Some might say the most common mistake in making pasta salad is, well, making pasta salad. And given the pasta salads of our youth—tri-colored spirals of fusilli, clammy and cold, swimming in pools of nondescript oil and peppered with floppy slices of salami, chopped bell pepper, and cubes of tasteless cheddar cheese or, if we were lucky, pepper jack—we might be inclined to agree. But not all pasta salad is bad—it’s just that almost all of it could be, well, a whole lot better. We spoke with senior food editor Dawn Perry about how to create a pasta salad that you’ll actually want to eat. Colanders at the ready!
1. Oh, I Love Farfalle!
Above all: Do not, we repeat do not, make a pasta salad with farfalle. The floppy edges of the bow tie pasta will be overcooked by the time the knot in the middle is al dente, and besides: the slippery texture doesn’t do much in the way of trapping sauce. Another shape to avoid? Tortellini. The fillings, whether they’re meat- or cheese-based, aren’t very appetizing when cold. “I do like fusilli,” says Perry, “but it’s old school.” As long as you keep the pasta short and small (spaghetti is great, but this just isn’t the place for it), you can experiment with any shape you want: Try orecchiette, conchiglie, gemelli, or cavatappi for starters. Consider shapes that need to be stabbed, rather than twirled, with a fork.
2. The Seasoning Is in the Sauce
The best time to season your pasta is when it’s cooking. “You need to season more aggressively when you’re eating food cold,” explains Perry. A warm dish that seems perfectly seasoned can taste bland once it cools.
3. Rinse, Repeat
If you’re going to eat your pasta cold, you should rinse it under cold water, right? Wrong! Instead, take a page from Perry’s playbook and toss the cooked pasta with a little olive oil, then spread it in a single layer on a baking sheet to let it cool completely. This tactic is used, by the way, by food stylists—so you’ll have the added bonus of a nice-looking salad, too.
4. Dress It Up with Butter
The best pasta salads are slick and a little rich: a good quality extra virgin olive oil is just the ticket here. You’re going to want to go for fats that remain liquid at room temperature—butter may be tasty, but it will congeal when cool. Cheese is definitely your friend here—especially soft, fresh varieties like feta, mozzarella, and fresh goat cheese.
5. Pesto Is Pesto Is Pesto
Pesto is one of the best moves you can make when dressing a pasta salad. But, says Perry, don’t restrict yourself to basil and pine nuts: Branch out with kale, arugula, parsley, spinach, almonds, walnuts, and heck, even pecans. To make the best pesto for the job, be sure yours is thin and runny, rather than thick and spreadable. Up the amount of oil used, and don’t be shy about loosening it up with water; it should coat the pasta with ease. Using finely shredded cheese will keep it silky rather than clunky. (Oh, hey, why not check out all our pesto recipes?)
6. Herbs? What Herbs?Pasta salad really wants to be doctored with herbs. Between the heaviness of the dressing and of the pasta itself, your palate needs a burst of freshness. But herb leaves like basil oxidize quickly when hit with vinaigrette, so to avoid unsightly brown spots, use whole leaves and add them in at the last minute (a splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon juice will help brighten things up, too).
7. A Healthy Pasta Salad Needs Tons of Raw VeggiesThe nuance of tender pasta gets lost when tossed with chunks of raw, crunchy vegetables. “I don’t want radishes or carrots in this instance,” Perry says. Roast, sauté, or blanch and shock your vegetables if you’re using them, and make sure to chop them into small pieces—roughly the size of your pasta. But don’t go too small, because each forkful should ideally contain a little bit of every ingredient. If you dress your pasta with corn and peas, for example, you’ll be left chasing them around the plate once the rest of the dish is gone.
So, what does belong there? Nuts are allowed (see: pesto), and salty and/or chewy things are always welcome—think olives, capers, cherry tomatoes. Just don’t forget to halve or quarter the tomatoes, so you avoid the dreaded juice splatter.
7. So, It’s All About the Mix-Ins?
Don’t forget that what you’re making is a pasta salad. The accoutrements should be delicate enough to let the flavor of the noodles shine. That said, Perry admits, there’s a time and a place for a blue cheese, bacon, and onion pasta salad. “You just really have to know that’s what you want,” she says, “and then go for it.”