It’s hard to not love easy homemade pesto and juicy pulled chicken tossed into pasta. It’s an Italian favorite and go-to dinner any day of the week!
Why You’ll Love This Chicken Pesto Pasta
- Homemade Italian pesto can’t be beaten!
- Recipe includes juicy pulled chicken that absorbs all the flavors of the homemade pesto.
- Make the traditional version served hot, or make it into a chilled pasta salad.
Looking for a new take on pesto? Try this Avocado Pesto!
Chicken Pesto Pasta Ingredients
- Gemelli, cavatappi, or rotini pasta – all three of these pasta shapes work really well. They are all short, twisted shapes that have lots of nooks and crannies to hold the pesto!
- Chicken breasts – I find that chicken breasts work best for chicken pesto pasta. My method for baking chicken breasts yields the juiciest chicken ever!
- Fresh basil – you’ll need a lot of basil for this dish!
- Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese – Parmigiano-Reggiano is the classic cheese used in pesto. You can use regular parmesan as a less expensive alternative.
- Pecorino cheese – pecorino is also a classic, sharp sheep’s cheese used in pesto; however you can use all Parmigiano-Reggiano if preferred!
- Extra virgin olive oil – olive oil creates a pesto “sauce”.
- Pine nuts – pine nuts are traditional in pesto! They add a creaminess to the sauce, and sweet nuttiness.
- Garlic – because pesto = garlic.
- Cherry tomatoes – cherry tomatoes add a pop of tart sweetness, freshness, and bright color.
- Balsamic vinegar – balsamic is an awesome, quick marinade for the chicken.
- Red pepper flake (optional) – if you like a little back heat, add some flakes!
How to Make Chicken Pesto Pasta
Full instructions in the recipe card; this is just an outline!
Add basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt to a food processor. Use the pulse setting to pulse pesto to desired consistency.
Drizzle chicken with balsamic and sprinkle with salt. Bake chicken at 425 degrees for 17-21 minutes or until the chicken registers at least 165 degrees. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before using a knife and fork to pull/shred chicken into bite-sized pieces.
Boil pasta, reserving ½ cup of pasta water when pasta is almost done.
Add pesto, tomatoes, chicken, and red pepper flakes to drained pasta, and toss. Add pasta water to moisten. Toss again.
Tips for Chicken Pesto Pasta
- Pasta salad instead? Run the pasta under cold water after draining it to rinse off excess starch and cool the pasta down. Toss pasta with the rest of the ingredients as the recipe is written.
- Ensure that you tightly pack 1 ½ cups of basil. Insufficiently packed cups will result in an insufficient amount of basil for your pesto.
- In the traditional Italian method, a mortar and pestle are commonly used to “grind” and blend pesto, as opposed to a food processor which can generate heat and affect the basil’s flavor. If available, utilize a mortar and pestle. Otherwise, pulse the food processor instead of running it continuously to minimize heat from the blade.
- While you can choose to chunk up the chicken, shredded or pulled chicken is ideal for chicken pesto pasta, as it absorbs the pesto sauce more effectively.
- Don’t worry if the balsamic burns slightly on the baking sheet when cooking the chicken.
- If time permits, it is always preferable to grate the cheese by hand!
Chicken Pesto Pasta Variations
Looking to change up chicken pesto pasta? Here are some variations and additions to please any palate:
- ½ cup of cream instead of pasta water
- Jarred pesto instead of homemade in a pinch
- Toasted pine nuts (350 degrees for 5-7 minutes)
- Sun-dried tomatoes instead of fresh tomatoes
- Roasted Red Peppers
- Fresh baby spinach
- Broiled Asparagus
- Zest of a lemon mixed into the pesto
- Grilled vegetables (e.g., zucchini, bell peppers, eggplant)
- Artichoke hearts
- Walnuts instead of pine nuts in pesto
- Fresh mozzarella
- Shrimp or Grilled Pork Tenderloin instead of chicken
- Vegetarian: scratch the chicken!
Leftovers & Storage
- Make ahead: although pesto chicken pasta is best enjoyed right away, you can make it ahead if you don’t mind pasta that isn’t as al dente and pesto that isn’t as fresh.
- Storage: once cooled, store in an airtight container for 3-4 days.
- Reheating: reheat gently in the microwave or stovetop, stirring often and rejuvenating with a splash of olive oil.
- Freezing: the texture of the pasta and the tomatoes will change when frozen, thawed and reheated. If you don’t mind this, freeze leftovers for up to 3 months. I recommend thawing overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
I love short, twisted pasta shapes like gemelli, cavatappi, or rotini pasta. All of them work very well!
Traditional pesto is made from fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and pecorino cheese, and extra virgin olive oil…just like this recipe!
While you can use jarred pesto in a pinch, nothing beats homemade pesto – and it’s not difficult to make!
More Pasta Recipes You’ll Love!
- Creamy Lemon Pasta (Pasta Al Limone)
- BEST Shrimp Scampi Pasta
- Creamy Pasta Primavera
- Pasta alla Genovese (6-Hour Beef & Onion Sauce)
- Secret-Ingredient Mushroom Pasta
- Food processor (or mortar and pestle)
- 1 pound gemelli, cavatappi, or rotini pasta
- 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts
- 1 ½ cups fresh basil leaves packed
- ⅔ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or regular parmesan
- ½ cup grated pecorino cheese
- ⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ⅓ cup pine nuts
- 3 medium garlic cloves peeled
- 10 ounces cherry tomatoes whole or halved
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- Red pepper flakes optional
- Salt to taste
- Preheat oven to 425℉. Add basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt to a food processor. Use the pulse setting to pulse pesto to desired consistency, scraping down the sides as needed. Set aside.
- On a baking sheet, drizzle chicken with balsamic and sprinkle with salt (or marinate ahead of time if preferred). Bake chicken at 425℉ for 17-21 minutes or until the thickest part of the chicken registers at least 165 degrees. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before using a knife and fork to pull/shred chicken into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
- Boil pasta until al dente, reserving ½ cup of pasta water when the pasta is almost done.
- Add pesto, tomatoes, chicken, and red pepper flakes (optional) to drained pasta, and toss. Add a splash or all of the pasta water to moisten as needed. Toss again. Serve right away!
- Make sure to PACK your 1 ½ cups of basil. If you don’t pack the cups tightly, you won’t have enough basil!
- Traditionally, Italians typically use a mortar and pestle to “grind” and mix pesto instead of a food processor (which heats up and can impact the flavor of the basil). You can use a mortar and pestle if you have one, or pulse the food processor (instead of turning it on and letting it go) to minimize the heat build-up of the blade.
- You can chunk up the chicken if preferred, but I love shredded/pulled chicken for chicken pesto pasta since it soaks up the pesto even more!
- It’s okay if the balsamic burns a bit on your baking sheet when baking the chicken!
- It’s always best to hand-grate your cheese if time allows.
- You can use just parmesan cheese (instead of both parmesan and pecorino) if preferred.
- Pasta salad instead? Run the pasta under cold water after draining it, to rinse off excess starch and cool the pasta down. Toss pasta with the rest of the ingredients as the recipe is written.