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smoked salmon pesto pasta in a serving bowl
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5 from 2 votes

Salmon Pesto Pasta

This easy salmon pesto pasta is made with smoked salmon and short pasta (such as macaroni, rotini or small shells) tossed in a creamy homemade cheese sauce.
Prep Time5 mins
Cook Time15 mins
Total Time20 mins
Course: Main Course, Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Diet: Gluten Free
Servings: 4 people
Calories: 475kcal


  • 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.
    Flake the Salmon with a Fork

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.
    Stir Flour Into Melted 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.
    Add Milk to Flour + Simmer
  • 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.
    Stir Pesto Into Cheese Sauce
  • 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).
    Toss to Coat the Pasta
  • Add the smoked salmon to the pasta and toss again.
    Serve right away. Top with extra Parmesan if desired.
    Toss Salmon in the Pasta


Salmon Tips:
  • 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.
Cheese Tips:
  • 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.


Calories: 475kcal | Carbohydrates: 47g | Protein: 26g | Fat: 20g | Saturated Fat: 11g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 57mg | Sodium: 727mg | Potassium: 313mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 5g | Vitamin A: 636IU | Calcium: 334mg | Iron: 1mg