For maximum flavor, the chicken in this chicken pasta salad has been marinated and seared in bacon drippings. Rotini pasta, crispy bacon, tomatoes, bell peppers, and shredded cheese are added after that. There are numerous dressing choices, including Italian, Greek, Caesar, and Ranch.
Chicken Pasta Salad
This chicken pasta salad recipe has everything you could want in a meal and also works fantastically as a side dish, which is my absolute favorite aspect of it. It's always a hit at BBQs, and we love keeping a bowl of it in the fridge to grab and munch on throughout the day in the summer.
Get this: To create a golden exterior crust and a super-flavorful interior, the chicken is first marinated, then seared in bacon drippings.
Bite-sized pieces of crispy bacon, juicy tomatoes, bell peppers, and cheddar cheese can be found throughout the flavorful pasta. (There are also a ton of add-on ideas; see below for more information.)
Bonus: Any salad dressing will work for this. Ranch, Caesar, or Greek dressing also works well, though I prefer Italian.
How to Make It
Cook the bacon slowly and slowly until both sides are crispy. Once cooled, put aside and chop.
Save two tablespoons of the bacon drippings.
The chicken should be marinated in your preferred dressing for 20 minutes at room temperature.
In the saved bacon drippings, sear the bacon to create a golden crust on both sides. Cut it into bite-sized pieces after it has rested for 10 minutes.
Follow the directions on the pasta package to cook it until it is al dente. Let cool after draining and adding a little olive oil.
Add ¼ cup dressing and combine in a big bowl. Mix in the chicken with an additional ¼ cup of dressing.
Sprinkle ¼ cup dressing over the tomatoes and bell peppers before adding them. Add half of the cheese and half of the bacon, then combine by tossing.
Add the remaining cheese and bacon on top. Serve right away or chill for up to 6 hours before.
Make Ahead Method
- Even though you can prepare this pasta salad up to 12 hours in advance, I recommend saving the cheese addition right before serving.
- Reminder: You may need to add up to ½ cup more dressing before serving because the pasta will absorb a lot of the dressing during storage.
Tips for the Pasta:
- To prevent overcooking your pasta, be sure to use a timer when boiling it. I prefer to cook it for 30 seconds less than al dente so that it will finish cooking as it cools gradually.
- To ensure that the pasta itself has plenty of flavors, season the pasta water well. I add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt.
- After your pasta has been drained, avoid rinsing it with cool water. It should be drizzled with a little olive oil and allowed to cool on a tray or parchment paper on the counter. The pasta's starch makes it easier for it to adhere to the dressing.
- Pasta alternatives include penne and farfalle.
For up to three days, keep in a refrigerator in an airtight container.
Chicken Pasta Salad
- 2 large boneless skinless chicken breasts, about 1 ½ lbs.
- 1 ½ cups Italian salad dressing, divided.
- 6 strips thick-cut bacon, high quality
- 1 lb. rotini pasta
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 bell pepper, diced. I use ½ red, ½ green.
- 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Marinade the Chicken
- Cut the chicken breasts in half lengthwise to create 2 thinner slices. Cover with saran wrap and use the textured side of a meat mallet to pound it to ½ inch thick. Pat completely dry.
- Sprinkle lightly with salt/pepper. Place ½ cup of the salad dressing in a gallon freezer bag and add the chicken. Remove excess air from the bag and seal. Let it marinade at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Measure out Ingredients/Cook Bacon and Pasta
- Meanwhile, cook the bacon slowly over low heat until crispy on each side. Tilt the pan occasionally and collect drippings with a spoon and set them aside. You’ll want to reserve 2 tablespoons total. Set cooked bacon on a paper towel lined plate and chop once cooled.
- While the bacon cooks, measure out remaining ingredients and begin boiling salted pasta water. Once a boil is reached, cook pasta to al dente according to package instructions. (Set a timer to avoid overcooking.) Drain once cooked and spread it out on a tray or on parchment paper to let it cool. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat and let it cool for 5 minutes.
Sear the Chicken
- Heat reserved bacon drippings (or 2 tbsp. olive oil if needed), in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the chicken in batches for 4-5 minutes per side, until a golden crust has developed. Set aside and let it rest for 10 minutes, then cut into bite-sized pieces.
Assemble the Salad
- Add the cooled pasta to a large bowl. Add ¼ cup salad dressing and toss to coat evenly. Add the chicken and another ¼ cup dressing, toss to coat. Add the cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and ¼ cup dressing. Add ½ of the bacon and ½ of the cheese and toss to combine.
- Transfer to a clean bowl prior to serving if desired. Top with remaining bacon and cheese.
- Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 6 hours prior to serving. (Note: You will have an extra ¼ cup of dressing, which you can choose to use only if preferred.) See notes about a longer make-ahead method.
- Optional Additions to this salad include: Avocado, hard boiled eggs, English cucumbers, pepperoni, red onions, chives, spinach, feta, and even grapes!
- Bacon: I use Oscar Mayer Thick Cut Bacon. High quality makes a big difference.
- Dressing: I use Olive Garden Italian Salad Dressing. I also have a homemade version. You can also make this with Ranch, Caesar, or Greek dressing.
- For a Creamier Italian Dressing: Combine ¼ cup mayo with 1 cup of Italian dressing for the pasta.
- Cheese: I use Cabot Two State Farmers’ Shredded Cheddar Cheese, the cheese holds up really well in this salad.
- Veggies: I slice the tomatoes and put them middle-side-down on paper towels to absorb excess juice. I also lay the diced bell peppers on paper towels to remove excess moisture. (We don't want a watery salad.)
- Chicken: Rotisserie or leftover chicken can be used as a shortcut if needed!
- Be sure to try my Chicken Caesar Pasta Salad and my Greek Pasta Salad recipes next!
Make Ahead Method
- This pasta salad can be assembled up to 12 hours ahead of time, although I would wait on adding the cheese until just before serving.
- Note: The pasta will absorb a lot of the dressing during storage, so you'll need to add up to ½ cup additional dressing prior to serving.
- Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.