October 14, 2021
When you hear the words “pasta salad,” you’re probably transported to a hot summer afternoon in the park with friends and family. That’s because this dish is the perfect side at a warm-weather gathering. It’s cool, crispy, and creamy. Did we mention it contains pasta? That’s always a plus. Did we mention it’s also great for feeding a crowd? That’s essential.
Pasta salad is a no-rules kind of dish, but it’s worth learning the basics of how to prepare some popular versions so that you can then put your own spin on the recipe. Classic, if not essential, ingredients include pasta noodles (normally not spaghetti, but everything else is fair game), salad dressing or condiments like mayonnaise, and fresh vegetables. Since the dish is served cold, maintaining the crispiness of vegetables is key. No one likes clammy cooked vegetables. This means that the most successful pasta salad recipes, while simple, require a little patience.
Before you toss the ingredients, you need to let the pasta cool. Then, when you mix in other ingredients, you’ll be layering in flavor for a comforting meal that’s oh-so-pleasing to the senses.
In this tutorial, we’ll demonstrate a basic Mediterranean pasta salad (which also happens to be a vegetarian pasta salad) and give you some ideas on how to make it your own, too.
How to make the best pasta salad
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
For the pasta salad:
- 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
- 8 ounces of pasta (bowtie, fusilli, and penne pasta salads are classic)
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (In this dish, the more color the better; so, if you can find a variety pack, we recommend it.)
- 1 small cucumber, quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
- 4 ounces of feta cheese
- 4 ounces of salami, ham, or other cold cuts, diced
- 1/2 cup of black olives, sliced
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley or basil, chopped
- Salt and pepper
For homemade pasta salad dressing:
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar or other sweetener like honey or agave
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper
- Cook and drain the pasta according to the instructions on the package, and while you prep the rest of your antipasto pasta salad ingredients, let the noodles cool. Run the drained pasta under some cold water to help the process along.
- Whisk together all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside. Don’t worry about getting the salt ratio right just yet. In fact, err on the side of caution. You can adjust salt later once the pasta salad is complete.
Chef’s tip: Short on time? You can substitute this homemade dressing for the store-bought variety, preferably Italian dressing or a subtle vinaigrette (three-fourths of a cup, plus more to taste).
- Chop and slice all of the vegetables as described in the ingredients list.
- Toss the pasta with the dressing and vegetables in a large bowl and mix in the feta cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Chill the dish in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve. Be sure to cover tightly so that the salad does not dry out.
Recipe adapted from The Kitchn.
Nutritional values per serving
Fat: 22.6 grams
Saturated fat: 5.6 grams
Carbs: 25.4 grams
Fiber: 1.9 grams
Sugars: 2.6 grams
Protein: 10.5 grams
Sodium: 405.5 milligrams
Pasta salad tips
- We can’t stress this enough: Let the pasta cool! Warm pasta will absorb the dressing quickly, making the noodles soggy and taking flavor away from the salad. For each bite to taste like dressing, which it should, this condiment needs to sit on the noodle’s surface.
- Take time and care cutting the veggies. Since they are one of the stars of this dish, how you cut vegetables is important. For example, halving the cherry tomatoes ensures that people get a nice juicy bite of acidity, and finely chopping the onion helps avoid large chunks of bitter flavor.
- Keep it simple. Too many flavors can overwhelm salads with pasta. Stick to flavors from a particular region of the world, such as the Mediterranean, and don’t overdo it. You’ll end up with a perfectly balanced dish and a flavor profile that makes sense.
Simple variations: other pasta salad ideas
Gluten-free variation: You can make all pasta salad recipes with gluten-free pasta. In fact, gluten-free pastas hold up well in these dishes because they often fall apart when overcooked or too warm. Because this is a recipe for a cold dish, in which you cool off the noodles right after draining them, this means that the gluten-free pasta retains its shape and al dente bite.
Add chickpeas: Chickpeas are a great addition to the pasta salad shown above because they fit right into the Mediterranean flavor profile. That said, they are also a welcome addition to other types of pasta salads, like the ones described below, and a good source of vegetarian protein.
Mayonnaise: Other varieties of pasta salads opt for mayonnaise instead of dressing. A classic pasta salad with mayo is an elbow-macaroni variety tossed with canned vegetables like peas and carrots. Drained canned tuna or chickpeas are a great source of protein and work well in this dish, and if you want to get some gourmet points, swirl in some chipotle in adobo or other canned hot peppers. Just like the recipe in the tutorial, be sure to let the noodles cool after cooking, as they will rapidly suck up all of the deliciousness of the mayo if you don’t.
Canned foods: Canned foods may not usually be considered gourmet, but this dish proves how preserved products can really shine. Canned vegetables and proteins like tuna or chickpeas are particularly tasty in mayonnaise-based salads, like the one described above.
Pasta Salad FAQs:
Is it best to make pasta salad the day before?
You can certainly make pasta salad the day before or the day of. The key factor is letting the dish chill. Even a few hours of chilling will go a long way. Just be sure to cover the pasta salad tightly so that it stays moist.
Should you rinse pasta for pasta salad?
Rinsing the drained pasta in cold water is an excellent tip, as it helps the noodles retain their shape and not absorb all the flavor of the dressing.
What goes with cold pasta salad?
Serve cold pasta salad as a side dish with cookout favorites like grilled chicken, fish, or steak. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, try serving a Mediterranean-flavored salad with a side of pita bread and hummus.
Is pasta salad just for summer?
No. While summer pasta salad is common, different varieties of this dish can be served year round. If you need proof, just check out this Thanksgiving pasta salad.
If you’re now craving a cool, crisp, creamy pasta salad but you’re out of noodles, you can order them in seconds and have them at your door in a matter of minutes with Gopuff. They carry all you need, from cheese and meats to canned vegetables and other pantry items, too.