Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad

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Delicious spinach pasta salad with cranberries, pecans, apple, and mandarin orange

Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad: A simple pasta and spinach salad with tart apples, crisp celery, toasted pecans, sweet dried cranberries, and juicy oranges. This salad is dressed with a simple poppyseed vinaigrette.

Overhead image of the autumn crunch pasta salad with spoons in it

Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad

We’re all obsessed with a good pasta salad at my home. And with Fall on the mind, I thought it would be great to combine a pasta salad with seasonal fruits and veggies like apples, cranberries, and pecans. Fall salad essentials!

This salad has it all — flavor, sweetness, and texture and we can’t get enough of it! Today I’m sharing plenty of tips to making the best pasta salad along with some variation ideas. Let’s get started!

Process shots-- images of the pasta being cooked, spinach being prepped, and dressing being made

Quick tips

  • Look for short pasta: Choose pasta that has plenty of nooks and crannies to catch as much of the dressing as possible. I use orecchiette pasta, but some other pastas that would work well is miniature farfelle, rotini, or small pasta shells.
  • Salt the pasta water: Since this Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad is eaten cold, the flavors tend to get muted. Make sure the pasta is well-salted as it cooks, since salting is the only chance you have to season the actual pasta. Don’t be afraid to add more salt to the finished salad if it needs it. Read about how to properly salt your pasta water here.
  • Cook the pasta to al dente: Since the pasta sits in dressing, it has a tendency to get soggy if overcooked. Pasta also gets a little firmer when served cold, so don’t under cook it! I cook it right to the package directions of what al dente is.
  • The dressing can easily be adjusted to personal preference. Give it a quick taste test and slightly adapt if needed — you may want to add a bit more sugar if you like dressings on the sweeter side. On the flip side, if you’re worried about dressing sweetness, you may want to reduce the sugar.

Process shots-- images of the dressing being poured over the salad and photos off each element of the salad

Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad variation ideas

  • Add a creamy element, such as a ripe avocado. Since avocados don’t hold up well in the salad, if you add them, add to individual plates right before serving. 
  • Add chicken. Either leftover cooked chicken, a rotisserie chicken, or some diced grilled chicken (use this delicious chicken marinade).
  • For an additional creamy element (beyond the cheese), add a diced or thinly sliced avocado
  • Swap out dried tart cherries for the dried cranberries
  • Use goat cheese instead of feta cheese
  • Swap out candied pecans for the toasted pecans

How to toast pecans

Pour the (un-chopped) pecans into an even layer in a small, dry (no need to add oil or anything) skillet over medium-heat and stir them around a bit until they are fragrant and toasted to your liking.

Watch the pecans carefully; they can go from perfectly cooked to burnt in an instant! I like to remove them as soon as they begin to smell fragrant.

Up close overhead image of the autumn crunch pasta salad dressed and ready to be eaten

Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad Storage

  • Unfortunately this Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad doesn’t sit or store well once dressed. The dressing will wilt the spinach, the apples begin to brown, and the pecans get soggy once dressed. 
  • The salad can be made in advance as long as everything is stored separately and the apple is cut right before enjoying. Assemble and add the dressing right before eating.
  • If you do make the dressing in advance, don’t be alarmed if it clumps and separates in the fridge (the clumps are the fats (oil) separating and solidifying). To fix this simply shake the dressing together again until smooth (If it’s still clumpy, let it stand at room temperature for 15-20 minutes and then shake again).

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Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad

4.92 from 12 votes
Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad: A simple pasta and spinach salad with tart apples, crisp celery, toasted pecans, sweet dried cranberries, and juicy oranges. This salad is dressed with a simple poppyseed vinaigrette.
Print Recipe

Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad

4.92 from 12 votes
Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad: A simple pasta and spinach salad with tart apples, crisp celery, toasted pecans, sweet dried cranberries, and juicy oranges. This salad is dressed with a simple poppyseed vinaigrette.
Course Salad
Cuisine American
Keyword Autumn Crunch Pasta Salad
Prep Time 30 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes
Servings 6 -8 as a side
Calories 234kcal
Cost $5.89

Ingredients

  • 5 ounces fresh spinach half a 10 ounce bag (6 cups; 140g)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups (150g) dry small pasta
  • 3/4 cup (87g) chopped celery
  • 1 large Granny Smith Apple, thinly sliced or chopped
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 can (15 oz; 425g) drained mandarin oranges (or 2 mandarin oranges)
  • 3/4 cup (91g) dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup (41g) pecans, coarsely chopped (See Note 1)
  • Optional: Feta cheese

Dressing

  • 2 tablespoons EACH: apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar
  • 2-4 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon each: paprika & onion powder
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon poppyseeds
  • Fine sea salt and freshly cracked pepper

Instructions

  • COOK PASTA: Cook the pasta according to package directions to al dente. Make sure to generously salt the water; this is what will actually season the pasta! I add 1 teaspoon salt to every 4 cups of water.
  • DRESSING: While the pasta is cooking, prepare the dressing. In a mason jar combine the apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, sugar, (adjust -- more or less to personal preference, I use 2 tablespoons), paprika, onion powder, olive oil, poppyseeds, and salt and pepper (I add 1/4 teaspoon each). Seal the jar and shake vigorously to combine.
  • FINISHING PASTA: Drain the pasta once it's cooked through and immediately toss a few tablespoons of the dressing with the pasta. Chill the dressed pasta in the fridge.
  • REMAINING INGREDIENTS: Meanwhile, prep the other additions: thinly slice the celery, thinly slice (or chop) the apple and toss with the lemon juice, and peel the oranges or drain from the can.
  • ASSEMBLY: In a very large bowl, toss the completely cooled pasta with the spinach. Add in the celery, apple, oranges, dried cranberries, and coarsely chopped pecans. Drizzle dressing over the salad and toss to combine. Add feta cheese to personal preference and enjoy immediately.
  • STORAGE: This salad isn't very great leftover. If you aren't eating this immediately, keep the ingredients separate from the dressing and only toss with the dressing right before eating. Top with pecans and feta after dressing the salad.

Video

Recipe Notes

Note 1: if desired, toast the pecans. Let completely cool and then coarsely chop before adding into the salad.
To toast pecans: If you want to toast the pecans, place them in a single layer in a dry saucepan (don't add anything) over medium heat. Stir constantly until the nuts are barely fragrant -- just a couple of minutes. Watch carefully as the nuts are VERY easily scorched/burned.

Nutrition Facts

Calories: 234kcal | Carbohydrates: 33.7g | Protein: 3.5g | Fat: 10.8g | Sodium: 24mg | Fiber: 3.3g | Sugar: 17.2g

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76 Comments

  1. Aaaw, congrats again, Chelsea! I’m so glad to hear Baby Bentley is doing great now and you are all adjusting well to your new little family 🙂 This pasta salad is gorgeous and I love all the flavors! It’s perfect for fall!

  2. 5 stars
    pinned! this looks absolutely delicious! I definitely need to try this salad! and your pictures are gorgeous! so crisp and clear! are you still using the same 50mm lens ?! I’m in love with these pictures!

    1. You are so sweet, thank you Michele! I appreciate your kind compliment!! I actually alternate between 3 different lenses as I shoot (I’m not exactly sure which ones were used for these photos, but most likely my 24-70mm and 50mm) I have the 50 mm, a 100 mm 2.8, and a 24-70 mm 2.8 (<--that's my favorite one!)

  3. I LOVE salads like this 🙂 Salad can get so boring sometimes so it’s really nice changing it up a bit! But enough about the salad 🙂 CONGRATULATIONS!! I hope he brings you endless amounts of joy and love!!!

  4. Congratulations Chelsea!!!

    I made this tonight for dinner and the hubs and I loved it! I added a grilled chicken breast and candied the nuts as suggested but otherwise followed the directions. I’m looking forward to the leftovers tomorrow!

    1. Thank you so much Stephanie!! Yay! So glad to hear you tried this and enjoyed it! And grilled chicken sounds like the perfect addition 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

  5. I made this salad today…DELICIOUS!!! If you think you don’t like feta (my Mom automatically said she didn’t like feta and wasn’t going to eat it) try it! The tartness of the feta was balanced by all the sweetness going on in the salad. Mom later tried it and loved it!!! We made it exactly according to the recipe and after the first helping (Yes! There were multiple helpings!!!) we added a little purple onion and some bacon. OMGOODNESS!!! So good! Thank you for this recipe!!! We’re adding this to our Thanksgiving lineup this year!

    1. Yay!! Love this comment! 🙂 And I totally agree. We tried this again the other night and I could eat feta now (not pregnant anymore!!) and it was crazy good!! I love the idea of adding onion and bacon oh man that sounds good! 🙂

  6. 5 stars
    Thanks for the delicious salad recipe. Love the pasta in it. Definitely worth the extra 5 minutes to make the dressing. It’s a nice complement to the fruits as are the feta and toasted pecans. It’s a large salad so I served the dressing on the side so it will be good for another meal. Also, congratulations on your new baby!

  7. Has a very interesting look to it 🙂 —– very inviting & creative ….I really WANT to make it. Query…. What kind of pasta is that, never seen it before & want to buy it. TY! 🙂

  8. 5 stars
    This salad was absolutely AMAZING. My 15-year-old daughter (who is super picky) even took some in her lunch the next day. Added to the list for Thanksgiving…thank you so much!!!!

    1. Oh yeah!!! SO great to hear! 🙂 Thanks for the comment and trying this recipe! I’m glad it makes it on the list for Thanksgiving 🙂

    1. Hey Marlene! You can really use any small shaped pasta 🙂 The more ridges, the better it absorbs the pasta. We’ve tried it with a few different kinds and it’s great!

  9. made this for my lunch today, and it was awesome! I scaled down the salad ingredients, but made the full portion of dressing, so now I have extra left for future salads. made it just like it is (didn’t add the optional feta), and I wouldn’t change a thing. perfection. 🙂

  10. 5 stars
    I made this salad and we loved it. I used 3 Tbsp. of sugar and followed the recipe. I did add chicken. Perfect week nigh dinner.

  11. The salad looks gorgeous, quick question though, can I replace the celery with something else? Cucumber? Sorry really can’t eat celery! Thanks!

  12. Chelsea, I plan to serve this next month for a small lunch gathering and plan to add grilled chicken. My question is – besides a bread, what else should I serve with the salad? Since the salad has so many yummy ingredients, my mind has drawn a blank so thought I would get your suggestions. Thank you.

  13. My 15-year-old daughter trains in classical ballet, so she’s at her dance school upwards of 20 hours each week. This salad sent her leaping over the moon. It’s perfect. Fruits, vegetables, some carbs, healthy fat with the pecan, and beautifully balanced between salty, sour and sweet with just a touch of bitter from the spinach. Thank you for sharing! A ballerina’s dream dinner.

  14. I used your salad for I spiration for a salad, salad.
    As with your’s I used baby spinach and cranberries.
    Instead of pecans I used chopped cashew nuts.
    I used fresh mandarin quarters, skipped the celery and apple but instead used julienned raw beetroot for the crunch ( red or yellow) I rinse and soak the julienned beet in water to get rid of the earthy taste First) I changed the feta to crumbled, mild blue cheese and left out the pasta.
    The result is delicious and is a big success with all those who’ve tried it.
    Thank you so much for the inspiration.

    I made a few changes: instead of sugar I used 1tbsp of orange blossom honey in the dressing.

  15. 5 stars
    Took this to our family reunion yesterday. Huge hit. Beautiful presentation, healthy and adding the oasta made it creatively different. A real winner!

  16. 5 stars
    Loved it..I also added strawberries, pineapple chunks, blue cheese crumbles,. Dressing was wonderful will definitely be making it again

  17. 5 stars
    Making this salad for Thanksgiving for the 3rd straight year! Thought it was time to thank you for sharing it. It’s a crowd pleaser!

  18. Hi Chelsea! This looks perfect to take to my nephew’s engagement party on Saturday. I’m sure we won’t be eating right away. Are there ingredients that I can combine ahead of time so I don’t have to bring everything in separate containers? Thank you!

    1. You can add the pasta, celery, cranberries, and mandarin oranges to one container; nuts and cheese in separate bags, and spinach, apple and dressing separately. Enjoy!

  19. I’d like to make this for my sister who is returning home after a trip. What can I do w/ the apples so they won’t brown b/c I will leave her the dressing on the side (so the salad won’t get wilted)?

    1. I’d either cut it and add a bit extra lemon to the apple or just leave the apple with the salad for her to cut into the salad if it’s going to be a while before she gets to it!

    1. Since the dressing is so sweet and there is a lot of fruit in this salad, I think the candied pecans would make it too sweet!

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