Creamy vegan Italian pasta salad can be tailored to your veggie heart’s desires (including artichokes), plus a luscious Italian dressing that melts into the pasta. This crowd-pleasing easy pasta salad is certain to be a new family ‘most’ requested super salad.
why you need this salad
You can’t go wrong with big bowls of pasta salad. It's one of our favorite hearty salads. And a creamy vegan pasta salad is synonymous with summer months, sunny days, and laughter. It's no mystery when I concocted a creamy Italian dressing, I immediately turned my attention to a big bowl of classic Italian pasta salad as a celebration. That was my motivation for this Italian pasta salad recipe.
This is the kind of salad that you can dress up with loads of different fresh veggies or with a few essentials of your choice. In truth, if you get the dressing 'right,' everything else falls right into place. So let’s start there – the dressing. The good news? You only need a handful of simple ingredients to make this one.
Cashews – Use raw cashews. For the best results, we recommend that you do a quick boiling-water soak. This means placing the cashews in a bowl and cover them with 2-3 cups of boiling water. Allow the cashews to soak for at least 30 minutes. Be sure to drain and rinse the cashews before you blend them. This freshens them up and rids them of any oils that accumulated in the bowl.
Besides cashews, you can also use white beans, blanched and soaked almonds, or even silken tofu to make this dressing. I’ve not tested these methods, but they are worthy options if you do not want to use cashews.
You can also use sunflower seeds. Follow the preparation as outlined in sunflower seed sour cream. You will likely need extra balsamic vinegar and lemon juice as sunflower seeds have prevalent nutty taste than cashews.
White balsamic vinegar – This is the same 'secret' ingredient used in making vegan mayo. It's so amazing that there was no making creamy Italian dressing without it.
White balsamic is subtly sweet with a lower level of acidity than other vinegar. I really leaned on it, using 4 tablespoons for this recipe.
Lemon juice – Lemon juice brightens up the dressing and doesn’t weigh down the cashews. I find that it creates a perfect zesty flavor without the addition of apple cider vinegar. Plan to use at least 1 medium lemon, if not more. I ended up at 4 tablespoons, but you may want to use more to thin out the dressing rather than relying on water.
Garlic powder – Originally, I used fresh garlic, but garlic powder is less of a flavor hog and easier to adjust. Besides, it’s easier to add garlic powder ready to roll than messing with a fresh clove of garlic.
Double-check that your garlic powder doesn’t contain salt (some brands do). You may need to adjust the amount if it does, or the dressing could be too salty tasting for you.
Mustard powder – Do you keep a bottle or tin of mustard powder on hand? If not, it’s time. Straight from the mustard plant as ground mustard seeds, mustard powder has all the flavor of creamy mustard without any additional ingredients or bite.
Mustard powder is a super powder ingredient in making creamy, 'cheesy' sauces or casseroles. Take note if you don't like nutritional yeast, because mustard powder can also 'do the trick'.
Cayenne pepper – Just a pinch! I used ¼ of a teaspoon of cayenne. You can also use regular (not smoked) paprika if you don’t want any spice at all.
Italian seasoning – Multiple spice combinations that make up Italian blend or Italian spice mixes. In general, they are some combination of oregano, marjoram, thyme, basil, rosemary, and sage.
Ground black pepper – Add a few twists of ground black pepper after blending the dressing, and you’re off to the races (or the pasta pot).
pro dressing tips
- Be sure you soak the cashews before blending. Otherwise, you risk an unpleasantly gritty dressing.
- My personal favorite way to prep cashews is to soak them by covering them in 2-3 cups of boiling water and allowing them to soak for 30 minutes. You can also soak them overnight, or you can steam or boil them for 15 minutes.
- The second important dressing tip is to exercise patience. If you have a ‘regular’ speed blender, it’s patience that yields a creamier dressing. In other words, keep blending, scraping the sides, adding a little water if needed. Then, more blending.
- Use a blender or a small enough container that the cashews create friction. Blenders have a better design because they push food to the bottom. A food processor is often too big to compress the ingredients, so they just whirl around unchallenged.
- Add water, a little at a time. Start blending the ingredients for a few minutes before adding water. Add a few tablespoons of water at a time. Blend after every addition. Take an opportunity to taste the dressing as you go and adjust the white balsamic vinegar or lemon juice rather than water.
- Mix in the Italian seasoning and black pepper after blending. Allow a few minutes for the dry herbs to rehydrate in the dressing.
Besides the pasta and dressing, this is an ‘anything goes’ kind of salad. I’ve varied the ingredients according to what I have on hand, but here are our favorites:
Artichoke hearts – The buttery flavor of artichokes make this salad creamier and richer without adding oil.
Red onion – We really like the sweet and crunchy raw red onions for this salad. If you want to soften up the onion and mellow the sharpness of the taste, soak the diced pieces in cold water for a few minutes. Simply drain and rinse them.
Bell pepper – Red peppers or orange peppers will give you a sweeter flavor than green bell peppers, which are slightly bitter. Use any you like or a half-and-half combination for a bit of flare.
Cucumber – Use a small or half of a large cucumber. I deseeded the cucumber but cutting it lengthwise, then running a small spoon through the middle. Then I sliced the cucumber into half-moon shapes. You can also dice the cucumber.
Black olives – Sliced black olives are totally optional, but they add bites of salty richness. Not a fan of black olives? Kalamata olives are a tasty alternative as well.
Cherry tomatoes – Sweet cherry tomatoes, even cut in half, stand up in a salad like this. Diced fresh tomatoes might get mushy, so stick with either cherry tomatoes or tiny whole grape tomatoes.
Fresh basil – What’s an Italian salad without basil? This should be your final addition. Basil is a fragile herb, so it doesn’t stand up well to a lot of handling or mixing. Once you chop it, use it to garnish the top of the salad or mix it in for more basil flavor throughout.
Try to stick to smaller pasta such as fusilli or even macaroni. I love a tri-colored fusilli, but any similar pasta, including gluten-free pasta, or even chickpea pasta will work here.
Be careful not to overcook the pasta. You want al dente or toothsome, meaning that you bite into it – the pasta doesn’t just mush into your teeth.
Once the pasta gets tender in the pot, promptly drain it. Normally, when you cook pasta for sauce, you don't rinse it. But because you will serve the pasta for this salad at room temperature, so rinse it in cold water to stop the cooking process and cool it down. This will also help to separate it so that it doesn’t clump when the dressing is added.
What’s the best way to know if cooked pasta is done? Taste it!
There are numerous colorful veggies or flavorful ingredients you can add to Italian pasta salad besides our recipe list. This includes a variety of peppers, diced celery, grated carrots, diced zucchini, or radishes. You can also add cooked beans such as red kidney beans, navy beans, cannellini beans, or chickpeas. In addition to fresh basil, you can add other fresh herbs such as parsley or dill.
You can make creamy Italian pasta salad the night before and add the fresh basil right before serving. Creamy Italian dressing can seize up a bit after sitting. Freshen it up by stirring in more lemon juice and/or white balsamic vinegar.
Unpeeled cucumbers are perfectly edible and will give you more nutrients and fiber than unpeeled. Unpeeled cucumbers will hold up better in pasta salad, especially if you have removed the seeds. That said, the peelings can cause indigestion for some people, so you always have the option of removing the peeling.
hearty salads we love
creamy vegan Italian pasta salad
Creamy vegan Italian pasta salad brimming with veggies, artichokes, black olives and an irresistibly rich Italian dressing is your new family favorite.
- Prep Time: 40 min
- Cook Time: 0 min
- Total Time: 40 minutes
- Yield: 8
- Category: hearty salads
- Cuisine: Italian
- Diet: Vegan
- 1 cup raw cashews
- 4 Tbsp. white balsamic
- 4 Tbsp. lemon juice
- ½ tsp. garlic powder
- ½ tsp. mustard powder
- ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
- ¼ - ½ cup of water
- 1 Tbsp. Italian seasoning
- ½ tsp. ground black pepper
- 4 cups dried pasta (we used tri-colored fusilli)
- 1 can (13 oz./390 gm.) artichoke hearts, drained and diced, about 1 ½ cups
- 1 medium red onion, chopped small (about 1 cup)
- 1 small cucumber, sliced
- 1 medium red bell pepper, cored and diced
- ⅓ cup black olives, sliced
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- ½ cup basil leaves, torn or chopped
- Start by soaking the cashews. Add 1 cup of raw cashews to a bowl, and then add 2-3 cups of boiling water. Set the cashews aside and soak for 30 minutes.
- While the cashews soak, prep all the vegetables and cook the pasta according to the package directions. Be sure not to overcook the pasta. As soon as it is done, drain and give it a quick rinse with cold water.
- Finish the dressing by draining and rinsing the cashews. Add them to a blender with white balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, mustard powder, and cayenne pepper. Blend the ingredients for a few minutes, then begin adding water a few tablespoons at a time. Blend after each addition of water.
- Taste the dressing after adding about ¼ a cup of water. At this point, you may want to add more vinegar or lemon juice. Continue adding water and blending until you have a dressing that is thin enough to pour.
- Transfer the dressing to a small bowl and mix in the Italian seasoning and black pepper. Mix this in with a spoon.
- To make the salad, combine the pasta in a medium salad bowl and add half the dressing. Add the rest of the veggies and dressing and mix the salad well. Finally, add the basil and mix it in or garnish the top with it.
- Serve the salad immediately or allow it to rest until you are ready to dish it up.
- You can make this salad ahead of time or just cook the pasta a day before as a part of your weekly meal prep. If the pasta sticks together or the salad needs freshening up, mix in a teaspoon of lemon juice.
- Creamy cashew dressing relies on prepping the cashews for blending. In addition to the boiled water soak (which we recommend), you can soak cashews overnight. You can also try boiling or steaming cashews for 15 minutes in place of soaking.
- If the dressing is gritty, continue blending. Don’t be afraid to run the blender for up to 15 minutes or more. It’s also helpful to add the water a little at a time as you go. Be sure you use a blender because a blender pushes the ingredients down into the blade and creates friction between the cashews that help them break down.
Keywords: vegan Italian pasta salad