This Vegan Pasta Salad is guaranteed to steal the show at all your summer picnics and barbecues. Perfectly cooked pasta is tossed with a creamy, slightly smoky romesco-inspired sauce, then topped with a zingy, herby bread crumb topping for maximal freshness and flavor.
This pasta salad features bold, gourmet flavors and is definitely not your standard pasta salad, but it’s still simple to make. Plus, it’s easy to customize with mix-ins and can even be turned into a main meal.
Why this recipe works
Pasta salad is one of the most popular summer dishes, but it’s rarely wow worthy. The classic version has (1) a simple vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and a couple dried herbs and (2) a mishmash of raw vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, etc.).
That sounds fine and totally non-offensive. But fine is not what we aim for at Rainbow Plant Life. Instead, I wanted to deliver a unique, flavor-packed vegan pasta salad so good you would fall in love with it. Here’s how we did that:
1. Instead of a simple vinaigrette, use a creamy, bold-flavored sauce.
Here, the sauce is inspired by romesco sauce, which hails from the Catalonian region of Spain. It’s traditionally made from charred tomatoes, roasted garlic, ñora peppers, toasted bread and almonds, sherry or red wine vinegar, and lots of olive oil.
In my loose take on romesco, I use roasted red bell peppers, toasted walnuts and bread, garlic, smoked paprika, lemon juice, and olive oil. Aside from toasting the walnuts and bread on a sheet pan in the oven, the food processor does all the work for the sauce, so it’s pretty simple.
Yet the flavor is outrageously good: smoky and slightly sweet from the roasted peppers, deeply savory from the toasted walnuts, and rich but not heavy from the olive oil. The walnuts and bread crumbs act as a natural thickener, making it just as creamy as a cream-based sauce, while the olive oil adds that silky mouthfeel.
2. Add lots of freshness and pizzazz with the toppings.
While this sauce is good enough to carry the pasta on its own, it gets even better with the topping. A generous amount of fresh basil and parsley are chopped up and mixed with lemon zest, similar to a gremolata. They’re tossed with capers for a zingy tangy bite and more of the toasted bread crumbs for a textural contrast to the creamy pasta, and flaky sea salt (of course).
This infuses each bite with fresh, zippy flavors and little textured surprises.
3. Feel free to customize the mix-ins.
When your sauce and topping are so good, you can get creative with the toppings without compromising the taste of the finished dish. Check out the Tips section for some ideas!
Ridged pasta. For vegan pasta salad, a short-to-medium-sized pasta usually works best. To ensure the pasta can hold all the sauce and herbs, you need a pasta with nooks and crannies. Ridged pasta varieties include fusilli (shown here), rotini, penne rigate, campanelle, cavatappi, gemelli, or farfelle.
Jarred roasted red bell peppers. These add a subtle smoky sweetness and a velvety body to the sauce that’s truly amazing. If you don’t have access to these or prefer to roast the peppers yourself, here’s a tutorial on how to roast bell peppers.
Walnuts. Romesco sauce is traditionally made with almonds, but I find that walnuts blend a bit smoother in sauces since they’re softer in texture. Plus, toasted walnuts are a fantastic source of umami, and add a complex depth of savory flavor to the sauce. They also thicken the sauce and add richness, which is often missing in vegan pasta salad.
Fresh bread crumbs. In addition to the walnuts, these help to thicken the sauce. They’re used a second time in the bread crumb topping, which adds a subtle crispiness to contrast with the creamy sauce and chewy pasta.
Smoked paprika. Romesco sauce is a bit smoky in flavor, and to accent the natural smokiness from charred bell peppers, I add smoked paprika.
Fresh herbs. A summer pasta salad isn’t complete without fresh herbs. A combo of basil and parsley work really well, here, but if you want to use just one, opt for the basil (it has more bright flavor).
Arrange the bread slices on a sheet pan. Add the walnuts in empty spaces in the pan. Toast them in the oven at 350ºF for 8 to 10 minutes, tossing halfway through, until lightly browned.
Tear the bread into small pieces and add to a food processor. Pulse repeatedly until you get bread crumbs, but not finely ground crumbs.
Make the roasted red pepper sauce. Add the roasted red peppers, toasted walnuts, half of the toasted bread crumbs, smoked paprika, garlic, lemon juice, and salt/pepper. Blend until a thick paste forms and scrape down the sides.
With the motor running, stream in the extra virgin olive oil and blend until the sauce is relatively smooth and thick. Season with salt/pepper.
Pour the sauce over the room temperature pasta.
Use a silicone spatula to coat the pasta with the sauce, adding ~ 3/4 cup of pasta water until it’s saucy.
Add in the chopped arugula and any other mix-ins desired.
Toss the mix-ins into the pasta.
Just before serving, add the herby bread crumb topping and toss just very gently.
Tips for making the best vegan pasta salad
Salt the pasta water generously.
This is the #1 rule for all pasta. You must season your pasta from within! While I don’t think the pasta water needs to taste “like the sea,” you do need salt generously.
When cooking 1 pound of pasta, I use 2 tablespoons of (Diamond Crystal) Kosher salt. But don’t worry. Most of the salt gets drained off when you rinse the pasta, so it won’t taste salty, just well-seasoned.
Forget al dente.
For regular pastas, I always advise to cook pasta until just al dente, or even 1-2 minutes earlier if the pasta is being tossed in the sauce in a hot pan). This avoids the pasta becoming too soft or mushy. But with pasta salad, which is served at room temp or even chilled, things are different.
When pasta cools, it gets chewy and hardens, so it’s actually better to cook pasta for pasta salad a couple minutes longer than the al dente instructions indicate. That way, when your pasta chills, it says moist and soft.
Don’t forget to save pasta water.
It’s an easy mistake! Set a reminder to scoop out at least a cup of pasta water before draining the pasta. Or set your colander over a large bowl to save the pasta water.
The pasta water does a few things: (1) the sauce is quite thick, so the pasta water helps to distribute the sauce more evenly throughout the pasta and gives it saucier consistency; (2) it helps the pasta absorb more sauce; (3) it adds a touch more flavor, since the pasta water is well-seasoned.
If making ahead of time, dress in two stages.
If you’re making this recipe the day of serving, feel free to make the recipe as written. But if you’re assembling everything the night before, I recommend dressing the pasta in two stages to prevent it from drying out.
First, while the pasta is still somewhat warm, add just HALF of the roasted red pepper sauce and 1/2 to 3/4 cup of pasta water. Toss to combine. Once at room temp, you can refrigerate the pasta salad. Be sure to save your pasta water though!
Just before serving, toss the pasta with the remaining sauce and add more pasta water until shiny and saucy. Add in your mix-ins and topping, toss, and serve.
Read more about dressing pasta salad in two stages from The Kitchn.
Use the pulse function when making bread crumbs.
When making the fresh bread crumbs, use the pulse function, not the blend function, on your food processor. This ensures you retain nice bits of texture for the herby bread crumb topping. In contrast, if you continuously blend, you’ll get very fine bread crumbs.
Customize the mix-ins.
I add several cups of chopped baby arugula for some nutrient-dense greens and peppery bite, but you can also use baby spinach or other soft greens.
The brand of roasted red peppers I like best comes in a 16-ounce jar, and since the sauce only needs 12 ounces of peppers, I dice the remaining peppers and add them. Feel free to swap with chopped heirloom or grape/cherry tomatoes if they’re in season.
Other good options would be grilled or charred corn kernels, zucchini ribbons (use a wide vegetable peeler to get ribbons), chopped Persian cucumbers, or even steamed or roasted broccoli.
Feel free to make it heartier.
Since vegan pasta salad is most often served as a side dish, I’ve left it that way. But, feel free to bulk it up into a main meal by adding one or more of these options:
- A can of white beans or chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- A couple handfuls of toasted pine nuts, chopped walnuts, or sliced almonds
- A couple handfuls of vegan feta, such as my homemade Tofu Feta or store-bought vegan feta
Frequently Asked Questions
We haven’t tried this, but you could (1) use your favorite gluten-free pasta and (2) substitute fresh bread crumbs with store-bought gluten-free panko (Kikkoman makes them, as do a few other brands).
Since GF pasta cooks differently and varies based on the ingredient (e.g., corn, rice), your pasta water may not be as starchy. If so, the pasta water may not be as useful in bringing the sauce together and helping it coat the pasta. So you may want to thin out the sauce with some vegetable broth before combining it with the pasta.
Or, you can try this tip from Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street as a substitute for starchy pasta water.
We haven’t tried this either, but I think panko-style bread crumbs would work well here. Avoid standard store-bought bread crumbs, which are very fine and won’t add much in terms of flavor or texture.
You can make the roasted red pepper sauce several days ahead of time. Just store it in a jar in the fridge (store leftover bread crumbs for the topping in a resealable bag or jar on the counter). The sauce will thicken quite a lot, so you’ll want to thin it out with ~1/3 cup (80 mL) vegetable broth or water on the day of serving. Before serving, make the herby bread crumb topping, cook the pasta, and assemble (it should take 20ish minutes).
If you’re preparing the pasta salad the day before your BBQ / potluck / picnic, this adjustment will keep the pasta saucier:
1) While the pasta is still somewhat warm, toss it with half of the roasted red pepper sauce and ½ to ¾ cup (120 to 180 mL) pasta water (make sure to save some pasta water for later).
2) Before serving, add the remaining sauce, an additional ¼ cup (60 mL) pasta water, and toss until it’s saucy again, adding more pasta water as needed. Fold in your mix-ins and the topping.
The vegan pasta salad will stay fresh in an airtight container in your fridge for 5 days. It will dry out as it chills, though, though the flavor is still great. You can add in some more sauciness by drizzling leftovers with a bit of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
What to serve with vegan pasta salad
Planning to serve this as a main meal? Check out the last tip in the Tips section. If serving this pasta salad as part of a larger feast or as a side dish, here are a few fun options:
If you love this vegan pasta salad as much as we do, please be sure to leave a rating and review below 🙂 And as always, I love seeing your remakes on Instagram!
This vegan pasta salad is guaranteed to impress at all your summer BBQs and picnics! Pasta is coated in a creamy and dreamy roasted red pepper sauce and topped with a herby bread crumb topping for extra fresh flavor for an exquisite, grown-up pasta salad.
Herby Bread Crumb Topping
Preheat the oven to 350ºF/175ºC. Place bread slices on a rimmed sheet pan. Spread out walnuts in the empty spaces on the pan. Toast both in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, tossing the walnuts and flipping the bread slices over halfway through, until the walnuts are toasty and lightly browned and the bread is also a bit toasty. Allow to cool a bit.
Cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, 4 quarts/liters or 128 ounces. Once boiling, season with 2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Add the pasta and, once it comes back to a boil, set a timer for 2 minutes longer than the upper range of the cook time for al dente pasta on the box instructions.***Before draining, reserve 1 cup of pasta water, then drain pasta in a colander. Rinse the pasta with cold water to bring to room temperature and shake off the excess water.
Make the bread crumbs: Tear the toasted bread into small pieces. Add them to a food processor and pulse repeatedly until you get bread crumbs, but don’t blend continuously—this helps retain some texture. It’ll take a couple minutes. Take out half of the bread crumbs and set aside in a medium bowl for the Topping.
Make the roasted red pepper sauce****. To the remaining bread crumbs in the food processor, add the toasted walnuts, roasted bell peppers, garlic, lemon juice (save the zest for the topping), smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and several cracks of pepper. Process until a thick paste forms. With the motor running, stream in the olive oil until a sauce forms, and blend until smooth and thick. Season to taste with salt and pepper as needed, but don’t add too much salt, as there’s also salt in the Topping.
Make the Herby Bread Crumb Topping: In a bowl, combine the reserved bread crumbs, reserved lemon zest, chopped parsley and basil, chopped capers, red pepper flakes if using, and flaky salt. Stir well to combine.
Assemble the pasta: toss the pasta with the roasted red pepper sauce until well coated. Add about ¾ cup (180 mL) of pasta water and toss to coat. Add more pasta water until it’s sufficiently saucy. Add the arugula and any other desired mix-ins***** and toss to combine. Add the Herby Bread Crumb Topping and gently toss just to combine.
** You can sub capers with green olives if you love olives.
*** For instance, if the box says “8-10 minutes for al dente pasta,” cook the pasta for 12 minutes.
**** You can make the sauce a few days ahead of time and store it in a jar in the fridge. Thin it out with ~1/3 cup (80 mL) veggie broth or water, as it will thicken a lot.
***** I used additional roasted red bell peppers as my mix-in. You can also use chopped tomatoes if they’re sweet and in-season, grilled corn, chopped Persian cucumbers, or zucchini ribbons. If you want to add a protein, a can of chickpeas or white beans is nice. Toasted pine nuts or store-bought vegan feta would be great too (or, try my homemade tofu feta recipe).
- To be most efficient, start by toasting the bread/walnuts, then bring your pasta water to a boil. While the water is boiling, make the bread crumbs and red pepper sauce. When the pasta is cooking, make the topping and chop your mix-ins. Then, assemble the pasta + sauce + toppings.
- If making the pasta salad ahead of time, toss the pasta with half of the roasted red pepper sauce while the pasta is still somewhat warm and ½ to ¾ cup (120 to 180 mL) pasta water. Then, before serving, add the remaining sauce, an additional ¼ cup (60 mL) pasta water, and toss until it’s saucy again, adding more pasta water as needed.