Caprese Pasta Salad
This Caprese Pasta Salad has a classic combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella cheese, tied together with a simple vinaigrette. It’s perfect for summer potlucks and picnics, and you can make it a meal by adding a protein like Grilled Chicken Breast. It only takes 25 minutes to make!
The Caprese flavor combination is one of those ultimate pairings that never goes out of style.
When warm weather hits, I always look forward to eating lots of Caprese themed foods, whether it’s a traditional caprese salad of simply sliced juicy tomatoes with mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar, or if it’s the Caprese theme applied to other foods, like this Caprese Pasta Salad.
This recipe is one of my go-to dishes for potlucks and picnics, as it travels really well, and nearly everyone loves caprese. In my collection of 24 Potluck Salads that are perfect for summer, it’s one of the recipes I make the most, bursting with fresh ingredients.
This pasta salad is very simple, but the caprese combination shouldn’t be messed with too much. Tomato + fresh mozzarella + basil are the stars here.
A variation I’ll do from time to time is add a 1/2 cup of basil pesto to amplify the caprese theme, when I have it on hand.
Or, I will stir in a big heap of fresh Tapenade because olives are such a complementary flavor. Other times I will add crispy, crumbled bacon, which might sound odd here but actually adds a wonderful salty, meaty heartiness to the salad. But that’s as far as my variations go. Sometimes classics should stay classic.
Tips for Best Results
Splurge on the really good artisanal mozzarella – I’ve tried some of the cheaper brands of “fresh mozzarella” and they really don’t compare to the higher quality artisanal brands. I love Buf brand, but any really fresh mozzarella (bonus if it’s locally hand-made) will really make this caprese pasta salad sing.
Undercook the pasta slightly – You’ll want the pasta to retain a bit of texture here, and you certainly don’t want it to be mushy. Cook the pasta to al dente, which is about a minute or two less than it directs on the package. The pasta will also continue to soften as it sits in the fridge and absorbs the dressing, so if you’re making this a day ahead, plan for cooking it slightly less. That way you get perfectly tender pasta.
Season the water to taste like the ocean – When you bring a pot of water to boil to cook the bowties, add enough kosher salt so that the water tastes like ocean water, a little repulsively salty. This will thoroughly season the pasta on the inside, and will make the dish taste so much better.
Step by Step Overview:
To get started on the caprese pasta salad dressing, make the vinaigrette by combining a good, unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, salt, and black pepper in a large bowl:
I like apple cider vinegar instead of a balsamic here because I find a balsamic dressing is usually a little too sweet and also adds a darker tinge to the dish that I don’t like. But you may use really whatever vinegar you prefer.
Recommended Olive Oils and Vinegars
In a recipe like this, the quality of olive oil and vinegar that you use makes a big impact.
Make sure to use a really flavorful and aromatic extra virgin olive oil here. A few of my favorites are California Olive Ranch, Trader Joe’s 100% Greek Kalamata EVOO, and Lucini Extra Virgin First Cold Press.
For vinegars, I like Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar, which is a more cost-friendly option. I also like Napa Valley Naturals and the “O” line.
This is definitely a dish where the deliciousness is majorly impacted by the quality of ingredients used.
Next, gather up some good tomatoes and cut them in half. I like the heirloom grape and pint cherry tomatoes that come in an assortment of colors:
Next, cook some bowtie pasta according to package directions in a large pot of salted water, then rinse under running cold water.
We want to rinse the excess starch off the pasta, and it will also help the bowties cool down and stop cooking, ensuring we keep the pasta al dente:
Other Recommended Pasta Shapes
Bowties are my all-time favorite pasta shape here. They’re great for easy eating, for holding a little bit of the vinaigrette in its crevices, and also having a nice size.
But some other great options would be cavatappi, radiatore, gigli, campanelle, casarecce, medium shells, or rotini pasta.
Next get some fresh basil leaves:
Chop them up, and add the cut basil, ripe tomatoes, and some fresh cieligini mozzarella balls:
I buy the ones that are already marinated for some extra flavor, but plain mozzarella balls will work too.
You can also use fresh mozzarella pearls, especially if you’re cooking with a more short pasta type.
Toss it all together, to coat the ingredients in the dressing:
Do one final taste for seasoning, then it’s ready to enjoy, ideally on a warm summer day!
If you really want some sort of balsamic flavor, I recommend adding a drizzle of balsamic glaze over the top just before serving, but know that even a pretty thick balsamic reduction will eventually “bleed” and spread over the pasta, and it won’t look nice for long.
How to Serve It
I personally like to enjoy the pasta salad right away, and think it’s better more toward room temperature than straight cold from the fridge. However, you can chill the caprese pasta salad for a few hours if you want it to be really cold and refreshing.
This is a nice side for summer grilling recipes like Turkey Burgers, Grilled Flank Steak, or Grilled Chicken Breast. But it can also be served with a spread of other colorful appetizers like Stuffed Mini Peppers, Smoked Salmon Deviled Eggs, and an Antipasto Platter.
It also makes for a nice light lunch. Pack into a small mason jar or container for healthy eating on the go!
For more dishes that hold up well, I have 24 more potluck salad recipes.
Recipe Tips and FAQ
Keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Unfortunately it’s not recommended, because the fresh tomatoes and basil don’t freeze well. The texture will be off and the basil will get darkly discolored.
Yes, but optimally do not make it up more than 6 hours in advance and keep it chilled in the fridge. You can technically do it a day or two ahead, but the tomatoes will get a bit mealy from the cold refrigeration and the pasta will soften slightly, so for optimal flavor, make it closer to serving.
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Caprese Pasta Salad
- 1 lb bowtie pasta
- 3 tbsp good quality vinegar (apple cider, sherry, or balsamic)
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- black pepper freshly ground
- 25 large basil leaves chopped
- 1 pint grape tomatoes halved
- 16 oz fresh mozzarella cieligini*
- Bring a big pot of water to a boil, then salt it generously, with a few tablespoons of salt. Taste the water to make sure it tastes like seawater.
- Cook your pasta to al dente per package instructions, then drain and rinse the pasta.
- In a large bowl, whisk to combine the vinegar, mustard, garlic, olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Add the basil, tomatoes, mozzarella, and pasta to the bowl, and toss well. Make your final seasoning adjustments and serve. Enjoy!
Nutrition is estimated using a food database and is only intended to be used as a guideline for informational purposes.
Updated from the archives with new photos and writing in July 2018. Originally posted September 2011.