This pesto chicken rigatoni is perfect for days when you crave a hearty delicious meal but don’t want to spend hours in the kitchen.
Tender chicken, creamy pesto sauce and perfectly cooked rigatoni come together to create a dish that hits the spot every time. Simple to make but packed with flavor!
And when craving another creamy chicken dish try this easy creamy truffle chicken.
Why you'll love this recipe
- Great taste – tender chicken, basil pesto and cream cheese make for a wonderful combo of flavors.
- Quick and easy – you need 30 minutes to make it and it's as good for a weeknight dinner as it is for impressing guests.
- Flexible – want to add more red pepper flakes or thinking of using chicken thighs? You totally can. Check out the substitutions and variations below.
Here are some helpful notes on ingredients you'll need. See the recipe card below for exact quantities.
- Rigatoni pasta – I love rigatoni because the shape holds on to the sauce really well. Penne would be the next choice.
- Olive oil – or any cooking oil that doesn't smell too strong. Oil is required to prevent pasta from sticking after it's cooked and also used for preparing the sauce.
- Chicken breasts – take skinless, boneless breasts and cut them into bite-size uniform pieces or strips (like you see in my ingredient shot above). Make sure the chicken is completely thawed before you start to cook.
- Garlic – finely minced or grated or use a garlic press. Garlic powder won't work here.
- Salt and ground black pepper – for seasoning the chicken and sauce.
- Crushed red pepper flakes – used in a small quantity for some mild heat. I prefer to add more than I've mentioned in recipe.
- Broth/stock – use vegetable or chicken broth/stock. Go for unsalted or low-sodium options so you can manage the overall saltiness. If using regular ones, cut down on the quantity of added salt.
- Cream cheese – cut into small cubes so it dissolves easily during cooking. Not to be confused with cream cheese spread.
- Basil pesto – I prefer to use store-bought options for convenience and also because it's available year round. But if you like to make it at home, you can use this pesto recipe by Elise.
- Sun-dried tomatoes – optional but adds a lovely, slightly tangy touch. Use the jarred ones that come in oil – not the dry ones that come in bags. Drain first, then chop/slice.
- Grated parmesan (optional) – to sprinkle on your cooked pasta. Freshly grated is always better.
- Parsley (optional) – some finely chopped leaves to put on the pasta as a garnish.
How to make pesto chicken rigatoni
Follow these simple, photo-assisted instructions to prepare this chicken rigatoni with creamy pesto sauce. Check out recipe card below for a printable version that has quantities, instructions and notes in one place.
Step 1: Cook your pasta al dente (see the recipe card below for cooking tips). While that's cooking, heat olive oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Then add minced garlic, chicken pieces, salt, ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.
Step 2: Cook 4 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly or until the chicken is no longer pink. Pour the broth/stock into the skillet and bring to a simmer.
Step 3: Now turn the heat down to medium-low and add cream cheese cubes. Stir/whisk continuously until it melts. Simmer 2 minutes or until the sauce thickens a little.
Step 4: Add the basil pesto and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Stir frequently.
Step 5: Now put in the cooked pasta and sun-dried tomatoes (optional) and gently fold to combine. Let it cook one last minute.
Step 6: If the sauce appears too thick, add a splash of broth/water. Once everything is heated through, transfer to serving plates. Garnish with grated parmesan and chopped parsley. Enjoy!
- Mushy pasta: That's a result of overcooking. Never leave your pasta boiling unattended, set a timer and cook al dente per package instructions.
- Chicken too chewy: Do not let your chicken brown or it will get overcooked and dry. When it changes color and doesn't look pink anymore, you are good to proceed to the next step of the recipe.
- Mild or strong pesto taste: Store-bought pestos can vary a lot in flavor intensity. If unsure of its strength, start with less, then add more if you like.
- Sauce too runny or thick: Cook a little longer if you want it thicker and add some broth/stock for thinning out.
- Salt imbalance: Use low sodium broth/stock. Remember that your pesto also contains salt. If not sure, start with less salt and then adjust later.
Substitutions and variations
- Chicken breast alternative – boneless, skinless chicken thighs (cut into small pieces) will work great. You can try shrimp too.
- Spiciness – adjust the quantity of crushed red pepper flakes based on your heat preference.
- Add ins – sautéed mushrooms, steamed broccoli or crispy bacon bits would give variety in taste and texture.
- Stock/broth substitute – dissolve bouillon powder/concentrate/cubes in water and use that instead. Follow the package instructions for the correct proportions. And don't add any salt until you have done a taste test of the final dish.
- Cream cheese replacement – use ¾ cup heavy cream plus ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan to replace 4 ounces of cream cheese. Sauce might be a bit liquidy, so you might have to simmer a little longer.
What to serve it with
- Caesar salad – crisp romaine, crunchy croutons and a tangy dressing make for a refreshing side.
- Garlic bread – no better partner to pasta than a slice of crusty bread loaded with garlic butter.
- Veggies – roasted veggies like bell peppers, zucchini and cherry tomatoes will add some subtle sweetness.
- Soup – a veggie and bean soup with a clear broth can be so warm and soothing.
Storage and reheating
- Storage: Put the leftovers into an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Avoid the freezer for this one – the texture and consistency don't stay the same.
- Reheating: When reheating on stovetop, transfer to a skillet/pan and put it on low heat for 7 to 10 minutes (lid on). Stir frequently and add some broth if the pesto sauce looks too thick. For reheating a small portion, add a little broth, mix and then microwave in 30-second intervals until heated through. Know that microwaving may turn some of that creamy sauce into oil, so the stovetop method with low heat is what I prefer.
Just so you know
- The word 'pesto' comes from the Italian word "pestare" which means to crush/grind. It's a nod to the traditional way of preparing pesto – by crushing basil, pine nuts and garlic in a mortar and pestle.
- The pasta sauce will thicken further as it cools, so don't wait too long to serve.
- Scaling this recipe up for a crowd? Use the “+” sign on the recipe card below to modify the servings – and see the ingredient quantities adjust automatically 🙂
For cooking pasta
- 8 ounces (227 g) rigatoni pasta - uncooked
- 1 teaspoon olive oil - or any cooking oil, to prevent drained pasta from clumping
For Pesto Chicken Sauce
- 2 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 chicken breasts - cut into bite-size pieces, boneless, skinless, around 250g/9oz each
- 3 cloves garlic - large cloves, finely minced or grated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ cup (118 ml) chicken or vegetable broth/stock - low sodium (Note A)
- 4 ounces (113 g) cream cheese - cut into small cubes
- ¾ cup (177 ml) basil pesto - store-bought (Note B)
- ½ cup (55 g) sun-dried tomatoes - sliced or chopped, drained (Note C)
- ¼ cup (25 g) grated parmesan - freshly grated, for garnishing
- some finely chopped parsley - for garnishing
- Bring salted water to a boil in a large pot. Cook rigatoni pasta in it until al dente. Follow the package instructions (see Note D). Once cooked, drain in a colander then drizzle olive oil on it and gently mix. This will prevent pasta from clumping together.
- In a large skillet, heat the olive oil on medium-high heat. Once hot, add minced garlic, chicken pieces, salt, ground black pepper and red pepper flakes. Cook 4 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly or until the chicken no longer looks pink but is cooked through. Don't let it brown.
- Pour the broth/stock into the skillet and stir. Let it come to a simmer.
- Then turn the heat down to medium-low and add cream cheese cubes. Stir/whisk continuously until it melts and the sauce looks smooth. Simmer 2 minutes or until the sauce thickens a little.
- Mix in the basil pesto and cook an additional 2 minutes. Stir frequently.
- Now add the cooked pasta and sun-dried tomatoes (optional) and gently fold to combine. Let it cook one last minute. If the sauce looks too thick, add a splash of broth/water.
- Once everything is heated through, transfer to serving plates. Garnish with grated parmesan and chopped parsley. Enjoy!
- Step-by-step photo instructions
- Recipe troubleshooting
- Substitutions and variations
- Serving ideas
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