy Bacon Pea Pasta Salad. Now this Pesto Pasta Salad is a new favorite of ours – and hopefully yours too!
PESTO PASTA SALAD RECIPE
Can you believe summer is almost over? At least Labor Day is just around the corner and the perfect excuse to dive into all your potluck favorites like this pesto pasta salad recipe! This pesto pasta salad is exciting, bright and fresh, yet satisfying, hearty, and comforting all at the same time AKA it’s not your traditional boring pesto salad! What sets this pesto pasta salad recipe apart are:
The pesto dressing. While other pasta salads span the spectrum of boring to dry to flavorless, this recipe is exploding with bright flavors and textures in every hypnotic bite. First, I jazzed up traditional pesto (you can use easy store-bought or make your own) with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, a splash of red wine vinegar, onion powder, garlic powder, dried parsley, dried oregano, paprika and red pepper flakes. Now, we have a kicking pesto vinaigrette dressed to perfection reminiscent of zesty Italian dressing.
The add-ins. Next, instead of just tomatoes and mozzarella, I also added the best summer produce including sweet, succulent corn, fresh, crispy cucumbers and sweet, crunchy bell peppers. Finally, I had leftover Genoa salami from my antipasto salad so I threw it in and loved the Italian tangy, meaty flair it brought. Now we have sweet, juicy, crispy, meaty, cheesy pops of flavor in every forkful.
A FEW MORE REASONS WHY YOU’LL LOVE THIS PESTO PASTA SALAD RECIPE:
- Quick. This peso pasta salad recipe can be on your table in 30 minutes!
- No chilling! To that end, this pasta salad is best served at room temperature so you don’t have to chill it beforehand!
- Easy. If you know how to stir and chop, then you can make this pesto pasta salad.
- Versatile. You can customize your pasta salad recipe with any of your favorite add-ins or omit what you don’t like or have on hand.
- Make it Dinner. The addition of Genoa salami makes the pasta salad hearty enough for dinner or you can swap the salami for shrimp or rotisserie chicken.
- Make ahead. Even though this pesto pasta salad recipe doesn’t have to be chilled ahead of time, you still make it ahead of time then just bring it to room temperature before serving for stress free entertaining, lunch or dinners without the last-minute hustle.
- Scale Up or Down. This pesto pasta salad recipe can be cut in half or doubled, or tripled depending on your needs.
- Potluck pleaser. This pesto pasta salad is perfect for potlucks for all of the aforementioned reasons – it will steal-the-show side. Bring it to potlucks, pool parties, picnics but please don’t wait for a special occasion – it just needs to be made soon. And often.
- Great leftovers. This pesto pasta salad is delicious served immediately or it makes fantastic leftovers, so I promise none of it will go to waste.
WHAT PASTA IS BEST?
My favorite pasta for pesto pasta salad – or any pasta salad – is tortellini. You can use any type of cheese tortellini and I even think sausage tortellini would be yummy! Make sure you use fresh, refrigerated tortellini and not dried tortellini on the shelf.
BEST PASTA SHAPES FOR PASTA SALAD
If you want to substitute the tortellini for another pasta, no problem! You’ll need 16 oz. pasta. In general, medium pastas work best for pasta salad such as:
- Bowties / Farfalle
- Large shells
PESTO PASTA SALAD INGREDIENTS
This pesto pasta salad recipe boasts a rainbow of bright fresh veggies, but feel free to pick and choose your favorites. I personally love the combo of:
- Cherry tomatoes: use ripe cherry tomatoes for the best texture and sweetness. Cherry tomatoes are inherently sweeter than grape tomatoes, so aim for cherry if you can.
- Bell peppers: red or orange bell pepper for their crunchy sweetness. I don’t recommend green bell peppers here.
- English cucumber: so, you don’t have to peel it.
- Corn. You will love the addition of sweet corn! You can char the corn on the grill or in your skillet (instructions included) for a tantalizing sweet and smokey addition or if you’re short on time, you can slice the corn straight off the cob into the pesto pasta salad.
- Peas: use petite frozen peas; please NEVER use mature peas – they are mushy!
- Red onions: I prefer chopped red onions but you may also thinly slice them. If you’re not a fan of raw onions, you can submerge chopped red onions in a bowl of ice water for 10 minutes then drain and pat dry to soften the bite.
- Mozzarella pearls: I use mozzarella pearls which are easy to find in the deli section of your grocery store with the specialty cheeses. They come in a small plastic carton and are the perfect size for salads. They are soft and buttery and melt-in-your-mouth YUM.
- Parmesan cheese: infuses the pesto pasta salad with its fantastic salty, nuttiness. For best results, use ONLY freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It is far superior than the green carton cheese.
- Genoa salami: is a kind of salami believed to have originated in Genoa, Italy. It is seasoned with garlic, salt, black and white pepper, and red or white wine. You can purchase Genoa Salami either at the deli counter or they often have it pre-packaged with the specialty deli meats. If you can’t find Genoa Salami, you can use your favorite salami or omit altogether.
- Mozzarella: you can also use fresh mozzarella balls or a fresh mozzarella log and cube it. If this mozzarella is too expensive or you don’t want to make a separate trip, you can substitute regular mozzarella and chop it into cubes but the flavor/texture won’t be quite the same.
- Grape tomatoes: may be substituted for the cherry tomatoes.
- Green onions: may be substituted for the red onions.
- Fresh peas: you are welcome to use fresh peas and shell them yourself. For the best flavor, choose small peas, which are younger, sweeter, and have a better texture than mature peas. You will need 1 pound of peas in their pods yields to equal 1 cup shelled peas.
- Slicing cucumber: may be used instead of an English cucumber, just make sure to peel it first.
- Frozen sweet corn: may be used instead of fresh corn. You can simply thaw the corn and add it directly to the salad or char it first in a cast iron skillet for 7 minutes.
This pesto pasta salad is all about the dressing and a rainbow of textures. Here are more popping textures you can have fun playing with add even more of a Mediterranean vibe:
- Olives: specifically Kalamata olives for their dark, rich intensely fruity flavor.
- Roasted red peppers: pick up jarred roasted bell peppers that can be found next to the pickles at the grocery store or roast your own. Make sure you pat the jarred bell peppers dry so they don’t water down the pasta salad.
- Pepperoncini: are slightly sweet but mostly tangy with a slight zip of heat. The pepperoncini (100 to 500 Scoville heat units) is much closer to a bell pepper than a jalapeño (jalapenos are about 40x hotter) so don’t be scared away. Their sweet heat tang is explosively delicious.
- Mushrooms: add your fresh chopped mushrooms or marinated mushrooms for a sweet and tangy flair.
- Roasted veggies: add any of your favorite roasted vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, etc.
- Giardiniera: is an Italian preparation of marinated, pickled vegetables with loads of tangy flavor. It often contains celery, cauliflower, onions, carrots, red bell peppers and green olives. It comes in both MILD and HOT – so pay attention! Giardiniera can be found in a jar near the pepperoncini at your grocery store.
- Artichokes: are tender, slightly sweet and nutty. Purchase artichoke hearts in water NOT marinated. The marinated ones often have an acrid taste.
- Capers: add salty, lemony punches of flavor. Capers should be easy to find by the olives at your grocery store. You can use the leftovers in my fabulous Chicken Piccata or Salmon Piccatta recipes.
- Chickpeas: for a nutty, earthy, creaminess and are a rich source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.
- Feta cheese: this rich, creamy, salty, tangy cheese adds SO much flavor! It is also quite salty so I would reduce the amount of Parmesan if also using feta, or swap the Parmesan for feta.
- Nuts: sliced almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, etc. for a delightful crunch.
- Prosciutto: swap the salami for prosciutto – it’s silky and salty fabulous.
- Bacon: can be substituted for the salami as well. Make sure to use thick-cut bacon so it doesn’t get soggy immediately.
- Other protein: you can add chopped rotisserie chicken, lemon basil chicken, Greek chicken, lemon garlic shrimp, or steak in place of the salami or in addition to.
PESTO PASTA SALAD DRESSING INGREDIENTS
This pesto salad dressing takes 5 minutes to whip up! You will need:
- Basil Pesto: classic basil pesto will do the trick. You can make your own pesto or there’s no shame in using quality store-bought pesto.
- Olive oil: use quality extra virgin olive oil for superior flavor.
- Red wine vinegar: I don’t recommend swapping with any other vinegar.
- Lemon juice: adds a fresh, vibrant citrus pop without tasting “lemony.” We will also use the zest so you will definitely need fresh lemon juice here.
- Seasonings: garlic powder, onion powder, dried parsley, dried oregano, paprika, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes add the oomph of flavor.
WHAT EXACTLY IS PESTO?
Pesto is a mixture of fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper AKA the base for an explosive dressing. Pesto originated in Genoa, Italy around the 16th century. The name pesto comes from the Genoese word pestâ, which means to pound or to crush. This refers to the original method of preparing pesto with a mortar and pestle. Today, pesto is incredibly quick and easy to make with countless variations.
To make basil pesto, the ingredients are combined in a food processor then finely chopped to create a thick green sauce. The resulting pesto is bright, herby and peppery with a hint of anise from the basil, salty, nutty and rich from the Parmesan, buttery and nutty from the pine nuts, garlicky from the garlic with a pleasant herby grassiness from the extra virgin olive oil.
Ways to use leftover pesto:
Boldly delicious pesto is an excellent addition to practically everything! So, once you make this pesto pasta salad recipe, here are more was to use up your leftover pesto:
- Pasta: the obvious choice! Add pesto to warm pasta along with additional olive oil, garlic and herbs. You can also add heavy cream for creamy pesto pasta and protein such as chicken or shrimp and all sorts of veggies.
- Pizza: swap traditional pizza sauce for pesto in your favorite homemade pizza recipe. Particularly tasty topped with chicken, sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
- Bruschetta: smear pesto on sliced baguette slices before topping with fresh tomatoes and garlic.
- Bread: use pesto alone or better yet, mix with some softened butter to make baked garlic bread. You can also smear it directly onto crusty bread or dinner rolls.
- Pull apart bread: I combine pesto, butter and mozzarella to create this easy, sensational pull apart bread recipe you will go crazy over!
- Sandwiches, burgers, bagels, wraps: smear pesto on sandwich, burger buns or wraps instead of mayonnaise OR combine pesto with mayonnaise or softened cream cheese for a creamier schmear.
- Marinade: add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and use as a marinade for chicken, pork or salmon.
- Protein: use as a sauce for grilled steak, pork chops, chicken, shrimp and fish much like you would use chimichurri.
- Breakfast: instantly elevate your eggs and omelettes by mixing pesto right in with the eggs or garnish the finished product.
- Veggies: instead of tossing roasted vegetables with olive oil before cooking, toss them with pesto instead like I do in these roasted pesto potatoes. You can also garnish roasted or sautéed veggies with pesto.
- Baked potatoes: skip the butter and top your baked potatoes with pesto.
- Mashed potatoes: elevate your mashed potatoes by mixing in pesto like I do in these crockpot mashed potatoes.
- Rice: stir into rice or risotto for instant YUM.
- Chicken/tuna salad: mix with some mayonnaise or Greek yogurt to dress tuna or chicken salad.
- Soup: drizzle potato soup, tomato soup, butternut squash soup, corn chowder, and lobster bisque with pesto or add directly to any of your favorite Italian soups.
HOW TO MAKE PESTO PASTA SALAD
This pesto pasta salad recipe is SO easy to make and comes together in less than 30 minutes! To make:
STEP 1: MAKE PESTO VINIAGRETTE
- Make the dressing by adding olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic powder, onion powder, dried parsley, dried oregano, paprika, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to a bowl and whisking to combine.
STEP 2: COOK PASTA
- Cook tortellini in generously salted water according to package directions (DON’T overcook). I find I always have too cook my pasta less time than the package says so make sure you check it 2-3 minutes early -you don’t want to ruin your pesto pasta salad with mushy pasta!
- Drain pasta with cool water to prevent it from continuing to cook while it cools. Transfer to a large bowl that gives you some wiggle room to toss, so everything can get evenly combined.
STEP 3: ASSEMBLE
- Add all of the Salad ingredients to the tortellini followed by the Pesto Dressing.
- Gently toss until evenly coated.
STEP 4: TASTE AND ADJUST
- Taste and season with additional lemon juice or salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve at room temperature.
TIPS AND TRICKS FOR THE BEST PESTO PASTA SALAD
This pesto pasta salad recipe is pretty straightforward, but here are some helpful tips and tricks:
- Don’t overcook pasta. Tortellini can become mushy and fall apart if overcooked so keep an eye on them! I don’t use a timer, but just watch them. Cooked tortellini will puff up slightly and float to the top when done. After they float to the top, they may need 1 additional minute or so. To test for doneness, remove a single tortellini with a slotted spoon, rinse under cold water and sample.
- Cool pasta. After the tortellini is cooked, rinse with cold water to prevent it from continuing to cook.
- Toss pasta with olive oil. After the pasta is drained, immediately add it to a large bowl then toss it with some olive oil. If you skip this step, the tortellini can dry together and tear when tossed.
- Microwave lemons. Ever since I learned this tip years ago, I use it all the time! Microwave your lemons for 15 seconds and be amazed at how much easier they are to juice (and how much more juice you get)!
- Use fresh corn immediately. Fresh corn is the sweetest and juiciest used within the first 1-2 days. The sugars begin converting to starch soon after the corn is harvested. Make sure you store your corn in the refrigerator to stall this process.
- Do I have to char my corn? I highly recommend charring your corn for added complex smokiness and it soaks in more flavor from the dressing. That being said, if you are in a hurry, raw corn is also sweet, juicy and delicious.
- Customize ingredients. The pesto pasta salad ingredients and measurements are simply suggestions. You can use add/swap any ingredients for your favorite veggies. You can also add additional protein to make it a complete meal.
- Adjust oil. The amount of oil in pesto jars and recipes can vary so you may need to add additional olive oil to taste if the pasta doesn’t seem moist enough before serving.
- Salt to taste. The amount of salt will depend on the saltiness of your pesto and how heavily the pasta water was salted, so make sure to add additional salt to taste if our pasta salad tastes bland.
- Prep ahead: You can chop your salad ingredients ahead of time and store in air-tight containers in your refrigerator so all that’s left is to do is assemble and EAT! Detailed prep ahead instructions below.
PREP AHEAD PESTO PASTA SALAD
You can prep ahead if wanting to prep the pesto pasta salad more than 24 hours in advance, otherwise you can make ahead (instructions tot follow).
- Vegetables: can be chopped 24 hours in advance and stored in separate airtight containers in the refrigerator.
- Tortellini: 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 72 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
MAKE AHEAD PESTO PASTA SALAD
This pesto pasta salad can be made almost 100% in advance if serving within 24 hours, otherwise follow the prep ahead instructions.
- Gently toss the pasta and all of the salad ingredients together with only HALF of the dressing. If you use all of the dressing initially, your pasta may soak up all the dressing and will taste dry.
- Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Store the rest of the dressing separately.
- When ready to serve, toss with the remaining dressing. You may need to add additional olive oil if the salad appears dry and a fresh squeeze of lemon juice to brighten the salad – as always, taste first!
- Bring to room temperature before serving by letting it sit on the counter for 30 minutes or so.
HOW LONG DOES PESTO PASTA SALAD LAST IN THE FRIDGE? HOW TO STORE?
Cover leftover pesto pasta salad with plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container. Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the drier it can become. If your leftovers taste too dry, then drizzle with additional olive oil to taste. You may also want to perk up the salad with a fresh squeeze of lemon juice.
You can eat leftovers cold, but this pasta salad is best served at room temperate so I like to microwave leftovers for 15 seconds or so.
WHAT SHOULD I SERVE WITH PESTO PASTA SALAD?
This pesto pasta salad goes with everything – just be aware it might steal the show! It pairs well with:
- Mediterranean inspired dishes. From Italy to Greece, this pesto pasta salad pairs well with Pesto Chicken, Bruschetta Chicken, Parmesan Crusted Chicken, Caprese Chicken, Shrimp Scampi, Chicken Souvlaki, Beef Souvlaki Chicken Gyros, and Chicken Shawarma.
- Bright proteins. This pasta salad is fantastic with lemon infused proteins such as Baked Salmon in Lemon Butter (one of my favs!), Garlic Butter Pork Tenderloin, Lemon Pepper Chicken, Roasted Lemon Garlic Butter Shrimp, and Salmon and Asparagus in Piccata Sauce.
- Sandwiches & Burgers. Every cheesy or meaty sandwich/burger needs a fresh side. This pesto pasta salad recipe is delicious with BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwiches, Philly Cheesecake Sandwiches, French Dip Sandwiches, Italian Beef Sandwiches, BBQ Chicken Sandwiches, Best Burgers and BBQ Bacon Burgers.
- Potluck main dishes. Every potluck or BBQ needs sides equally as delicious as the main course. This pesto pasta salad pairs well with: Cilantro Lime Chicken, Apricot Steak, Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Honey Mustard Chicken, Crockpot BBQ Chicken or Oven/Grill Barbecue Chicken, BBQ Ribs and BBQ Beef Brisket.
- Potluck sides. This pesto pasta salad is also a tasty addition to other potluck favorites such as: Million Dollar Baked Mac and Cheese, Potato Salad, Baked Beans, Corn Casserole, Elote (Mexican Street Corn), Grilled Corn on the Cob, Strawberry Avocado Broccoli Salad, and Italian Tortellini Salad.
- Fruit: Finish of your summer spread with sweet, refreshing fruit such as Grilled Pineapple, Creamy Grape Salad, Summer Fruit Salad, Perfect Fruit Salad, Tropical Fruit Salad or Berry Salad in Honey Mascarpone.
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