This delicious balsamic caprese pasta salad features a homemade creamy vinaigrette along with plenty of fresh grape tomatoes and basil, fresh mozzarella pearls, and marinated red onion for a subtle crunch. Make it in just 30 minutes for an easy side dish or meatless main course — or add some diced balsamic marinated chicken for a more substantial meal! Enjoy it immediately or make it in advance!
If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for a good pasta salad. In my experience, most deli pasta salads are either average or awful, but I’ve found a few that are really worth getting (and replicating!) on a regular basis. One is the sun-dried tomato pasta salad from Beyond Bread in Tucson, AZ, which is now a favorite of both family and friends.
And I’ve found another one I love here in Charleston: the creamy caprese pasta salad from Caviar and Bananas downtown. It’s made with penne pasta and is full of halved grape tomatoes, adorable fresh mozzarella pearls, fresh basil, and little slivers of red onion. It’s tossed in a creamy balsamic dressing and is so addictive!
While I’m sure to pick up a side of the caprese pasta salad whenever I stop there for lunch, for a large quantity it’s much more affordable to make a big batch at home. And I always want so much more than a little 4-oz container. We had this as a main dish at home, and I was so happy to have as much of it as I wanted to eat!
For a heartier main dish, this would be delicious with some diced balsamic marinated chicken added!
This penne pasta salad includes classic caprese salad ingredients — tomato, mozzarella, and basil — along with a little red onion for contrast and a flavorful, creamy balsamic dressing.
While I love heirloom tomatoes in a classic caprese salad, grape tomatoes are the right choice for this pasta salad. Their natural sweetness is a welcome contrast to the tangy balsamic dressing. A grape tomato half is also firmer than a piece of diced larger tomato, which is the right texture for this dish. Plus, they’re cute!
Fresh mozzarella pearls
These tiny balls of fresh mozzarella make this pasta salad feel extra-decadent — but they may not be available in every grocery store. I find them near the fresh balls of mozzarella, packed into a large bumpy golf-ball shape and wrapped in plastic. Make sure you separate all the mozzarella balls when you add them to the pasta salad.
If you are unable to find fresh mozzarella pearls, you can get an 8-oz ball of fresh mozzarella and dice it into 1/2-inch cubes instead. You may not have the adorable pearl shape, but you’ll still have the soft, creamy texture of fresh mozzarella.
I’ve used a blend of balsamic and white wine vinegars for the dressing to add some complexity and lightness to a straight-up balsamic profile.
Dijon mustard is an emulsifier and helps the dressing become and stay creamy when you blend in the olive oil (we’ll use a blender for this).
The dressing was way too tangy until I added the herbs (thyme and oregano), sugar, and mayonnaise — after that, the flavor and texture became perfectly balanced for the pasta salad. I find that pasta tends to absorb (and erase) flavor as it sits overnight, so this bold dressing is just right for a pasta salad you make in advance.
Method and expert tips
Pasta salads are one of the easiest dishes to put together, making them an ideal dish for a weeknight meal, last-minute potluck invitation, or side for a cookout. Here are a few notes and techniques that will help you make this creamy balsamic caprese pasta salad the star of the show!
Make sure to add a couple tablespoons of salt to your boiling water when you cook your pasta. This is your only opportunity to flavor the pasta itself and makes a huge difference in the final dish!
After draining, you can rinse the pasta in cool water to quickly bring it down to room temperature. If you toss it with the dressing while it’s still hot, you could break the emulsion and make for a greasy dressing.
Rather than dicing your onion into little squares, I’ve cut them into one-inch slivers instead. To do that, I cut lengthwise (end to root) into four sections, leaving it attached at the root. Then slice it very thinly across.
I don’t normally love raw red onion but I find that by marinating it in vinegar and salt for about 20 minutes, it creates a milder flavor and makes for a more subtle crunch. If you like a sharper onion flavor and a bolder crunch, you can skip the step of marinating the red onion.
Using white vinegar to marinate does the job of softening the flavor and texture of the onion, and it’s affordable enough that I don’t feel bad discarding the vinegar afterwards.
To chiffonade cut the basil, stack the leaves on top of each other and roll them tightly from side to side. Then slice thinly across, perpendicular to the stem, to create even, narrow slivers of basil.
To create a creamy dressing, add all dressing ingredients except olive oil and mayonnaise into a blender. While the blender is running, add olive oil in a slow and steady stream. The dijon mustard will help create and stabilize the creamy emulsion of oil and vinegar here.
After you mix the vinaigrette into the pasta, add in the mayonnaise and mix again. This softens the tanginess of the vinegar and makes the dressing extra-creamy without making it feel like a heavily mayo-based pasta salad.
Putting it together
After the pasta is cool and your ingredients are prepped, just toss everything together! You may want to start with about 2/3 of the dressing, toss, and add more if desired. Finally, add extra salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with additional basil, if desired.
What goes well with caprese pasta salad?
Make your creamy balsamic caprese pasta salad a complete meal, or it’s a perfect accompaniment for these sandwiches!
Like this pasta salad?
If you love this creamy balsamic caprese pasta salad, check out these other recipes!
Creamy Balsamic Caprese Pasta Salad
- 1/2 medium red onion
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 lb penne pasta
- 10 oz grape tomatoes halved
- 8 oz fresh mozzarella pearls can substitute fresh mozzarella, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup chiffonade cut fresh basil
For the dressing
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 2 cloves garlic minced or pressed
- 1 1/2 teaspoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme powdered
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- Cut onion lengthwise into four sections and then cut fine slivers, creating skinny pieces of onion about an inch long. You should have about 2/3 cup but a little more or less is fine.Soak onion in white vinegar and 1/2 tsp kosher salt for 15-20 minutes (soaking longer will make the onion milder).
- Meanwhile, cook penne pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cool water until pasta is room temperature. Set aside in a large bowl.
- While pasta is cooking, prepare the other ingredients and the dressing. Cut grape tomatoes in half lengthwise and chiffonade cut the basil by stacking the leaves, rolling them tightly from side to side, and cutting thin slices across the roll (perpendicular to the stems).
- For the dressing, combine all ingredients except olive oil and mayonnaise in a blender. While blender is running, drizzle olive oil in slowly to create a creamy emulsion.
- Drain onions and discard the vinegar they were soaking in. Add grape tomatoes, mozzarella pearls, basil, and onions to the bowl with the pasta and toss to combine. Pour in the mayonnaise and about 2/3 of the dressing, mix again, and add salt and pepper and additional dressing to taste.
- You can enjoy this pasta salad immediately but it's even better the next day when the flavors have had a chance to blend!