This Caprese Pasta Salad has all the flavors of a traditional Caprese Salad but mixed with pasta for the perfect backyard BBQ side dish.
Caprese most often refers to a salad of tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil, sometimes with balsamic vinegar. It’s believed that the salad was created to celebrate the colors of the Italian flag – red, white, and green! You can get our Caprese Salad recipe at our sister site, theCOOKFUL, or you can play with the flavors in other recipes, for instance, in a grilled cheese sandwich or, like in today’s recipe, a pasta salad.
How To Make The Caprese Pasta Salad Dressing
I love this dish because it stretches the somewhat pricey ingredients of a Caprese salad into a hearty side dish that goes with just about everything you’d want to serve at a BBQ or picnic. If you love classic Caprese salad, you’re going to love it as a pasta salad.
To make the pasta salad dressing, chop the tomatoes while the pasta is cooking. Get them into a large bowl and salt them really well. Stir them up and press down on them with your spoon here and there. The goal is to get some of the tomato water to come out of the tomatoes. We’re going to stir the lemon juice and olive oil right into the tomatoes to make a tomato-flavored dressing for the pasta.
What Kind Of Pasta To Use In Pasta Salad
For pasta salad, pasta shapes (like shells, macaroni, etc.) are preferable to any kinds of strands (like spaghetti, linguine, etc.). Using small-ish shapes means that you can cut your other ingredients to be the same size as the pasta, making it easier to eat.
I like to use ditalini pasta which is shaped like short tubes (the name means “little thimbles”!). The dressing gets right into the holes and flavors the pasta really well. Macaroni, bow ties, rigatoni, and shells are also great options for a similar reason: the dressing can get to all parts of the pasta easily.
I tend to not like penne as much for pasta salad. It’s a bit firmer and the dressing doesn’t always get all the way into the tube, unless you have it sitting in the dressing for quite awhile.
How To Chill The Pasta For Pasta Salad
Once your pasta has cooked according to the package directions and is the tenderness that you like, drain it in a colander in the sink. Then, rinse your pasta pot off with cold tap water to chill it down. Fill it halfway with cold water and add your pasta to it. Stir it. Drain it in the colander again. Repeat with more cold water 2-3 more times until the pasta is no longer warm at all.
It’s important to chill the pasta before adding the dressing. The reason is that hot pasta will soak up too much of the dressing. That makes your pasta overly soft (waterlogged, even), and doesn’t leave enough moisture on the outside to coat other ingredients, and the pasta.
Can Pasta Salad Be Made Ahead?
Yes, pasta salad is great for a make-ahead. I love making it the day before to take to a potluck or BBQ. I typically make it within 24 hours of when I need it. There are two things to watch out for though: 1) Any cheese in the salad can get a bit mushy; 2) The pasta can continue to soak up dressing even if it’s well-chilled. It won’t soak up as much, but it can soak up some.
Here’s what I do if the pasta salad has been made ahead:
If you’re making your pasta salad ahead of time and it has cheese in it, leave the cheese out until you’re ready to serve it (or to take it where you’re going to serve it). Stir the cheese in up to 2 hours before serving. It will be much better that way.
As to the dressing, when ready to serve, or ready to take it to where we’re going, take the pasta salad out of the fridge and give it a stir. Take out a spoonful and taste it. If it’s not as moist as you remember it from when you made it, or if you just want it moister, go ahead and add more dressing, about 2 tablespoons at a time. Stir that in and taste it. Add more dressing if needed.
For the Caprese Pasta Salad, if I find that it has soaked up too much of the dressing, I chop up and extra tomato, add some salt to it and its juice, and add that in with a drizzle of olive oil. That does the trick!
I think you’re going to love this easy pasta salad recipe. The flavors are so great and simple, but come together to make perfect bites.
Enjoy! -Christine xoPrint
Note that the cheese in the picture is in slices. That gives the nicest presentation, however, I find the pasta salad easier to eat if the mozzarella is cubed as instructed below. Also, I serve the balsamic glaze on the side because the pasta salad tastes great without it, and it turns the salad an unappealing brown-ish color if you add it to the mix.
Listen to me explain briefly about how to make this pasta salad, with some great tips along the way, by clicking the play button below:
- 1 lb. Ditalini Pasta (or another small shape like elbow macaroni or bow ties)
- 6 medium tomatoes
- 2 tsp. salt
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- 16 oz. fresh mozzarella
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves
- Balsamic glaze (optional)
- Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain the pasta. Put it back into the pot with cold tap water. Stir, Drain it. Repeat by adding more cold water, stirring, and draining, 2-3 more times until the pasta is cooled down fully.
- Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes fairly finely. As you chop them, transfer the tomatoes along with any juice that comes out into a large bowl.
- Add the salt to the tomatoes. Stir and then gently press on the tomatoes to extract more juice. The salt and the pressing will yield quite a bit of juice after a few minutes.
- Add the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and black pepper to the tomatoes. Stir.
- Cube the balls of fresh mozzarella by ¼ inch thick, and then cut the slices into 1/4 inch strips, and then into ¼ inch cubes.
- Add the mozzarella to the tomatoes along with the cool pasta. Stir.
- Tear ¾ of the the basil leaves into ¼ to ½ inch pieces. Stir them into the pasta. Tear the remaining basil leaves and distribute them over the top.
- Serve with the balsamic glaze on the side for those who’d like to add some.
This post was published in July 2012 and was updated August 2020.