This simple cold pesto pasta salad recipe with basil and vegetables is perfect for light summer meals, picnics and meal prep.

Bowl of cold pesto pasta salad with tomato, arugula, olives and red onion.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy summer side dish, this recipe is for you! It’s light, fresh, bursting with flavour and super easy to whip up in under 20 minutes.

It’s also super easy to customize. You can make it as simple as pasta and pesto. You can skip the olives if you’re not a fan. You can add nuts, cheese or more veggies like green peas, cucumber, sun dried tomatoes or artichokes.

Whether you’re making this for meal prep or serving it as a fresh summer side dish or light main, it’s sure to be a new favourite…year round!

Why You’ll Love This Recipe

  • Ready in 20 minutes.
  • Light, fresh and bursting with flavour!
  • Perfect for summer! You’ll love this flavourful pesto pasta for a light Summer meal or side dish for your next BBQ, potluck or summer gathering.
  • This pesto pasta is completely vegan, dairy-free, nut-free and can be made gluten-free by using your choice gluten-free pasta.
  • Can be served hot or cold.
  • Make a simple pesto pasta salad by mixing the pesto sauce with your choice of pasta.
  • Contains 3 tbsp of oil and no nuts, making it lower in fat and calories than deli salads and other recipes.
  • Versatile: Use the pesto sauce for other recipes and bowls, add a protein source like chickpeas, or customize your salad with different vegetables like broccoli, peas, zucchini, artichoke or sun-dried tomatoes.

Ingredients & Substitutions

Complete list of ingredients with amounts and full instructions is located in the printable recipe card below. This section covers ingredient and substitution considerations.

Overhead view of the ingredients needed for making a cold pesto pasta salad recipe with olives, red onion, basil, arugula and tomato.
  • Basil: You’ll need fresh basil for this recipe.
  • Olive Oil: You’ll need just a little oil for the pesto sauce. This gives the salad a nice creamy texture.
  • Garlic: Fresh garlic is best here!
  • Nutritional Yeast: Nutritional yeast stands in for parmesan in the pesto sauce.
  • Lemon: You’ll need a whole fresh lemon to make the juice and zest. These ingredients make the salad bright, fresh and zesty!
  • Pasta: You can use any kind of pasta shape you enjoy but a spiral shape like fusilli works well since it has lots of surface area to hold the pesto so you get more goodness in every bite. Other bite-sized shapes like penne and bows also work well.
  • Tomato: You can use cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes or any diced fresh tomato like Roma.
  • Olives: The recipe calls for black olives but you can also use kalamata or another olive you enjoy.
  • Red Onion: This could be substituted with shallot if needed.

How to Make Pesto Pasta Salad

Step 1: Cook the Pasta.

Start by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil on the stovetop. Cook your pasta according to the package instructions, just a little past al dente..]

Once the pasta is cooked, drain and rinse it well under cold water to prevent sticking, tossing to make sure all the pieces get rinsed off.

Cooked rotini pasta noodles in a metal colander.

Step 3: Make the Pesto.

Add all of the ingredients, starting with 2 tbsp of water, to a small blender or mini food processor and mix until smooth.

Once blended, slowly add a little more water to adjust the consistency, if needed.

Quick Note: This pesto is lighter than a traditional pesto. It’s more of a dressing than a thick, chunky pesto.

If you want to make it chunkier, you can add up to 1/3 cup pine nuts, walnuts, green peas or blanched almonds.

Tomatoes, olives, arugula, red onion, pesto sauce and pasta in a large mixing bowl.

Step 4: Mix the Salad.

Mix until all ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the salad and the pasta is well-coated in the pesto.

You can enjoy your salad right away or chill for 1-2 hours in the fridge to give the flavours time to meld together.

Quick Tip: Try roasting the tomatoes for another layer of flavour.

Place the halved tomatoes on a baking tray and toss with 1 tsp olive and a pinch of salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes at 400 F until golden browned and starting to shrivel.

A mixed up cold pesto pasta salad in a metal mixing bowl with a fork resting in the bowl.

Tips

  • Try topping your salad with a sprinkle of pine nuts and/or this vegan parmesan.
  • Store this salad in the fridge until just before serving.
  • Be sure to salt the pasta water generously and rinse the pasta well in cold water once it’s cooked. Cook it just a little pasta al dente since it firms a bit once chilled.

Variations

  • Hot or Cold: This recipe can be served as a hot pesto pasta dish or a cold pasta salad.
  • Simple Pesto Pasta Salad: Omit all the salad ingredients and simply mix the pesto with your choice of pasta.
  • Creamy Pesto Pasta: To make the pesto sauce creamy, you can add up to 1/3 cup mayonnaise of choice.
  • Pesto Pasta Salad with Feta: Serve with your choice of crumbled or cubed feta, such as this homemade tofu feta or any store-bought feta. A scoop of this tofu ricotta would also be yummy as an alternative to feta.
  • Other Cheeses: You may want to serve your pesto pasta topped with parmesan cheese or add cubed mozzarella to the salad.
  • Other Vegetables: This salad makes a great base for different veggies. Try steamed or roasted zucchini, cucumber, green peas, pepperconcini peppers, olives, artichokes or sun-dried tomatoes.
  • Adding Protein: To add a protein source to this recipe, cook it separately and serve on top or mix it in at the end. For plant-based options, try a meat-alternative like sausage, baked tofu, tempeh, chickpeas or hemp seeds.
Using a fork in a small bowl of pesto pasta salad with tomato, arugula and olives.

Serving Suggestions

Pasta salads are usually served as a side dish but this one is satisfying and delicious so it’s also lovely for lunch or a light summer meal.

If you’re serving it as a side dish, try it with these chickpea burgers, beet burgers, chickpea wraps, corn on the cob, baked tempeh, grilled tofu or any other entree you enjoy. It’s also perfect to bring along to BBQ’s, picnics, potlucks and summer gatherings to serve as a cold side salad.

FAQs

Can you make gluten-free pesto pasta salad?

Yes! To make this recipe gluten-free, use your choice of gluten-free pasta such as brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta or a legume-based pasta like chickpea or edamame pasta.

What kind of pasta can I use?

You can use any pasta shape you enjoy or have on hand though I prefer it with bite-sized, short pasta shapes like penne, rotinin, funisil or bows.

Can I use store-bought pesto?

Sure. If there’s as bottled or jarred pesto you enjoy, you can use that instead of making your own. I would start with about 1/2 cup then add more if needed to reach a consistency that works for you.

Just note that if you’re vegan or plant-based, some packaged pestos contain dairy, so just double check the ingredients before using.

Bowl of cold pesto pasta salad with tomato, arugula, olives and red onion. Hands are in the background using a fork in another bowl of salad.

Storing

Store any leftover salad in a sealed container in the fridge for up 4 days. If you’re meal prepping, split it up into servings in containers before hand and store until you’re ready to enjoy.

If you’re making it in advance, store in the fridge until just before serving. It’s okay at room temperature for an hour or so but try to keep it cool.

Did you try this recipe? I’d love to hear about it! Click here to leave a review.

Print
Bowl of cold pesto pasta salad with tomato, arugula, olives and red onion.

Cold Pesto Pasta Salad

  • Author: Deryn Macey
  • Prep Time: 5 mins
  • Cook Time: 10 mins
  • Total Time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: 6 1x
  • Category: Salad
  • Cuisine: American
  • Diet: Vegan

This cold pesto pasta salad is so easy to make and packed with zesty flavour, you’ll have it on repeat all summer long! 


Scale

Ingredients

For the Basil Pesto

  • 2 cups basil leaves (40 g)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil (45 mL)
  • 2 garlic cloves (10 g) 
  • 2 tbsp nutritional yeast 
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice (45 mL)
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 24 tbsp water
  • salt and pepper, to taste

For the Pasta Salad: 

  • 450 g fusilli or rotini pasta 
  • 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved (285 g) 
  • 1 cup black olives, sliced and pitted (180 g)
  • ½ cup red onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups fresh arugula (70 g)

Instructions

  1. Cook the Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta. Cook the pasta according to package directions.
  2. Drain & Rinse Pasta: Once the pasta is cooked, drain completely and run under cold water to prevent pasta from sticking. Transfer into a large mixing bowl.
  3. Blend Pesto: Meanwhile, add all of the basil pesto ingredients to a mini food processor or small blender and blend until smooth. Start with 2 tbsp of water and if needed, slowly add a little more to adjust the consistency to your preference. It can be thicker like a traditional pesto or thinned for more of a salad dressing consistency.
  4. Mix Salad: Add the pesto to the bowl with the rest of the ingredients and mix well to distribute the veggies through and coat everything in sauce.
  5. Serve: Divide evenly into 6 bowls, finish with a drizzle of olive oil or spinkle of parmesan or feta cheese, if desired and enjoy. 

Notes

I used a 325 mL can of sliced, black ripe olives. You can use less or more to your preference. Substitute kalamata olives if you like.

Other veggies that work well in this recipe as additions or substitutes are cucumber, artichokes, capers, sun dried tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli or green peas.

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 1/6th of recipe
  • Calories: 383
  • Sodium: 174 mg
  • Fat: 10 g
  • Carbohydrates: 62 g
  • Fiber: 4 g
  • Protein: 12 g

Keywords: summer pesto pasta salad, cold pesto pasta salad