This broccoli cheddar pasta salad with cranberries is fresh and creamy with an assortment of flavors that will surprise and then delight you. It’s perfect for any time of year, whether you want an interesting side to bring to a potluck, or are just looking for a refreshing meal to enjoy.
This recipe was originally published on November 4, 2014, and was republished in September 2020 to add better quality photos, re-test the recipe, and add more helpful tips.
Pasta salads are the perfect place to experiment with new flavors. They are like a blank canvas that you can dress up however you like. It’s also the kind of dish you can adjust for whatever is fresh and available that season.
But I definitely have some tried and true recipes I go back to all the time, and this is one of them. I love the combination of sweet, savory, a tiny bit of saltiness, and something creamy. This pasta salad hits all those points.
It also is a beautiful combination of textures. It really has it all. Fresh, crisp broccoli, sweet and tangy cranberries, salty bacon, crunchy sunflower seeds, sharp cheddar, and creamy Greek yogurt and mayo dressing to bring it all together. The pasta is almost incidental (but really helps round it out).
How to design your own pasta salad
If broccoli and cranberries aren’t your top choice (or you just don’t have the ingredients around), you can always create your own pasta salad with whatever is in your kitchen. It is one of those wonderful, flexible dishes with tons of options.
Choose a pasta:
I think short pastas like farfalle or rotini are perfect for pasta salads. And then cut everything to match their size (or a little smaller). That way you can spear a little bit of every flavor with your fork and enjoy it in one bite.
Lots of vegetables:
Is it summer with lots of squash and tomatoes available? Or maybe spring when fresh peas and tender asparagus reign supreme. The choices are endless. I even like mixing in some preserved options like artichoke hearts or olives.
Pick a protein source:
Bacon is one of my all-time favorites to mix with fresh vegetables and cheese. But cubed or shredded chicken is great and super easy. Or if you are into fishy choices, try some tuna or smoked salmon. You could even add cooked beans if you are serving vegetarians.
Add something sweet:
While totally optional, I love adding a sweet element to my savory dishes. Dried fruits (like cranberries obviously) are awesome, or even sun-dried tomatoes. A little sweet, a little acidic, and a different texture to add some dimension to your salad.
Nuts or seeds:
Add some crunch! You’ll thank me later. Toasted walnuts or almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, or even some pine nuts. All of these are great. Just match it to your season and the rest of your ingredients.
And the dressing:
Go with a classic mayonnaise base for a macaroni salad with chicken, lighten it up with an herbal lemon and olive oil dressing on something with a lot of fresh veggies, or go with this Greek yogurt base for something creamy but with a bit of tanginess.
I know most people would serve this as a side, but I would happily eat this for lunch or a light dinner. I see this dish as a perfect harvest meal, when it’s still a bit warm during the day, but all those cool weather flavors are starting to dominate. But, of course, this is amazing any time of year.
I can absolutely say you won’t be sorry you tried this flavorful broccoli cheddar pasta salad!
Check out more of my salads perfect for the cold time of the year:
Broccoli Cheddar Pasta Salad with Cranberries
- 2 cups whole grain rotini pasta , uncooked
- 3 cups broccoli florets , cut into bite sized pieces
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 6 slices bacon
- 1/3 cup dried cranberries
- 1/4 cup sunflower seeds , toasted
- 1 small red onion , diced
- 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
- 1/2 cup Greek yogurt
- 1/4 cup light mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Rinse with cold water. Drain.
- Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook 2 minutes or until crisp, stirring occasionally. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Once drained, chop into bite sized pieces.
- Add pasta, broccoli, bacon, cranberries, sunflower seeds, onion and Cheddar cheese in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together Greek yogurt, mayonnaise, honey, vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour dressing over salad and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve (at least 1 hour). Enjoy!