This refreshing red pesto pasta salad is quick to whip up and packs a flavor punch. It's ready in just 20 minutes and is sure to be a crowd favorite!
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- why you need this pasta salad!
- ingredients and substitutions
- recipe testing notes
- how to make this - step by step
- watch how to make this - step by step
- expert tips for a joy-filled experience
- common questions
- allergy swaps
- recipe variations
- storage tips
- ways to use leftovers
- fun fact
- more pasta-tastic recipes
why you need this pasta salad!
Have you ever made a pasta salad before that left you with dry pasta in your mouth? It's unpleasant and easily avoided! Today I’m walking you through making the best red pesto pasta salad including crucial success tips to make sure it is not dry, the best 8 ingredients to use, and a multitude of variations and ways to use leftovers.
I'm a sucker for pesto items on a menu - red, green, lemon, you name and I've probably eaten it. I began making pesto at home once our garden basil took off and have learned the best ways to use pesto and truly make it shine. And this pesto pasta salad is one of my favorite ways to use it because:
- Easy to make: This cold tomato pesto pasta salad is an easy side dish that can be made ahead of time, perfect as a crowd-pleaser at your summer party or an easy vegetarian lunch.
- Many ways to serve: It's versatile and can be served in a variety of ways. You can serve alongside grilled meats, and rotisserie chicken, or serve it as a main dish.
- Simple and Tasty: This recipe brings together rich flavors in one fulfilling dish and is made with simple ingredients you can find at your local grocery store.
If you're still on the fence, don't be! I'm right here every step of the way to make this dish a success!
ingredients and substitutions
All substitutions are a 1:1 substitute unless otherwise noted. See recipe card for quantities.
Red Pesto: This flavorful base utilizes our red pesto recipe which is a great combination of tomato paste, anchovies, pine nuts, and Calabrian chilis. It's the secret sauce that elevates this pasta salad to new heights! We make our own using our Red Pesto Recipe and you can check out more about the ingredients there.
Substitutions: Store-bought tomato pesto can also be used. You can also use sun-dried tomato pesto or pesto rosso but it will be a different flavor profile.
Orzo: This short-cut pasta is the perfect little vehicle to carry this red pesto. It’s easy to eat and makes for delightful spots of flavor in every bite. Orzo with pesto is the go-to move in my opinion because there is more surface area for the pesto to cling to!
Substitutions: You can use most other pasta instead of orzo. Some of our favorites are rotini, farfalle, bowtie, and spaghetti.
Salami: We love to add thick-cut spicy salami for more flavor and some protein!
Substitutions: Feel free to use any type of salami you like. We prefer a thicker cut for a better bite. Aldi has some great options!
Cucumber: We use mini cucumbers because it’s easy to only use what you need. These add a great crunch and color without impacting flavor!
Substitutions: Feel free to use any kind of cucumber you like. You might be able to use zucchini too but the texture will be less crunchy.
Pine Nuts: These tiny little nuts add a great crunch to the salad. They’re mild and slightly sweet in flavor so are really more so there to enhance the texture.
Substitutions: Cashews or walnuts can serve as a good substitute. You can also omit nuts altogether.
Tomatoes: These add a bright and juicy bite to the pasta salad and really hammer home that tomato flavor!
Substitutions: We use cherry tomatoes because they are so darn sweet but you can use any tomatoes you have on hand.
Sun-Dried Tomatoes: They give this salad a toasty and sweet flavor that pairs beautifully with the pesto sauce.
Substitutions: Additional fresh cherry tomatoes can work if you're in a pinch, but won't have quite the same intense flavor.
Fresh Basil: The aromatic herb that gives your pesto that classic, fresh taste.
Substitutions: In a pinch, a little dried basil can do the trick.
This recipe has not been tested with other substitutions or variations. If you replace or add any ingredients, please let us know how it turned out in the comments below!
recipe testing notes
Throughout our testing of this red pesto pasta salad, we learned what worked and didn't work. Here are the key takeaways!
- The amount of pesto: Initially we tested the pasta salad with half the amount of pesto and while good, it needed more flavor! So, we doubled it!
- Testing other add-ins: We tested the salad with pepperoncini and tomatoes in an effort to amp up the flavor. The results were that the peppers actually muted the tomato pesto flavor while the tomatoes made it more tomatoey. We ultimately decided that adding tomatoes was the right move because they added a bright pop in addition to the added flavor.
how to make this - step by step
Be sure to scroll to the recipe card for the full tomato pesto pasta salad recipe!
Step one: cook the pasta
Cook the orzo in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Once done, strain it and run cold water on it to quickly cool it!
Step two: make the pesto
While your pasta is cooking, whip up your homemade red tomato pesto in your food processor. See our homemade red pesto post for how to do that. You can also use store-bought pesto as a substitute.
Step three: chop and dice
Dice up the cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes and set aside.
Step four: combine
Combine the drained orzo and pesto in a large bowl. If dry, add a little oil while mixing. Then mix in the crunchy cucumbers, salami, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh basil, and sprinkle pine nuts on top!
watch how to make this - step by step
expert tips for a joy-filled experience
To make sure this pasta salad with red pesto goes off without a hitch, here are a few key tips!
Prepare the ingredients in advance
To speed up the process, you can dice, chop, and cook the pasta before combining. This means when you want to serve it, you simply mix it together. The bonus to this is that you can use the already diced vegetables for other recipes too if you change your mind or just make enough pasta salad for one serving at a time.
Chill your pasta salad before serving
This dish is best served cold, so give it some time in the fridge to let all the flavors mingle and develop.
I recommend adding a full 8-ounce jar of pesto to the pasta salad. This adds lots of flavor and keeps the pasta from getting dry.
Yes, you can eat pesto straight from the jar. It can taste kind of strange on its own and we highly encourage enjoying it with bread or pasta. However, it's perfectly safe to eat raw.
So many things! I love to pair this red pesto pasta recipe with chicken, steak, and roasted vegetables. Check out our chicken with red pesto sauce as a perfect pairing to this salad!
In general, it's recommended to rinse orzo when using it for a cold pasta salad. This removes the little bit of starch that coats the pasta and causes it to get a bit sticky. However, for this sun-dried tomato pesto pasta salad, you don’t need to rinse it because there is enough red pesto to keep it from sticking.
If you have special dietary restrictions, here are some substitution ideas to keep this pasta salad safe for everyone!
- Gluten-free: To keep this pasta salad gluten-free, swap the orzo for either a brown rice orzo OR for plain Banza rice. Banza rice behaves very similar to orzo, is gluten-free, and packs a protein punch. Just be sure to rinse it first.
- Dairy Free: This pasta salad is already dairy free! Just be sure to check your salami label. If you're using store-bought pesto be sure to check that as well.
- Vegan: To make this vegan, leave out the salami and just make sure your orzo is vegan (most are).
- Nut Free: To keep this nut-free, try using sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts. I have not tried these so I'm not sure how the flavor would be. You can also leave them out or substitute them for parmesan cheese (in both the pesto and salad).
- Pasta Salad with Grilled Chicken: Add slices of grilled chicken for a protein-packed version.
- Mediterranean Pasta Salad: Add some crumbled feta and kalamata olives to turn this into a Greek pasta salad recipe.
- Vegetable Pasta Salad: Pack in a variety of vegetables like bell peppers and spinach for an extra veggie boost. Omit the salami for a vegetarian version.
Fridge: Store your salad in an airtight container and keep it in the fridge. It will stay fresh for 3-4 days.
Freezer: It's best not to freeze this salad as the texture of the pasta and vegetables can change.
Reheating: Not applicable. Remember, this is a cold tomato pesto pasta salad.
ways to use leftovers
- Chicken Pesto Wrap: Toss some of the leftover salad with sliced rotisserie chicken and wrap it in a tortilla for a quick lunch.
- Pan Roasted Meatballs and Pasta: To make the leftovers a complete meal, try roasting frozen meatballs in the oven or air fryer. Top with marinara and mozzarella while hot. Serve these alongside the pasta salad.
“Orzo” is actually Italian for “barley,” and orzo bears a similarity to barley in its unprocessed form. Made from durum wheat semolina flour, orzo is classified as a “pastina”—a tiny type of pasta commonly found in soups and other dishes where the pasta is more like filler than the main part of the dish. People also use orzo as a side dish, much like you would with rice, or in a pasta salad. (source)
more pasta-tastic recipes
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- 16 oz orzo (1 standard box)
- 8 oz red pesto
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1.5 cups cucumber (diced, 1 large or two small)
- ¼ cup pine nuts
- ¼ cup sundried tomatoes (thinly sliced)
- ¼ cup fresh basil (chopped)
- ½ cup cherry tomatoes (halved)
- 8 oz hard salami (diced)
Before you start!
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- Cook the orzo in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Once done, strain it and run cold water on it to quickly cool it!
- While your pasta is cooking, whip up your homemade red tomato pesto in your food processor. See our red pesto post for how to do that. You can also use store-bought pesto if you don't want to make your own.
- Dice up the cucumbers, tomatoes, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes and set aside.
- Combine the oil and pesto in a large bowl. Add the drained orzo, then mix in the cucumbers, salami, tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, and sprinkle pine nuts on top! You can also top with parmesan if desired.
Looking for more information?
Additional substitution information can be found above in the substitution section of this post.
Nutritional information is an estimate and for informational purposes only.