How to Make Pasta Salad
Everybody’s favorite for potlucks, picnics, and cookouts is easy to make — as long as you know these 6 tricks
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I have kind of a love-hate relationship with pasta salad. Done right, it’s packed with different flavors and textures, with a punchy dressing that pulls everything together. But too often the pasta is hard and oily, the vegetables unwieldy, the cheese rubbery, the dressing ineffective. Luckily, each of those problems has a simple fix. Read on to learn how to make the best pasta salad of your life.
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How to make pasta salad, step by step
You’re just a few steps away from pasta salads you’ll want to eat again and again.
Step 1: Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook pasta for a minute or two longer than the package directions say (find out why below). If you have any salad ingredients that need cooking, like cauliflower, add them to the pot for the last few minutes.
Step 2: While the pasta boils, prepare your other ingredients — chop any vegetables, meats, and cheeses, and make the dressing.
Step 3: When pasta is cooked completely, drain and rinse with cold water. Shake it vigorously to dry, add to a large bowl with the rest of the ingredients, and toss with about two-thirds of the dressing. If you won’t be eating for two hours or more, cover and refrigerate.
Step 4: Just before serving, toss with the rest of the dressing, some fresh herbs, and freshly ground black pepper.
6 tips for the best pasta salad
The technique itself is simple, but these tips will take your pasta salad from good-enough to not-a-morsel-left.
Tip 1: Choose the right pasta
Fresh pasta turns mushy quickly, so you should always use dried. And the shape matters, too. Pasta shapes like rigatoni are too big, too thick — they throw off the balance with the other salad ingredients. Go with smaller shapes that have nooks and crannies, the better to hold onto dressing and small pieces of vegetables.
Tip 2: Cook your pasta longer than usual
When you’re serving pasta hot, you want it to be firm in the center for that perfect, chewy bite. But as they cool, the starches in pasta do something known as retrogradation — what was nice and soft hardens and becomes tough, even rubbery. Run al dente pasta under cold water, and you’ll find that it’s already beginning to harden. Not what you want for a fantastic salad. Instead, cook until it’s soft all the way through, but not mushy.
Tip 3: Think bite-sized
Large chunks of carrots or spears of broccoli are hard to eat, plus the whole point of pasta salad is the combination of flavors. Make sure to cut your ingredients small enough to get several of them in each bite.
Tip 4: Use more oil than vinegar
As the pasta cools, it absorbs what liquid it can. In the case of salad dressing, this means it sucks up the acidic ingredients and leaves the oil behind. End result: Your pasta tastes unpleasantly sour.
Tip 5: Dress it twice
If you toss your perfectly-cooked pasta, veggies, and other ingredients with the entire batch of salad dressing right away, that soaking-up effect will leave the pasta slicked with oil. Instead, use no more than two-thirds of the dressing while the pasta still feels slightly warm, and add more just before serving.
Tip 6: Serve at room temperature
Cold pasta is unpleasantly firm. Remove your pasta salad from the fridge around 30 minutes before you plan to eat, so it has time to soften again. Then toss it with the remaining dressing.
Pasta salad FAQs
Read on for suggestions on ingredients, serving, and storing
What goes in pasta salad?
What doesn’t? OK, maybe you don’t want to put chocolate chips in there (though my kid might not mind). Here are my top suggestions:
Almost any vegetable can work, cut into bite-sized pieces. Leftover grilled or roasted veggies are especially tasty. Be sure to include something with a little sharpness to it, like red onion or scallions.
Cheeses like feta, mozzarella, Parmesan, and gorgonzola fit beautifully into a pasta salad. Avoid runny options like brie or burrata, which can overwhelm the other ingredients, and blocks of semi-hard cheeses like cheddar or gouda, which tend to feel greasy at room temperature.
Juicy extras like olives, capers, roasted red peppers, and pickled peppers add punch and help keep the salad from drying out.
If you’re a meat-eater, chunks of grilled or roasted chicken or cured meats like salami and pepperoni provide protein and different textures. For vegetarians, a rinsed-and-drained can of white beans or chickpeas serves a similar purpose.
Fresh herbs, added at the last minute, provide enticing aromas and bright color.
How long does pasta salad last?
Unless you’re feeding a crowd, I advise against making a large amount to eat all week — pasta salad becomes less appealing the longer it lingers. In terms of how to store pasta salad, put it in an airtight container and refrigerate for three or four days max. If you’d like to improve the odds that you’ll still want to eat the salad days later, lay plastic wrap directly onto the surface before closing the container.
What goes with pasta salad?
I appreciate pasta salad because it can work as either a side dish or a main. If you’re using it to fill out a meal, pair it with grilled meats or fish, beef, turkey, or veggie burgers, BBQ or fried chicken, or anything else you’d serve at a cookout. When pasta salad is the main, I like to offer extra vegetable options — think veggie kebabs or individual choices like asparagus, broccoli, or zucchini. If the pasta salad doesn’t already have lettuce, a simple green salad makes a great accompaniment.
Quick & easy pasta salad recipes
Gotta love a pasta salad that comes together in the time it takes to cook the macaroni. All you need is a handful of shelf-stable ingredients plus a fresh vegetable or two.
Get your hands on some good pesto, either homemade or store-bought, and you’re halfway to this flavorful salad. While rotini pasta bubbles away, cut cherry tomatoes and bell pepper into bite-sized pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Drain the pasta well, then toss it in along with pesto, some kalamata olives, and fresh mozzarella balls, and you’re ready to serve.
It doesn’t get much easier than this recipe — cut up some bell pepper, tomato, and mozzarella cheese, then toss with cooked rotini pasta, store-bought Italian dressing, and black olives. The toughest part is waiting to dig in while the flavors meld.
You only need a quarter-hour of prep time to toss together this zesty pasta salad, thanks to store-bought salad dressing, chunks of salami and sharp provolone, diced red onion, and a few leaves of fresh basil.
Vegetarian pasta salad recipes
Plenty of pasta salads feature cured pork and the like, but these three vegetarian options are so full of flavor, you won’t miss the meat.
Veggies like zucchini, corn, and cherry tomatoes are the star of this show. They get tossed with cooked cavatappi, feta cheese, and a garlicky dressing made with abundant fresh herbs, extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, capers, and anchovy paste. The recipe makes a large amount, so it’s perfect for potlucks.
Orzo — the rice-shaped pasta often served in Greece — is the base for this irresistible salad. Studded with creamy feta, kalamata olives, chickpeas, and oodles of veggies like red and green bell pepper, red onion, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes, it’s all tossed in a Greek vinaigrette scented with red wine vinegar and dried oregano.
The beauty of this hearty pasta salad is that a well-stocked pantry contains everything you need. In addition to the pasta, you’ll need canned beans, marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red bell peppers, kalamata olives, sun dried tomatoes, and capers. It’s all pulled together with a snappy dressing featuring garlic, lemon juice, and dried oregano and basil.
Main dish pasta salad recipes
While classic pasta salad is often served as a side dish, with the right ingredients it’s hearty enough to claim center stage.
If you take everything you love about chicken Caesar — classic salad ingredients like juicy chicken, salty Parmesan cheese, crunchy romaine lettuce, and creamy salad dressing — and toss it with penne pasta, you get a crowd-pleasing pasta salad. Don’t skip the homemade dressing, which features extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice, and mayo, along with umami-rich Worcestershire sauce and anchovies.
One easy way to turn cold pasta salad into a meal: Add some pantry-friendly protein, like canned tuna. Use any pasta shapes you like here — the recipe calls for bowties, but I like the way shells make little cups for the tuna and finely chopped red onion and celery.
Doesn’t that look like a feast? This Italian pasta salad features everything you love in an antipasto tray — think cured meats like pepperoni and soppressata, mozzarella balls, pickled pepperoncini, and sharp provolone. Combine all that with cheese tortellini, fresh basil, diced red onion, and a red wine vinaigrette, and you’ll be satisfied for hours.
Fresh and fun pasta salad recipes
If it’s not already clear, there’s no law that says pasta salad has to be served a certain way. These recipes take the concept a few steps outside the box.
I love a good BLT, but it doesn’t make the best picnic food. Turn that sandwich into a pasta salad, though, and you’ll be welcome at almost any cookout. Fusilli takes the place of bread, halved cherry tomatoes sub for sliced beefsteak, and crumbled bacon gives you a hit of smoky, salty pork in each bite. The dilly buttermilk dressing adds just the right amount of creaminess.
Think about it: Macaroni salad is just pasta salad with elbows and a mayo-based dressing. The name suggests this is the usual side dish you’d serve at a BBQ, but this easy recipe goes well beyond what you get at the deli counter. The dressing gets a tangy, zippy kick from sour cream and lemon juice, and the salad itself features crunchy celery, tender diced pimentos, sweet pickle relish, and the oniony bite of chopped scallions.
The legend says that Marco Polo brought noodles from Asia to Italy, so why not have a pasta salad made from ramen? The trick to keeping it crunchy is to toast the crumbled noodles rather than cook them in liquid — they soak in the yummy sesame dressing just enough to soften while still maintaining a seriously al dente bite.
Want more pasta? More salad? How ‘bout both!
If you love pasta salad, read on for more ways to enjoy pasta and salad, together and apart.