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Pesto pasta salad | RecipeTin Eats

I know it should be as simple as dumping pesto on pasta…. but actually, it turns out I have some things to say about pesto pasta salad. That is, if you want a good one!

Close up of Pesto pasta salad in a bowl

Pesto pasta salad

My pesto pasta salad rules are simple – don’t skimp on pesto, don’t be shy with olive oil, cook the pasta beyond al dente and the smallest dab of mayonnaise to give it a touch of luxe as well as improving leftovers.

Why? Because these address two pet-peeves I have about pesto pasta salads.

Firstly, the pesto pasta salad that doesn’t actually taste much like pesto. Pasta with the faintest green colour, and if you close your eyes as you eat, it’d be impressive if you picked it as pesto.

Secondly, the dry pesto pasta salad. Actually, that’s a general pasta salad peeve. Just because it’s a cold pasta, that’s no excuse for dryness! I resort to all sorts of tricks to keep things juicy. Lots of dressing (using avocado is a neat, tasty trick, as is using a splash of pasta cooking water instead of gallons of oil). And juicy add-ins, like roast vegetables, tomato etc. (this marinated vegetable pasta salad is a solid summer staple).

Today’s trick? Just 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise. This works wonders to keep things extra juicy today – and even tomorrow when you pull it out from the fridge!

Bowls of Pesto pasta salad for lunch

What you need for pesto pasta salad

The one thing that will make your pesto pasta salad stand out is freshly made basil pesto. But if it’s an emergency, use the fresh pesto you get from the fridge section – tastes a whole lot fresher than off the shelves in aisles!

1. Homemade pesto

Here’s what you need for the basil pesto.

Pesto ingredients
  • Fresh basil leaves – Abundant and excellent value during summer!

  • Parmesan – or, if you want to really go luxe, parmigiana reggiano.

  • Pine nuts – sometimes, to change things up, I use walnuts, cashews or almonds.

  • Olive oil – Or a 50/50 combination of olive oil and grapeseed oil (which has a more neutral flavour so let’s the basil flavour come through a little more).

  • Garlic – Just a touch. Because it’s raw, if you use too much it can be a little harsh, I find.

2. Pesto pasta salad ingredients

And here’s what goes into my pesto pasta salad.

What goes in Pesto pasta salad
  1. Pasta – Any short shape your heart desires! Shells, macaroni, wheels – go wild! I went spirals. I like to live life on the edge. 😂

  2. Just a dab of MAYONNAISE – Not intended to make this a greasy mayo-laden pesto pasta salad! But a little dab goes a long way to give pesto pasta salad an edge of creaminess so it stays nice and “juicy” even the next day. It really makes a difference.

    Prefer to skip it? Just add a little extra olive oil.

  3. Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes – My add-ins of choice, so it’s not just all pasta. Love the combo of juicy tomato and the soft bites of bocconcini. If you want to skip these, just add a little more pasta. Or, use other add-ins of choice!

  4. Rocket/arugula – I like to add some type of leafy greens into me pesto pasta salads for a hint of freshness and provide textural contrast. Rocket / arugula is great, love the hint of peppery freshness.

How I make pesto pasta salad

Simple – but I do have a couple of tips!

  1. Cook the pasta beyond al dente so it’s quite soft. Why? Because pasta firms up when it cools. To the point of hard when refrigerated. Pre-empt this by cooking pasta a little longer so it’s extra soft when hot = perfect texture when cool!

  2. Tossing order – Toss pasta and pesto only first. Then the bocconcini and tomato. Lastly, leafy greens – as pesto tends to cling to it, and we can’t have leafy greens hogging the pesto!

Homemade pesto

It’s was simple as blitzing everything together using a handheld stick, until the pesto is quite smooth. Less clean up than using a food processor and a better result. Why? Read on!

Making pesto for pesto pasta salad

I prefer using a handheld stick because you can make the pesto smoother which I prefer for pasta salads. Better coverage on the pasta. I like chunky pesto for using as a dip, dolloping on crostini, that sort of thing, where a bit of texture is pleasant.

Bonus: handheld sticks are far easier to clean than a food processor! (Though you can use a food processor if you need to – directions in the recipe).

How to make the pesto pasta salad

How to make Pesto pasta salad

Well, I’ve pretty much already given the steps, but I’ll write them out anyway!

  1. Cook pasta in salted water per packet time plus 1 minute so it’s extra soft, as explained above. Salted water is a must, else you will feel like your pasta salad is a little under seasoned.

    BTW, I start my timer as soon as the pasta goes into the boiling water, not once it comes back up to the simmer. Just in case you’re wondering. 🙂

  2. Rinse the pasta under cold running water to remove excess starch (which makes it sticky, not what we want for pasta salad) and cool.

  3. Drain well and cool.

  4. Pesto first – Mix the pesto through the pasta first.

  5. Tomato & bocconcini next – Then gently mix through the tomato and bocconcini. We don’t want to bash up the tomato too much.

  6. Leafy greens last – And lastly, toss through the rocket/arugula. Just quickly, to disperse. Don’t mix too much else the rocket tends to get weighed down with pesto. In other words – the leafy greens hog the pesto, and we can’t have that!

Big bowl of Pesto pasta salad
Close up of fork picking up Pesto pasta salad

Storing leftover pesto pasta salad

Though pesto pasta salads are at their green-colour prime within a few hours of making, it will last for 2 days in the fridge and retain its green colour, albeit not quite as vibrant as when freshly made.

Also, the other big thing this pesto pasta salad has going for it is that it is still nice and juicy the next day, and the next. I find that cold pasta salads (other than mayo laden ones) are notorious for become dry in the fridge overnight because the pasta absorbs the dressing.

But in this one, the combination of using the right amount of pesto (generous!) and just 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise prevents this pasta salad from drying out.

Take it to picnics, as a side dish for gatherings, or take it to work for lunch. Such a great summer staple! – Nagi x

Watch how to make it

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Close up photo of Pesto pasta salad

Pesto pasta salad


Tap or hover to scale

Recipe video above. Don’t skimp on pesto, and don’t be shy with olive oil. If you do, you’ll end up staring at a mound of flavour-lacking, dry pesto pasta salad, thinking “darn it, I should have just followed the recipe!”.PS Just 2 tablespoons of mayo is the secret here. Just gives an edge of creaminess without weighing it down, plus significantly improves the quality of next-day leftovers – prevents it from drying out.TIP: Homemade pesto obviously rules here, but if you need to resort to store-bought, get it from the fridge rather than aisle. It’s better.


  • Cook pasta – Bring 3 litres of water to the boil with the salt. Cook for the pasta packet time + 1 minute. Drain in a colander, rinse under cold water. Shake off excess water well, then allow to fully cool and dry.

  • Pesto – Place all ingredients in a tall jug just large enough to fit the head of a stick blender. Blitz under pretty smooth. Not a green smoothie, we still want some visible green bits! but not chunks.

  • Toss – Place pasta in a bowl, scrape in the pesto. Toss well. Add bocconcini and tomato, toss gently just to disperse. Add rocket/arugula and toss just to disperse.

  • Serve – Transfer into a serving bowl. Scatter with basil leaves, if using. Serve!

Recipe Notes:

Serves 4 to 5 as a meal, or 8 to 10 as a side (or more, if this is part of a larger banquet!)
1. Pesto – Homemade really is superior, but if you need to use store bought, use just shy of 1 cup. Try to get it from the fridge rather than aisle – fresher!
2. Mayonnaise is not intended to make this a creamy pasta salad. It just adds “juiciness” and prevents it from drying out – because dry pasta salads is a pet peeve of mine! If you don’t want to use mayo, add an extra 2 tablespoons of olive oil instead.
3. Baby bocconcini – small, soft mozzarella balls. They have a mild flavour, ie not salted. Fabulous in pasta salads, especially with pesto pasta salad!
4. Leftovers will keep well for 2 days though it does lose the vibrant green colour. Keep in the fridge in a very airtight container (this will preserve greenness as best as possible). Always bring to room temperature before eating, for best flavour and pasta texture.
Nutrition per serving, assuming 5 servings.

Nutrition Information:

Calories: 663cal (33%)Carbohydrates: 57g (19%)Protein: 21g (42%)Fat: 40g (62%)Saturated Fat: 8g (50%)Polyunsaturated Fat: 7gMonounsaturated Fat: 17gTrans Fat: 0.01gCholesterol: 27mg (9%)Sodium: 2114mg (92%)Potassium: 356mg (10%)Fiber: 3g (13%)Sugar: 3g (3%)Vitamin A: 938IU (19%)Vitamin C: 14mg (17%)Calcium: 293mg (29%)Iron: 2mg (11%)

For the love of pasta salads

Life of Dozer

Current favourite toy. Changes frequently. He’s not very loyal.

PS In case you have a burning desire to know – it’s a hippo. I understand. There’s no way you could sleep tonight without knowing what that slobbery waterlogged grey mass of fur is. Now you can rest in peace.

Actually, on closer inspection, possibly not a hippo? Any thoughts from animal experts much appreciated.

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