When you want an easy summer pasta salad, with bright flavors, that doubles as either an effortless side or a light main dish, make this creamy lemon chicken pasta salad! This easy pasta salad recipe is a crowd-pleaser.
“This is the best pasta salad, ever!” quipped my oldest after taking her first bite. She backed up the statement by eating leftovers of said pasta salad for the next 2 days, unprompted. Why does that matter? Because you can basically just “jump to recipe” right now and get the ingredients. This creamy lemon chicken pasta is a must for your menu!
Seriously though, please don’t just hit “jump to recipe” every time. I do include good tips and alternatives in the body of the post. Life gets busy sometimes though, so do you! Judgement-free zone here. The reality is, this is a pasta salad, and therefore a very forgiving recipe.
What kind of pasta is best for pasta salad?
Just like different pasta shapes are suited to different sauces, there are ideal shapes for making pasta salads! Rotini, ruffles, elbows, and shells are classics.
What you’re looking for is a bite-sized pasta with lots of grooves to hold your dressing. This provides the best experience with each bite, even if you don’t have a little of each ingredient on the fork.
If you’re looking for a creamy pasta salad with just enough mayo but not something over-the-top, picking the right pasta shape really does make a difference.
As far as the kind of pasta – regular, whole wheat, gluten-free – that’s up to you! I’ve been making it with whole wheat pasta recently (like in the photos), just because. Making a whole wheat pasta salad feels slightly more virtuous, I suppose.
Do I need to use chicken in this creamy lemon chicken pasta salad recipe?
Of course, not! You can make creamy lemon pasta salad and totally omit the chicken. Or you can add whatever protein makes you happy. Some great options include extra-firm tofu (it soaks up the lemon flavor nicely), leftover turkey, ham, or cooked shrimp. I have a sneaking suspicion tuna might also work really well for a lemon tuna pasta salad, but I haven’t tried it yet.
The reason pasta salads are such a great menu staple is that they are so easy to make and customize.
This recipe is a great way to use leftover chicken. So if you aren’t whipping up a batch of my curry chicken salad or Ritz-Carlton chicken salad, make this. In fact, this might be the better option if you only have a little leftover.
I recommend not cooking chicken especially for this recipe and just using leftovers for simplicity. Batch cook a bunch of chicken for meal prep and make this pasta salad part of the plan. Alternatively, you can grab a classic rotisserie chicken at the store, and even canned chicken breast in a pinch.
Make pasta salad in advance!
You can definitely make the pasta salad just before serving if you’re in a rush, but plan in advance if possible! Even as little as 45-60 minutes of resting time before serving really makes a difference in the final flavor. The lemon really gets a chance to infuse the rest of the ingredients and bring the flavors together.
The difference in flavor after resting is why I categorize this as a good recipe for batch cooking or making in advance. It also comes in handy for summer BBQ menu planning. Instead of trying to make everything the day of your gathering, make the pasta salad a day in advance. Wrap it and refrigerate until you’re ready to set out the food!
A few final creamy lemon chicken salad recipe notes…
This recipe is good slightly warm, room temperature, or cold. With summer potluck season in full swing, just be sure to keep food safety in mind. All mayonnaise-containing dishes should not be left out more than 2 hours at room temperature, less time if it’s hotter. So if you are taking this to an all-day picnic, be sure to pack it in a cooler with the other perishable items.
If you need to avoid eggs, you can make this with an egg-free mayonnaise. It still tastes really good, so that’s a great option if you need it.
Finally, the recipe gives you lemon zest as an option. If you want a really bold lemon flavor, include it. Otherwise, omit the lemon zest and just let the juice give the lemon flavor. From experience, my decision varies depending on how far in advance I’m making the salad.
If I’m making it to serve that same day, I include the zest to make sure the lemon flavor is bright. Making it to portion out over a week’s lunches though, I skip the zest because it can add the tiniest bit of bitterness around day 4. Not so dramatic that it ruins the salad, but if you have a sensitive palate, you’ll notice.
I hope you love this recipe, darlings! Don’t forget to save it for later and let me know what you think after you try it!
- 2 cups cooked chicken, cubed, or protein of your choice
- 1 pound uncooked pasta (see notes)
- 1/2 cup diced red onion
- 3 stalks celery, diced
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (yield from 1 lemon)
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon dill
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- Place a large pot of salted water on the stove and bring to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions, to an al dente texture. Drain and place in a large mixing bowl. Allow to cool 5-10 minutes.
- While the pasta is cooking, gather the rest of your ingredients. Chop the chicken if you haven't already. Dice the red onion and celery.
- Zest the lemon (if using), then cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, parsley, tarragon, zest, dill, salt, and pepper.
- Add the chicken, onion, and celery to the pasta bowl, then pour over the prepared dressing. Stir well to combine, making sure the pasta is evenly coated with the dressing.
- Allow the salad to rest for 10-15 minutes before adjusting the salt and other spices. Add more if you'd like.
- Cover and refrigerate the salad until you are ready to serve. Salad will keep up to a week in the refrigerator. Enjoy!
- Small shapes like rotini, ruffles, or elbows work best.
- If you'd like to substitute fresh herbs for the dried herbs, start with a 1/2 tablespoon of fresh herbs and work up to a tablespoon. The general ratio for substituting fresh herbs for dried is 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs per teaspoon of dried herbs.
- Add the lemon zest if you'd like a bolder lemon flavor and plan to enjoy the salad within 3 days. After that, it can add a slight bitter note.
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