This tuna pesto pasta is easy to make in only about 20 minutes! Canned tuna, grape tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and pesto are tossed with pasta for a hearty and satisfying weeknight meal.
Who doesn't love a quick and easy pasta dish on a busy weeknight? This tuna pesto pasta is just the thing when you need a quick dinner but want something a little more special than basic pasta with tomato sauce.
By using store-bought pesto sauce, you can have this entire meal on the table in only about 20 minutes. In fact, the longest part of the prep process is waiting for the water to boil!
Note: this post was originally published in 2021 and updated in 2022 with new photos and improved instructions. The recipe was also simplified and improved.
Why this recipe works
- Pesto pasta with tuna is a hearty and filling meal, including lots of protein from the canned tuna.
- This recipe is super easy to make with only five ingredients (not including salt and pepper).
- Prep is incredibly easy; it's only a smidge more effort than just dumping sauce on pasta. But, it tastes about 200% more interesting and delicious than plain pasta with tomato sauce!
- There are a ton of easy ways you can dress up and customize the pasta to suit your own tastes!
- Pesto: I used store-bought pesto to keep things simple. If you have homemade pesto, that would be fabulous too of course!
- Parmesan: feel free to replace the Parmesan with another similar hard cheese like Pecorino. Here is a helpful list of other cheeses that would work in place of Parmesan!
- Grape tomatoes: you can also substitute cherry tomatoes cut in quarters. If you want to use a larger tomato, remove the pulp and seeds first to avoid making the sauce watery. I discuss how to do this in my post for creamy tomato cucumber salad.
- Tuna: this recipe calls for tuna packed in oil. Tuna packed in olive oil is great, but if you can't find it, any kind is ok. I talk more about types of tuna to use and substituting tuna packed in water in the Recipe FAQs section below.
Step by step photos
1. First put a large pot of water on the stove to boil. When the water boils, add a generous few pinches of salt and cook the pasta according to the directions on the package.
While you waiting for the water to come to a boil, you can cut the grape tomatoes in half vertically.
2. Next, you can finely shred the Parmesan. Remember to shred extra if you want to use some as a garnish!
3. When the pasta is done, scoop out a little pasta water and keep it on the side. (This is to keep in case you want to thin out the pasta sauce at the end.)
Then, drain the pasta and add it back to the pot, along with the tomatoes, pesto, Parmesan, and cans of tuna, undrained.
4. Stir the pasta and the other ingredients together until everything is evenly combined.
5. Taste the pasta and season it to your liking with salt and pepper. You can also drizzle in a little pasta water if you want to thin out the sauce - this is optional.
Ideas for add-ins and substitutions
As I mentioned at the beginning, pesto pasta with tuna is so easy to customize to your own tastes, because you can just swap in or add whatever ingredients you like when you are mixing the pasta at the end.
- a squeeze of lemon for extra brightness
- sliced sun dried tomatoes for more intense tomato flavor, either instead of or in addition to the grape tomatoes
- for extra veggies, try adding in quartered artichoke hearts, steamed broccoli florets, sautéed onions, or your favorite cooked veggie cut into bite-sized pieces.
- try adding a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes if you like things spicy!
- instead of tuna, you can use drained canned chicken, salmon or even crab!
- to make the pasta more cheesy, substitute 1 cup shredded mozzarella for the ½ cup Parmesan.
- If you don't have fresh tomatoes, you can either use sun dried tomatoes as mentioned above, or try swapping in chopped roasted red bell peppers!
Storage and reheating tips
- Tuna pesto pasta tastes best the day it's made, in my opinion. However, once prepared, you can store the pasta in the fridge, tightly covered, and it will keep for 3 - 4 days.
- Because the pasta will continue to absorb moisture as it sits in the fridge, leftovers may seem a little dry when you go back to enjoy them the next day.
- Therefore, I suggest mixing in a tablespoon or two of additional pesto to re-moisten the pasta before reheating. If you don't have extra pesto, just sprinkle a little bit of water over the leftover pasta instead.
- A single serving of pasta can easily be reheated in the microwave. To reheat a larger amount of pasta, place it in a shallow pan with a lid. Cover the pan and gently warm over low heat, stirring occasionally.
- Tuna pesto pasta also freezes well, and will keep for 2 - 3 months in the freezer if stored in a sealed airtight container or freezer bag. The tomatoes do lose some of their integrity when thawed, so if you don't like that, you can prepare the pasta without tomatoes, and add them in fresh after thawing.
Other tips and tricks
- Don't forget to generously salt the pasta cooking water; this is the best way to make sure the pasta itself is seasoned.
- Feel free to adjust the amount of pesto and Parmesan in the recipe to suit your tastes. If you like a more generous coating of pesto sauce on your pasta, don't let me stop you!
- When mixing the pasta together with the other ingredients, try not to overmix so you can preserve the texture of the larger chunks of tuna.
- While I think this tuna pesto pasta is the most flavorful when served hot, it also tastes delicious at room temperature or even cold, like a pasta salad!
I recommend using tuna packed in oil for this recipe. Tuna packed in oil is more flavorful and has a more supple, less "dry" texture, in my opinion! For the best flavor, look for tuna packed in olive oil specifically, but if you can't find that, tuna packed in sunflower or vegetable oil would also work.
And, if you can find it, canned tuna that comes in larger pieces (aka "solid pack" tuna) provides more texture to the pasta. Tuna labeled solid white albacore and solid light yellowfin are good options.
If you don't have or don't like tuna packed in oil, you can definitely substitute tuna packed in water.
To substitute tuna packed in water for this recipe, just drain out most of the water from the tuna before adding it to the pot (don't worry about getting the tuna super dry before adding it, some moisture is fine). Then, if you like you can add in a drizzle of olive oil (about 2 - 3 teaspoons) to the pasta to replace the oil that would have come from the tuna packed in oil.
In researching the topic of which pasta shape pairs best with pesto, I have come across many varied recommendations. These include long noodles such as spaghetti, capellini and vermicelli, twisty pasta shapes such as fusilli, trofie and gemelli, and even some wild card entries such as lasagna and gnocchi.
I am using the twisty pasta fusilli, because the nooks and crannies hold onto the pesto well. However, as you can see there are many different ideas about what is the "best" type of pasta to pair with pesto. Therefore, you can feel free to stick with one of these recommendations above, or choose another shape of pasta you really like. I am sure that your pesto pasta will taste fantastic either way!
If you have the option, I do recommend going with a bronze-cut pasta, regardless of what shape you go for. Bronze-cut pasta has a rougher texture that clings even better to sauces. I talk more about bronze-cut pasta in my post for cream cheese pasta.
Because this pasta dish already has a protein component thanks to the canned tuna, you don't need to add much else to make a complete and satisfying meal.
Try serving tuna pesto pasta alongside a fresh green salad, bean salad, or a side of sautéed vegetables. It would also pair well with a small cup of vegetable or minestrone soup. My recipe for burrata caprese would also be a fantastic starting course!
This recipe can be adapted to be made vegetarian but you will need to make a couple modifications. First, you can swap out the canned tuna for a cup (or more!) of canned white beans (drained and rinsed). This is a great swap because the white beans will fill in some of the protein that would have come from the tuna.
Next, you can check to see whether the pesto you are using includes cheese made with rennet, which is not considered vegetarian. It would be easy to look for store-bought pesto labeled vegan, or make your own!
Finally, you will need to either omit the Parmesan (again, due to rennet), or look for Parmesan (or another similar cheese) that is labeled vegetarian. Here is a great list of brands that offer vegetarian cheeses, including Parmesan!
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Tuna pesto pasta is an easy dinner that's hearty and filling. With minimal prep, you can make this main course in only about 20 minutes with 5 ingredients (not counting salt and pepper).
- 8 ounces (227 g) fusilli (or your favorite pasta shape)
- two 5 ounce (142 g) cans tuna packed in oil
- 1 ½ cups (230 g) grape tomatoes, halved
- ½ cup (40 g) finely shredded Parmesan, plus more for garnish
- 1 cup (227 g) pesto sauce (store-bought or homemade)
- salt and black pepper, to taste
- Set a large pot of water to boil on the stove. While the pasta water is coming to a boil, continue with steps 2 - 3.
- Rinse and dry the grape tomatoes. Cut each tomato in half vertically, set aside.
- Finely shred the Parmesan (if not using pre-shredded). Set aside.
- When the pasta water begins to boil, add a generous pinch of salt and stir in the pasta. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
- Drain the pasta, but first reserve about ½ cup of the pasta water.
- Return the drained pasta to the pot. Add in the tomatoes, Parmesan, pesto sauce, and two cans of tuna (add in the entire can, do not drain first).
- Gently mix the pasta together with the other ingredients until combined. Do not overmix as to avoid breaking the tuna apart too much.
- Taste the pasta and season with salt and black pepper to taste. (Optional - if you want the sauce to be thinner, drizzle in some of the reserved pasta water.)
- Serve with additional shredded Parmesan cheese on top.
Tuna packed in olive oil provides great flavor; otherwise, you can use any kind of tuna packed in oil.
If you can find it, look for tuna labeled "solid," such as "solid white albacore" or "solid light yellowfin." Because this tuna comes in larger chunks, rather than small flakes, this will provide lots of great texture to the dish.
While tuna packed in oil provides the best flavor and texture (in my opinion), you can also substitute tuna packed in water. Drain away most of the liquid (some remaining is fine) before adding to the pasta. If you like, you can also add in 2 - 3 teaspoons of olive oil to replace what would have been added from the tuna packed in oil.
The nutrition information below is an estimate only, provided by an online nutrition calculator. The nutrition counts of your dish will vary based on the brand and exact amounts of ingredients used. This nutrition estimate should not be considered a substitute for professional medical, health, or nutritional advice. See our full disclosure policy.
- Serving Size: ¼ recipe
- Calories: 654
- Sugar: 7.1 g
- Sodium: 789 mg
- Fat: 35.5 g
- Saturated Fat: 7.9 g
- Carbohydrates: 49 g
- Fiber: 3.8 g
- Protein: 36.7 g
- Cholesterol: 42 mg
Keywords: tuna pesto pasta, tuna pasta