This Chicken Pasta Salad is packed with flavor, texture and is irresistible! Leftover chicken is seared until crispy golden brown, and then tossed in a creamy pesto sauce along with penne pasta, cherry tomatoes and toasted pecans - A terrific combination of flavors and is ready in under 30 minutes.
This is not your old school chicken pasta salad that's bland and tasteless, sitting sadly buried under a load of mayonnaise.
It is fully loaded with seared golden brown bites of chicken, penne pasta, cherry tomatoes, toasted pecans, basil pesto and mayonnaise. It's vibrant, fresh, simple it’s flavor, and is fit for work day lunch or any summer gatherings just like this Mexican quinoa salad.
Pesto is delicious with pasta. Have you tried this reader favorite creamy chicken pesto pasta recipe or instant pot pesto pasta? It is a lip smacking combination of fresh basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil.
While a chicken pesto salad can be simply made by tossing cooked pasta, leftover chicken along with bottled pesto, I was looking for something that's crave-worthy and will be the talk of the backyard!
Why you'll love this?
- Leftover rotisserie chicken is elevated to a golden brown perfection - Chunks of leftover rotisserie chicken is cooked in olive oil, until it develops a deep golden color on the exterior. It intensifies the flavor and tastes so good that it'll become your new favorite way to eat leftover rotisserie chicken.
- Pecans add toasty flavor, crunch and rich butteriness.
- Although this is a perfect summer salad, thanks to store bought basil pesto, it can be made year round!
- It's a delicious way to repurpose leftovers to make for weekday lunches, summer gatherings, pot lucks, picnics. summer picnics and backyard get-togethers.
Scroll down to the recipe card below for full information on ingredients and amounts.
- Chicken - Leftover diced rotisserie chicken or any mildly seasoned shredded chicken is perfect in this recipe. You can also bake your own chicken breast (more details in recipe notes) or use leftovers from last night dinner.
- Pasta - Any short and medium shape, or even plain leftover cooked pasta from last night's dinner will work. I went with penne, like in all our penne pasta recipes.
- Tomatoes - Cherry tomatoes are sweet with a thin, snappy skin and the middle bursting with juices. They are more concentrated in flavor and tastes ultra sweet in the peek of summer. Use chopped vine ripened tomato can be used instead.
- Pecans - Toasted for the best crunch and flavor.
- Pesto - Although a freshly made basil pesto will make your chicken pasta salad stand out, I used store bought jarred pesto (my favorite is from Costco refrigerated section).
- Mayonnaise - This works wonders to keep things extra creamy, like in carrot raisin salad, and also cuts the greasiness. Use whole egg mayonnaise for best rich flavor.
- Seasoning - This chicken pasta salad gets plenty of flavor boost from all the delicious add-ins. So a simple salt, pepper and red pepper flakes is adequate.
Pro Tip: Buy your jarred pesto from the refrigerated section of the grocery store and not from the shelves in aisles. It tastes so much fresher!
Substitutions & Variations
- Use any pasta shape - You can make pesto chicken pasta salad with any noodle your heart desires. But a shape with some nooks and crannies will help trap the creamy dressing, like penne, fusilli, rotini or bow ties.
- Healthier alternative - Use plain yogurt along with a dash of sugar instead of mayonnaise.
- Other delicious add-ins - Olives will add tanginess and pepperoncini peppers add a little extra kick.
- Want to keep it vegetarian? Cook drained and rinsed canned chickpeas instead of chicken.
- Add some greens - Toss in fresh baby spinach at the end.
- Love cheese - Add diced fresh mozzarella or crumbled feta cheese.
How to make?
You can find full printable recipe below, but here is a quick overview of the procedure along with step-by-step photos.
1 & 2. Dice or shred rotisserie chicken into bite size chunks. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add chicken and give a good toss.
Tip: Shred or chop leftover rotisserie chicken into bite size chunks, so it is similar in size to your penne.
3 & 4. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes (depending on the heat), tossing occasionally until most of pieces develop a nice golden exterior. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.
Pro tip: Cook over high heat and don't stir too much, to make sure that the meat has enough time to be in contact with the hot pan, to develop a beautiful color. A well browned meat has a richer and more varied flavor profile.
5. Cook penne until a minute past the al dente stage, so it’s extra soft. Drain, rinse under cold running water to remove excess starch and cool completely.
Tip: Salt your water. The key to a well seasoned chicken pasta salad begins right here!
Pro Tip: Cook your penne beyond al dente but not mushy. Pasta firms up when it cools, especially when refrigerated. A slightly softer noodle will be the perfect texture in this salad recipe, that's best served at room temperature.
6. Add cooked rotisserie chicken.
7. Add cherry tomatoes (chop medium ones in half and larger ones into quarters) and toasted pecans.
8. Add basil pesto, mayonnaise, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and toss well.
Tip: Season well! The flavors in cold recipes can require a little more seasoning when compared to warm dishes. So make sure not to skimp on the seasonings. The last thing you want is a bland chicken pasta salad.
How to serve?
This chicken pasta salad is a great summer recipe or a meal in itself. Make it for picnics, potlucks, BBQs along with air fryer corn on the cob. or as a weeknight dinner or work lunch. It is best served at room temperature.
How to store?
Store in the refrigerator for up to 4 days but enjoy at room temperature. Take it to picnics, as a side dish for gatherings, or take it to work for lunch.
- Season to taste - This creamy chicken pasta salad recipe has enough seasonings from rotisserie chicken, cooked penne and basil pesto. So season according to your taste.
- Use toasted pecans - It has so much more flavor and crunch when compared to the raw ones. To toast pecans, place them in sheet pan and bake for 5 to 10 minutes in a pre heated 350 degree oven or you begin to smell the fragrance or it turns slightly darker in color.
The only time you should rinse your pasta is when you are going to use it in a cold dish like a pasta salad. This removes the excess starch and let the pasta not stick together when cold.
Few recipes advise to add a dash of oil to the boiling water, claiming that it'll keep the pieces separated. Unfortunately, the oil just floats on top and does not solve the intended purpose. The best method is to rinse the pasta immediately after cooking to remove the excess starches.
Technically yes but not recommended. The mayonnaise might separate when you thaw and the consistency might turn watery.
More Chicken Pasta recipes to try
Chicken Pasta Salad
- Bring large pot of water to boil. Add salt then add pasta. Cook about one minute longer than the packet directions. Drain pasta, immediately rinse under cold running water, let excess water drain and let cool.Pro Tip: Cook your penne beyond al dente but not mushy. Pasta firms up when it cools, especially when refrigerated. A slightly softer noodle will be the perfect texture in this salad recipe, that's best served at room temperature.( I like to cook chicken while waiting for the water to come to a boil. )
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add chicken and give a good toss.
- Cook for 3 to 5 minutes (depending on the heat), tossing occasionally until most of pieces get a golden crusty exterior. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.Pro tip: Cook over high heat and don't stir too much, to make sure that the meat has enough time to be in contact with the hot pan, to develop a beautiful color. A well browned meat has a richer and more varied flavor profile.
- Add cooked pasta, chicken, cherry tomatoes, toasted pecans, pesto, mayo, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Toss well.
Nutritional information, based on third-party calculations, should be seen as estimates, not guarantees, as various factors like product types, brands, processing methods, and more can alter the nutritional content in recipes.
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