Summer is almost here and it’s time to break out the picnic-friendly recipes! Pasta salads are one of those warm-weather staples that are great for summer BBQs, campsite happy hours and even backyard camping. They’re easy to throw together and are always a crowd-pleaser. But unlike heavier pasta salads with mayonnaise-based dressings, we’ve got a recipe for a lighter version that plays off the classic Caprese appetizer. This Caprese pasta salad mixes fresh summer tomatoes with creamy mozzarella cheese and tender pasta. It can be made in less than 20 minutes and can even be prepared ahead of time so it’s ready to go when you get to your campsite.
Tips for Making Caprese Pasta Salad
Rinse the pasta. After the pasta is finished cooking be sure to rinse it in cool water, otherwise the noodles will continue to cook from the heat. Rinsing with cold water also chills the pasta so you can use it immediately in the pasta salad. And it helps to keep the bits of mozzarella cheese from melting as you assemble the dish.
Use fresh mozzarella as opposed to the dried and sliced packaged kind. Instead of the sliced and packaged mozzarella used for sandwiches, try the soft kind packaged in water. You can either use a large ball of cheese or the smaller balls (or pearls as they’re called). The smaller pearls are about the diameter of a dime and can be halved for this recipe or used as-is. If you use the larger ball of mozzarella you’ll have to tear or cut it into bite-size pieces, which is very easy to do.
Chiffonade the basil. If you want those thin strips of basil, you can use a cutting technique called chiffonade. This technique works on any flat, leafy herb or vegetable like basil. And it’s easier than it looks! Simply stack the basil leaves on top of each other and roll them into a tight roll on a cutting board. Cut thin strips off the end and work your way down the roll of leaves. Separate the pieces with your fingers and mix them into the salad. You can also just do a simple chop or mince cut to the basil, but the chiffonade style can make the pasta salad look fancier with very little effort.
There are several ways you can easily change this recipe to match your taste. First, you can use a variety of vinegars for this recipe. We used balsamic vinegar to give the pasta salad a true Caprese flavor, but you can also use white balsamic vinegar, red or white wine vinegar, or champagne vinegar for a lighter flavor on the pasta salad.
You can also increase the flavor complexity by adding a tablespoon or two of minced shallot or red onion to the salad. Additionally, if you already have a grill or fire going, you can blister the tomatoes in a cast iron pan over medium-high heat to soften them and release the juices. Let the tomatoes cool for a few minutes and add them to the pasta and mozzarella mixture before adding the dressing. It’s definitely not necessary, but blistering the tomatoes can bring another level of flavor to the dish.
This recipe can also easily be turned into an entire dinner with the addition of some grilled chicken or fish. And lastly, you can serve this pasta salad at room temperature or chilled. We like it cold, but it works well either way. It also makes great leftovers!
Caprese Pasta Salad Recipe
- 1 pound dried pasta like cellentani, bowtie, or rotini (you want something with nooks and crannies to catch the dressing)
- 2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes, halved if the tomatoes are large
- 8 oz mozzarella cheese cut into small cubes (I like using the pearls and cutting them in half, but you can also use a large ball of mozzarella and tear or cut it into bite-size chunks)
- 2 TBSP fresh basil leaves chopped or thinly sliced
- Optional: 2 TBSP red onion or shallot, diced
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2-3 TBSP balsamic vinegar to taste (you can also use white wine vinegar for a lighter taste)
- Salt and pepper to taste
1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil over medium-high Cook pasta according to packaging directions. Drain and rinse with cold water then set aside.
2. While the pasta is cooking, wash the tomatoes and cut in half if they’re larger in size. (Optional – if you’re going to blister the tomatoes, heat the tomatoes in a pan over medium-high heat until they split and the juices start running out. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes.)
3. Cut the mozzarella into bite-size Chop or chiffonade the basil leaves.
4. Combine the pasta, tomatoes, and mozzarella in a large bowl. Also, add the red onion or shallot if using. Add most of the basil (save some for garnish) and lightly toss to mix.
5. Place the vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine OR place vinaigrette ingredients in a sealed container like a small mason jar or resealable container and shake to combine.
6. Pour the vinaigrette over the pasta salad and carefully mix so everything is evenly coated with the dressing.
7. Garnish with remaining basil and a bit of black pepper.
8. Refrigerate at least 20 minutes before serving. You can also make this a day ahead of time and keep in the fridge in an airtight container until ready to serve.
This salad will keep in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 4 days. It makes amazing leftovers cold and can even be reheated although the mozzarella will melt. But that’s not a bad thing!