This Caprese Orzo Pesto Salad is so fresh, flavorful, and easy to make. Ready in under an hour, this make-ahead friendly side dish is perfect for summer cookouts and holiday parties alike. Made with orzo pasta, homemade basil pesto, cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and walnuts.
Serving cold pasta salads alongside hamburgers and hotdogs is common at backyard barbecues throughout the summer months. And oftentimes, those traditional pasta salad recipes are made with a heavy, mayonnaise-based dressing.
However, if you're like me, and you prefer your pasta salad on the lighter side, then this orzo salad with pesto dressing is perfect for you.
In this caprese-style dish, a quick and easy homemade pesto is mixed with fun, rice-shaped orzo pasta. Then, the salad is finished off with sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a sprinkle of chopped walnuts for some crunch. It's light, flavorful, and looks beautiful on a potluck table.
Disclaimer: Some links throughout this post are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. You can learn more by visiting my Affiliate Disclosure Page.
Why You'll Love This Recipe
- Homemade Pesto- A quick and easy homemade pesto makes this dish so fresh and flavorful. Everyone will be asking for the recipe!
- Make-Ahead Friendly- Pesto orzo salad is one of those dishes that tastes even more delicious after a day or two in the refrigerator. So, you can easily prepare it in advance without worry.
- Perfect for Parties- Colorful, flavorful, and easy to make, this orzo pesto pasta salad is perfect for both summer cookouts and Christmas parties. Plus, it's easy to double the recipe for a larger crowd.
Here are some notes on key ingredients. For a full list of ingredients, check out the recipe card below.
- Orzo Pasta- A small, rice-shaped pasta, orzo is the base of this pasta salad. For this recipe, the orzo is cooked al dente, then rinsed under cool water to stop the cooking process.
- Cherry Tomatoes- I like to remove the seeds from my cherry tomatoes to prevent the pasta salad from becoming too watery.
- Mozzarella Cheese- Use mini fresh mozzarella balls, also known as "ciliegine" or "pearl" mozzarella. If the mozzarella is packed in liquid, drain it before adding it to the pasta salad.
- Basil- The base for the homemade pesto. When measuring the basil leaves, you want to pack them down into your measuring cup.
- Parmesan Cheese- Adds a nutty, salty, and cheesy flavor to our basil pesto.
- Walnuts- I prefer to use walnuts instead of the pine nuts you would traditionally find in pesto. Walnuts are significantly less expensive than pine nuts and are often easier to find at the grocery store.
- Olive Oil- Extra virgin olive oil makes our homemade pesto smooth, creamy, and luxurious.
- Garlic- Adds a punchy garlic flavor to the pesto.
Seasonal Tip: Both basil and tomatoes are in-season throughout the summer months. Make this dish using garden-fresh basil and cherry tomatoes for the best flavor. You can either grow them in your own garden or look for them at your local farmers' market.
Step by Step Instructions
Here is how to make this orzo salad with pesto.
Step 1: Make the pesto. Add the basil leaves, parmesan cheese, walnuts, garlic, and kosher salt to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process on high until a coarse mixture forms, scraping down the sides as necessary. Turn the food processor to low and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Continue to process and scrape down the sides until well combined. Set aside.
Step 2: Cook the orzo. Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the orzo to an al dente texture according to package instructions. Drain the orzo, then rinse it under cool, running water to stop the cooking process. Allow the orzo to drain thoroughly so you don’t end up with too much water in the pasta salad.
Step 3: Mix the pesto orzo salad. Add the cooked orzo, prepared pesto, mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes, and chopped walnuts to a large mixing bowl. Stir until everything is well-coated with pesto. Serve immediately or refrigerate to serve chilled.
Tips for Success
- Multitask. Multitasking is key to making this dish quick and easy. Make the pesto while you wait for the water to boil. Then, do a little cleaning up as you wait for the orzo to cook. You'll have this side dish ready in no time!
- Rinse the orzo under cool water. Orzo can quickly go from perfectly textured to overcooked and mushy. For this salad, we want al dente pasta. So, cook it according to the package, then rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Grate your own cheese. It takes a few extra minutes, but grating your own cheese from the block saves you money and tastes fresher.
- Make the pesto ahead. Homemade pesto will stay good in the refrigerator for about a week. So, if you want to save time the day of, make the pesto in advance.
- Let the pasta salad chill overnight. Orzo salad with pesto tastes even better the next day. If you can, make the pasta salad the night before serving for even more flavor.
Substitutions and Variations
Here are a few ways you can try customizing this orzo pesto salad recipe to fit your diet and taste preferences.
- Orzo Pasta- Use any pasta to make this pesto pasta salad. Try ditalini, orecchiette, farfalle, small shells, rotini, or penne.
- Cherry Tomatoes- Swap the cherry tomatoes for grape tomatoes, diced Roma tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes. Don't love tomatoes? Use red bell peppers or roasted zucchini instead.
- Mozzarella Cheese- If you can't find mini mozzarella balls, diced fresh mozzarella works just fine. Alternatively, use burrata cheese, goat cheese, or feta cheese instead.
- Basil- Lots of different greens can be used to make pesto. Try spinach leaves, mint, parsley, arugula, carrot tops, radish tops, or beet greens. You can also opt to use store-bought pesto if preferred.
- Parmesan Cheese- Try asiago cheese, pecorino romano cheese, nutritional yeast, or dairy-free parmesan cheese. Or just add some extra walnuts.
- Walnuts- Pine nuts are traditional. Also try pistachios, almonds, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds.
- Olive Oil- Substitute extra virgin olive oil for canola oil, grapeseed oil, walnut oil, or avocado oil.
- Garlic- Swap the clove of fresh garlic for ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder. Alternatively, give chives, shallots, lemon zest, or fresh lemon juice a try instead. Using garlic-infused olive oil also works well.
- Gluten-Free- Replace regular orzo with your favorite brand of gluten-free orzo pasta. Always double-check all ingredient labels to ensure they are gluten-free.
- Dairy-Free/Vegan- Swap the regular parmesan cheese for vegan parmesan cheese. Additionally, use dairy-free mozzarella cheese (preferably block-style) in place of fresh mozzarella.
- Mediterranean- Make a Mediterranean orzo pesto salad by swapping the mozzarella for feta cheese. Then, add some diced cucumber, olives, and red onion.
- Spicy- A few shakes of red pepper flakes will give this cold pasta salad a bit of heat.
What to Serve with Orzo Pesto Salad
Orzo salad with pesto is a delicious side dish for lunch, dinner, or a potluck party. It pairs well with a variety of main dishes. Here are a few of my favorite recipes to serve with this orzo pasta salad.
- Parmesan-Crusted Halibut
- Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
- Italian Stuffed Peppers
- Air Fryer Turkey Burgers
- Lemon Garlic Roasted Chicken
- Eggplant Calzone
- Tequila Lime Shrimp Tacos
- Vegetarian Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms
How to Store
- Room Temperature- If serving this orzo pesto salad at a cookout or holiday party, keep in mind that it can only be left at room temperature for a maximum of 2 hours. If it's summertime, that 2-hour window is even shorter because of the heat.
- Refrigerator- Store leftover orzo salad with pesto in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
- Freezer- I don't recommend freezing this dish. Freezing fresh mozzarella cheese and raw tomatoes will change their texture when thawed.
How to Reheat
This pesto orzo salad recipe is intended to be served chilled or at room temperature.
If you don't want to eat this dish straight from the refrigerator, let it sit out on the counter for 20-30 minutes before serving.
This summer side dish is ideal for making ahead. After sitting for a day or two, the flavors meld together and taste better.
You can either put the whole dish together up to 2 days before serving or prepare the components separately and assemble them the day you plan to serve this salad.
- Pesto- Prepare up to one week in advance and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
- Orzo- Cook the orzo and store it in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
- Cherry Tomatoes- Cut up the tomatoes a day or two before assembling the pesto orzo salad.
- Orzo Pesto Salad- The entire dish can be made and stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days before serving.
Make-Ahead Tip: Double or triple the amount of basil pesto you make and store the extra in the freezer for future use. This is a great way to use up fresh basil before it goes bad. Pesto is delicious on pasta, pizza, chicken, seafood, and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Orzo salad can be made from a variety of ingredients. Often, the base of any orzo salad is cooked orzo pasta. The remainder of the dish generally consists of an oil-based dressing, cheese, and vegetables. It is usually served chilled.
Depending on the recipe, orzo can be served hot or cold. For this orzo pesto salad recipe, you want to serve it chilled or at room temperature.
When orzo is served chilled, rinsing the cooked orzo is helpful to prevent if from overcooking and turning mushy. It also rinses off excess starch, which stops the pasta salad from clumping together.
Orzo is a type of pasta so, its nutritional value is comparable to other types of pasta. In general, orzo is higher in calories than rice. If you're looking to boost the nutrition of this orzo salad with pesto, swap the regular orzo for a whole wheat variety of pasta.
More Salad Recipes
Orzo Pesto Salad
For the Basil Pesto
- ¾ cup basil leaves packed
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons walnuts
- 1 clove garlic minced
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the Orzo Pesto Salad
- 8 ounces (about 1 ⅓ cups) dry orzo
- 8 ounces fresh mini mozzarella balls (ciliegine) drained
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes quartered, deseeded (if desired)
- ¼ cup walnuts roughly chopped
For the Basil Pesto
- Add the basil leaves, parmesan cheese, walnuts, garlic, and kosher salt to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process on high until a coarse mixture forms, scraping down the sides as necessary. Turn the food processor to low and slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Continue to process and scrape down the sides until well combined. Set aside.¾ cup basil leaves, ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons walnuts, 1 clove garlic, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the Orzo Pesto Salad
- Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the orzo to an al dente texture according to package instructions. Drain the orzo, then rinse it under cool, running water to stop the cooking process. Allow the orzo to drain thoroughly so you don’t end up with too much water in the pasta salad.8 ounces (about 1 ⅓ cups) dry orzo
- Add the cooked orzo, prepared pesto, mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes, and chopped walnuts to a large mixing bowl. Stir until everything is well-coated with pesto. Serve immediately or refrigerate to serve chilled.8 ounces fresh mini mozzarella balls (ciliegine), 1 cup cherry tomatoes, ¼ cup walnuts
- Storage: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
- Make Ahead: Prepare the pasta salad up to 2 days in advance. The pesto can be made up to one week ahead.