This easy salmon pesto pasta is made with hot-smoked salmon and short pasta (such as macaroni, rotini or small shells) and tossed in a creamy homemade cheese sauce.
There’s something kind of amazing about cheesy pasta mixed with basil pesto.
On its own, cheesy pasta is perfection. But mixed with pesto, it somehow becomes even more delicious!
I’ve been making pesto macaroni and cheese for years now, and each time I do, I fall in love with it all over again.
But guys, I like to add a little bit of protein to my pasta dishes.
A lot of times I top my mac and cheese with smoked oysters, because smoky seafood flavors work so well with mac and cheese.
Since I’m always looking for new flavor ideas, a recent shipment of smoked salmon from Sitka Salmon Shares gave me an idea. I just knew that some of the salmon belonged in my pasta!
This salmon pesto pasta is made with hot-smoked salmon tossed in a easy (and cheesy!) pesto pasta.
What is Hot-Smoked Salmon?
For this recipe, you’re looking for hot-smoked salmon.
Hot-smoked salmon is, well, exactly what it sounds like: salmon that’s been cooked through with hot smoke. It will look like a plump, cooked fillet of salmon.
Look for it in the freezer or refrigerator section near the lox.
Once you open the smoked pasta package, you’ll be able to easily flake the salmon apart with a fork.
You don’t need the salmon skin for this recipe, and in general I don’t love the skin from hot-smoked salmon. I give the skin to my cat and (for about 2 seconds) he thinks I’m the best.
Can I Use Flavored Hot-Smoked Salmon?
Sometimes you’ll see hot-smoked salmon that’s been packed with seasonings (like peppercorn).
This recipe was tested with unflavored (plain) hot-smoked salmon, but as long as the seasonings work with basil and cheese flavors, the flavored varieties should work well.
Can I Use Lox Instead?
I don’t recommend using lox in this recipe.
Lox is thinly sliced, cured and (sometimes) cold-smoked, meaning it’s not actually cooked. It’s got a delicate texture that is quite different from cooked salmon.
Tossing lox in hot pasta will, in effect, cook the lox and ruin the silky texture. I highly recommend sticking to hot-smoked salmon instead for this recipe.
Want to know more? Check out our article on lox vs. smoked salmon.
Can I Use Regular, Un-Smoked Salmon In This Pesto Pasta?
You sure can!
The flavor won’t be the same (because no smoke!), but it will still be delicious.
Simply cook the salmon and flake it apart before adding it to the pasta.
Can I Use Canned Salmon?
Absolutely. We love canned fish!
Canned smoked salmon isn’t always easy to find, but if you’ve found some, it will work perfectly.
Un-smoked canned salmon (a.k.a. “regular” canned salmon) will also work well; it just won’t add smoky flavor to the dish.
Can I Make This Gluten-Free?
You sure can!
There are two gluten sources in this recipe: flour in the cheese sauce and (of course) the pasta.
For the flour, you can swap all-purpose gluten-free flour with xanthan gum, such as Cup 4 Cup.
Use your favorite gluten-free pasta instead of a traditional pasta. I enjoy this pesto pasta with Banza’s chickpea pasta.
How to Make the Pesto Cheese Sauce
Start by melting butter in a heavy-bottomed pot.
When the butter melts, stir in flour until the flour is absorbed.
Next, pour warm milk into the pot.
And yes, the milk really does need to be warm. If your milk is cold, the sauce could become lumpy.
Stir the milk into the flour and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about two minutes, until the sauce is silky smooth.
While the sauce is still piping hot, add the freshly shredded cheese. I like to use this microplane grater to finely grate my cheese.
Do not use pre-shredded cheese because it will not melt. I’m not being a food snob here: it won’t melt because it’s packed in anti-clumping agents.
Stir the cheese and it should melt right into the sauce.
At this point, the sauce should be smooth and creamy.
Finally, stir in the pesto. I like to use my homemade basil pesto.
Your sauce should be a lovely pale green at this point.
My Cheese Sauce Broke. What Now?
First, make sure you followed the tips above: use warm milk, make sure to bring the milk to a simmer before adding cheese and use freshly (preferably finely) grated cheese.
If you did all of the above and your sauce isn’t smooth, try adding a little hot pasta water to the sauce. Simply ladle it over a little at a time, stirring to help emulsify the cheese.
If you’re still struggling with your sauce, I think it’s good to remember that the pasta will still taste amazing even if the sauce isn’t as creamy as you like.
How to Make Salmon Pesto Pasta
Once you’ve got the cheesy pesto sauce ready, add cooked pasta to the pot.
Toss the pasta into the sauce. I think it’s easiest to use tongs to toss.
I usually add a splash or two of pasta water to the pot as I’m tossing to help the sauce coat the pasta evenly.
Add the flaked smoked salmon to the pot.
Salmon Pesto Pasta
- 6 ounces hot-smoked salmon (~1 fillet) See "salmon tips" in recipe notes
- 8 ounces short pasta (such as macaroni, rotini, penne or small shells) Use gluten-free pasta if needed. I love Banza's chickpea rotini in this recipe.
- 1 cup milk (2% or whole) Optionally, swap all or part of the milk for heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon flour Use gluten-free all-purpose flour if needed
- ½ cup freshly shredded white cheddar (or use gouda) See "cheese tips" in recipe notes
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more to serve if desired
- 1 tablespoon basil pesto
Cook the Pasta:
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta. Boil until al dente (about 1 minute less than the package directions call for).Reserve 1 cup of pasta water, and remove pasta from the heat.
Prepare the Salmon:
- Flake the salmon apart with a fork. Set aside.If the fillet has skin, discard it.
Make the Cheese Sauce:
- Add the milk to a small pot (such as a butter warmer) and warm over low heat. Keep warm while you prepare the sauce.Add butter to a large pot or pan and melt over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until it is completely absorbed by the butter.
- Slowly begin adding the warm milk, stirring constantly. Bring the milk to a simmer, and continue simmering for about 2 minutes.Tip: The milk must be warm when added to the butter and flour mixture; otherwise, the flour might clump. Also, make sure to bring the milk to an actual simmer for 2 minutes, or the cheese might not melt correctly.
- Turn off the heat and whisk in the Parmesan and cheddar. Continue whisking until the cheese melts into the sauce.Tip: The sauce must be piping hot when the cheese is added; otherwise, the cheese will not melt. If you paused your cooking for any reason between adding the cream and butter, reheat the sauce before proceeding.Add the pesto and stir until incorporated.
- Add the pasta to pesto cheese sauce and toss to incorporate. If the sauce seems dry or stringy, add another splash of the reserved pasta water. (I usually add at least one splash of pasta water, sometimes two, when cooking this meal.)Tip: If you forgot to reserve pasta water, add a splash of cream, milk or white wine to the sauce instead (not tap water).
- Add the smoked salmon to the pasta and toss again.Serve right away. Top with extra Parmesan if desired.
- Hot smoked-salmon is typically sold with refrigerated seafood, often near the lox. You may also find it frozen. Look for salmon in vacuum-sealed packages that looks like a cooked salmon fillet.
- Canned smoked salmon will also work well.
- Sometimes hot-smoked salmon is packed with seasonings (such as peppercorn). This recipe was not tested with flavored smoked salmon, but as long as the flavoring works with buttery, cheesy pasta, it should work well. (If your salmon is packed with a peppery seasoning, you may want to omit the black pepper from this recipe.)
- This recipe will also work with unsmoked salmon fillets. Cook the salmon and flake it apart before adding it to the pasta, or use high-quality canned salmon (which is already cooked).
- Cold-smoked salmon (or lox) is not recommended. Tossing lox in hot pasta will essentially cook the lox, ruining the silky texture.
- Pre-grated or pre-shredded cheese will not work in this recipe, because it’s tossed in anti-clumping additives that will prevent the cheese from melting.
- White cheddar and gouda are two of my favorite cheeses in this recipe, but feel free to experiment with other varieties of cheese.