This simple yet delicious easy pasta salad has won over my family and hopefully will yours as well. This super easy Caprese Pasta Salad has become one of my favorite salads to make when I want to make my family something they love without a lot of effort. This cold side dish will feel more special than a simple green salad. The total prep time it takes to make this salad is so minimal, but it feels more special when it hits the table. It's a great side dish for a holiday or just a simple family meal.
What is Caprese?
Classic Caprese salad is made up of fresh ingredients; juicy tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella cheese. By itself, Caprese salad must contain those 3 main ingredients to be considered a "Caprese" along with really good extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzled on top. The balsamic vinegar is made into a spectacular balsamic reduction with honey usually incorporated for sweetness. The name "Caprese" comes from the Italian island of Capri in Southern Italy where "Insalata Caprese" originated. If you'll notice, the colors beautifully represent and pay tribute to the colors of the Italian flag: green, white and red. I honestly never even thought about it until recently, but I think that's pretty awesome!
Making Easy Caprese Pasta Salad
Start by cooking your preferred short pasta al dente in a large pot of salted water, following the package directions. While your pasta is cooking, prepare your pasta salad dressing in a small mixing bowl or small mason jar. Also, you can prep your basil, tomatoes and mozzarella and set aside. Once your pasta is done cooking, rinse for about a minute or two under cool water to stop the cooking process. I don't like to run it under water too long because I feel the dressing soaks into the pasta better when it's a little warm. After you drain and slightly cool the pasta, add it to a large bowl with your dressing, tomatoes and basil. Then chill the pasta salad in the fridge at least 2 hours. Once it's ready to serve, fold in your halved mozzarella balls and adjust seasoning if need be.
How should I serve my salad?
Caprese pasta is great served room temperature or cold. You can make it ahead of time; the day before is fine. It'll taste even better a few hours or the day after. If you don't have time to wait for the salad to fully chill, just wait for it to be cold enough to not melt your mozzarella cheese balls. Make sure you run it under some cold water to chill it faster. I have made the mistake of rushing it, melting my mozzarella cheese and making a blobby mess. Not cool. You can enjoy it once it's all mixed up and at room temperature. The salad goes great with chicken or fish entrees, but it can also be enjoyed on it's own as a complete meal for a light lunch. It's one of my boys' favorite things to add to their packed school lunch.
Great Additions for this Pasta Salad
- Salami- From time to time, I add thin ribbons of salami to this salad and it's a big hit.
- Black Olives- Olives are a great addition to an Italian or Mediterranean-inspired salad like this one. It's not necessary, but it won't hurt. It'll add an extra little salty edge to the salad
- Honey- If you prefer a sweeter edge to this salad, like a standard caprese salad that has a balsamic reduction, you can add a little honey to your dressing. Some added sweetness will give it more appeal if you have finicky tasters.
- Red Pepper Flakes- If you like a little kick in your pasta dish add some red pepper flakes to your balsamic dressing so it can soak into the pasta as well.
Caprese Pasta Salad Ingredients
- Short Pasta- Orecchiette, Fusilli, Bowtie or Rotini pasta
- Mozzarella cheese balls- I love to use the small marinated mozzarella balls that Costco sells in a tub. You can of course also use a creamy fresh large mozzarella ball (about ½ lb) and cut it into small cubes if that's what you have on hand. I would suggest only using creamy mozzarella that is in liquid or oil and not dry block mozzarella. It's just not the same.
- Fresh Basil Leaves- This salad would just not be the same if you made it with dried basil. Would you make caprese salad with dried basil?! I think not.
- Sweet Cherry Tomatoes- you can use grape tomatoes as well. I love to use a mix of fresh yellow or orange ripe cherry tomatoes if I have them fresh from my own garden. Whatever tomatoes you use, just make sure they're sweet and not tart.
- Balsamic Vinegar- I use the balsamic I have on hand, which is usually the standard dark kind, but white balsamic vinegar is great as well. Some prefer it for the more esthetically pleasing look of their pasta with the white.
- Lemon Juice- like most dishes it needs a little acid to balance the flavors and lemon juice is great for this simple dressing.
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Easy Caprese Pasta Salad (with Mozzarella Balls)
- ½ lb. 8 oz. short dry pasta (gemelli, orecchiette, penne, fusilli, rotini, bowtie or small shells)
- 8 oz. small marinated mozzarella balls halved
- 1 cup 8 oz. cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- ½ cup basil leaves packed, cut into ribbons
Caprese Pasta Salad Dressing
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 3-4 tablespoon balsamic vinegar- start with 3 and add more later to your liking.
- 3 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 large clove of garlic pressed
- 1 ½ teaspoon Italian Seasoning
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon granulated garlic
- Boil Pasta per directions on the packaging for al dente.
- Make the dressing: Mix olive oil, balsamic, lemon juice, pressed garlic, Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, and granulated garlic in a small mixing bowl, and set aside.
- Cut cherry tomatoes in half and cut basil into thin ribbons.
- Once pasta is done cooking, drain and run a little cold water just for about 1 minute. (We want the pasta to stay warm so the dressing soaks into the pasta better)
- Mix pasta, tomatoes, dressing and basil in a large mixing bowl and chill at least 2 hours. (If you can't wait 2 hours, just chill the pasta thoroughly under cold water)
- Once you are ready to serve the salad, mix in your cut mozzarella balls, adjust salt and pepper to taste and add a little bit of olive oil just to freshen it up and enjoy!