Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad is made with shredded chicken, fresh homemade pesto, tender pasta, fresh tomatoes, cheese, garlic, and basil. It is bursting with flavor in every bite!
Picnics, BBQs, parties… This Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad recipe is the perfect dish for a light summer dinner or lunch, or as a hearty side dish for potlucks and picnics.
To serve, try carrying on with these with Italian-style dishes, like Classic Bruschetta or Pesto Bruschetta, Antipasto Skewers, and Italian Chicken Quesadillas.
Why I Love This Recipe
- Ready Quickly – This dish comes together super fast and can be ready in about 20 minutes.
- Simple & Flavorful – Not only is it easy to make, but it’s also hearty and satisfying. The pesto sauce packs a flavor punch with fresh herbs, tangy parmesan cheese, and fresh chopped garlic.
- Fresh Ingredients – The salad is made with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, basil, and Mozzarella cheese.
- Perfect For Warm Weather – When it’s too hot to cook, I can whip up a big bowl of this pasta salad and know that my family will love it. It’s got protein, and fresh veggies so I can feel good about serving it to the.
For the Fresh Pesto:
- Walnuts – Adds a warm, nutty flavor to the pesto, swap for something like pecans, sunflower seeds, or pinenuts.
- Garlic – 5-10 cloves of garlic may sound like a lot, but not when you REALLY love garlic. Plus it’s one of the main ingredients in pesto.
- Basil Leaves – Pack the leaves in a measuring cup tightly.
- Parmesan Cheese – Freshly grated off the block will be the best flavor, but since you’re not melting you can use a pre-packaged grated variety.
- Olive Oil – Drizzle as much as you need to thicken the pesto.
For the Pasta Salad
- Pasta – I used Cavatappi which is a small corkscrew-like tube pasta, but you can use any small cut pasta, like rotini, penne, or macaroni.
- Shredded Chicken Breast – Any leftover chicken will do, or you can make some fresh. I like to get a rotisserie chicken and just pluck off the meat to keep it easy.
- Grape Tomatoes – or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half.
- Mozzarella Cheese – Buy a block of cheese and cut it into small cubes for a fun little bite in your salad.
- Basil Leaves – Roll up and slice into strips, chiffonade style.
- Parmesan Cheese – Fresh off the block is preferred, but any will work.
How To Make Chicken Pesto Pasta Salad
This recipe starts with freshly made pesto sauce tossed with cooked pasta. To make it a complete meal we add fresh tomatoes, Mozzarella cheese, and tender chunks of chicken.
- Cook The Pasta. Boil water and cook according to package instructions. Then rinse the cooked pasta with cold water. Normally you don’t want to rinse pasta but this removes the starches and keeps the pasta from sticking together, as well as stopping the cooking process. You’ll save about ¼ cup of the pasta water for thinning the pesto sauce.
- Make The Basil Pesto. Using a food processor, pulse walnuts, garlic, fresh basil, olive oil, and parmesan cheese together. If you have nut allergies, you can use my nut free pesto recipe instead, or you can use a store-bought pesto to save on time.
- Salad Assembly. Add the pesto to the pasta and combine, making sure to coat evenly. Add the remaining ingredients, season with salt and pepper, and garnish with fresh strips of basil and freshly grated parmesan cheese for added flavor and color.
Pesto is a Genovese sauce made with basil, nuts, parmesan, olive oil, and garlic. The ingredients are blended together in a food processor to create the sauce.
You can either blend finely or pulse the processor to get more of a coarse ground pesto.
Traditional pesto is made with fresh basil but other herbs such as cilantro or parsley may be added or substituted. Pine nuts are traditionally used, but walnuts, cashews, or even sunflower seeds can be substituted.
You do not cook pesto, but it can be added to cooked tomato or cream sauces.
Pesto can be made in big batches when basil is plentiful and frozen for quick use at a later date.
You absolutely can purchase a jar of pesto. There are some very delicious options. I like Barilla but often turn to Classico brand because it’s nut-free.
Try adding diced cucumbers, broccoli, arugula, or spinach. Experiment with other types of cheese, like Feta or fresh Mozzarella pearls. Replace the fresh tomatoes with sun-dried tomatoes. For vegetarians, simply omit the chicken.
- Mix pesto and pasta together first, before adding other ingredients to ensure that the pesto is evenly distributed. If it’s too thick, add some of the reserved pasta water or a little extra olive oil.
- Even-sized bites. Cut all tomatoes, mozzarella, and chicken into uniform bite-sized pieces.
- Fresh basil garnish. For added flavor, add some thinly sliced strips of fresh basil on top.
- Make ahead of time and store in the fridge until ready to serve. Serve the salad chilled or at room temperature.
- Do not freeze. Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. If the salad appears dry, add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss.
More Pasta Salads
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In a large pot bring water to boil to cook the pasta. Cook to al dente, then drain pasta saving ¼ cup of the water for later. Rinse with cold water to remove starch and stop the cooking process.
Meanwhile, In a food processor, pulse walnuts and garlic to small bits. Then add basil leaves and pulse until well blended. Start with ¼ cup of olive oil and slowly add to the basil mixture, with the food processor on low speed. Add the grated parmesan cheese and pulse until combined evenly. If mixture seems to dry, add additional olive oil until it looks easily spreadable.
Place pasta back in pot, then add pesto mix and stir to coat evenly. If the pesto isn’t covering evenly, add in reserved pasta water a spoonful at a time until it looks even. If you forgot the pasta water, add a little bit of olive oil.
Toss in shredded chicken, halved tomatoes, cubed mozzarella and stir until well combined. Store in the fridge until ready to serve.
Sprinkle strips of basil and fresh parmesan over the top for garnish if desired just before serving.
- Freezing is not recommended.
- Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 3-4 days. If the pesto pasta salad appears dry, add 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil and toss.
- For walnut allergies, use our Nut Free Pesto or a jarred sauce that you enjoy.
Calories: 529kcalCarbohydrates: 47gProtein: 26gFat: 27gSaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 47mgSodium: 332mgPotassium: 465mgFiber: 4gSugar: 3gVitamin A: 1990IUVitamin C: 9mgCalcium: 313mgIron: 3mg