Pasta salad shows up at every picnic, backyard cookout, and summer potluck—and for good reason. When it’s executed properly, pasta salad can be a true star. Since no one wants to eat piping hot food in sweltering weather, this dish just makes sense, you know? That said, bad pasta salad is all too common, and has a way of bringing down an entire potluck.
The good news? You don’t have to settle for pasta salad that sucks anymore. Finding your way to your perfect bowl of pasta salad is a real thing. Make the most out of this warm weather dish with a few preparation adjustments, and you’ll soon discover that pasta salad can indeed be glorious. Once you know why yours might be lacking, you can be on your way to owning it and eventually turning it into a delicious go-to.
Choosing the wrong pasta shape and size
There are a plethora of pasta choices at your local grocery store. While not as overwhelming and confusing as choosing where to live or who to love, pasta decisions are tough. Many people end up with not-so-great pasta salad because the pasta shape and size just wasn’t right for this particular dish. For example, while fresh is most often better, fresh pasta is simply too delicate to hold up to long periods sitting in dressing or oil. Then you have the leggy ones like fettuccine, spaghetti, and linguine. All are terrific, but not for pasta salad. No one wants to twirl pasta salad.
Instead of fresh pasta, opt for dry varieties that can withstand both cooking and hanging out in dressing. You can toss it with a heap of other ingredients and it won’t cower, whether you decide to serve it directly from the fridge or at room temperature. Next, choose short pasta shapes with fun grooves and nooks for holding on to dressing, oil, chopped herbs, and bits of crumbly ingredients like cheese.
Improperly cooking the pasta
Improperly cooked pasta matters a lot in a dish like pasta salad for obvious reasons. Here, the pasta is the featured ingredient, so it definitely needs to shine. Overcooking the pasta leaves you with soft, mushy pasta that becomes increasingly so after a few hours drenched in dressing. If you undercook the pasta, you’re left with tough noodles that taste sad and unloved. As the pasta cools off, keep in mind that it will get hard and chewy. Your goal is to get it just right. Sure, but how?
The easiest way to prepare pasta perfectly is to set the timer and let it cook until the noodles are just al dente. There should still be a little bite left. Now add 1 to 2 minutes and continue to cook until the pasta is a bit softer. Doing so prevents it from hardening during the cooling process. Voila!
Seasoning at the wrong time
Bland anything is bad, but bland pasta salad feels especially discouraging. Since it’s such a common dish, for it to also be blah in the flavor department is truly devastating. Generally, cold dishes require more seasoning than hot ones. Even warm food can taste more subdued once it cools off. Season at the wrong time and you’re left with tasteless pasta salad.
To ward off the bland pasta salad blues, try to season every step of the way. When you’re boiling the pasta, be sure you salt the water generously. Now as you incorporate the dressing and extra ingredients, taste the dish frequently. Doing so gives you plenty of opportunities to adjust the seasoning.
Dressing at the wrong time
When you’re fixing a leafy green salad, you might not add the dressing until you’re ready to serve it for fear of soggy leaves, which makes perfect sense. The same logic doesn’t apply to pasta salad because you’re not dealing with delicate lettuce. Hopefully, you’re working with perfectly cooked pasta.
Instead of waiting until you’re ready to serve the pasta salad to dress it, toss it with the dressing while the pasta is still warm. Warm noodles absorb more flavor! Your best bet is to dress the pasta using most of the dressing right after draining, then toss it with the remaining dressing right before you present your masterpiece.
Rinsing pasta in any way
No. Just as you shouldn’t rinse pasta when you’re serving it hot, you should skip the waterworks when you’re serving it cold. Your pasta salad deserves better. The natural starch from the pasta helps it hold onto dressing, which is a good thing. Please do not rinse away that inherent blessing.
If you’re looking for a way to cool down your pasta faster, try lightly tossing the noodles in olive oil and spreading them out on a baking sheet or plate.
Tossing pasta in butter
In the interest of full disclosure, I normally put butter in almost anything I can get my gluttonous paws on. As a baker and overall eater of rich foods, I’m not shy about my butter usage. That said, it’s just not the right thing for making your pasta salad perfectly slick and flavorful. Butter works fine when it’s melted, but once the pasta salad cools down, you’re left with a congealed mess. Not a good look.
Instead, toss the pasta in olive oil. It’s flavorful and keeps the noodles slippery so they don’t stick together and cause you angst.
Opting for the wrong sauce consistency
Pesto and romesco are ideal choices for dressing pasta salad. They are deeply flavorful Italian varieties that cling well to noodles. Pesto is traditionally made with basil leaves and pine nuts, and can be rather thick if not loosened up with an adequate amount of olive oil. Similar in texture to pesto, romesco is a red sauce made with nuts and red peppers. But, not all pestos and romescos are created equal — some are better for your pasta salad than others.
The best sauce consistency is slightly runny. You want it to coat the pasta smoothly, and not end up in clumps at the bottom of the bowl. For the pesto, opt for finely-grated Parmesan or other cheese — but avoid shredded, which can make the sauce thicker and chunkier. For either pesto or romesco, be sure to add more olive oil than usual to yield a looser sauce.
Skipping the herbs
Pasta salad can be boring, heavy, and uninspiring, or it can be brilliant, depending on how you dress it up. Simply using pasta, dressing, and a few chopped veggies can leave you with a case of the blahs. That pasta salad might be fine—and even edible—but it’s certainly one-note.
To liven up your pasta salad and lend nuance, make good use of fresh herbs. They can do wonders! Since fresh herbs like basil, parsley, and cilantro tend to oxidize, incorporate whole leaves instead of chopping them up. Add them in at the end instead of at the start.
Incorporating raw vegetables that are different sizes
Raw vegetables are okay for dipping in hummus or even in a leafy salad, but they are not acceptable in a good and worthy pasta salad. That kind of crunchiness is too much for this dish, and you just end up focusing on biting into hard vegetables instead of savoring the blend of flavors and harmony of tastes. And if the vegetables are cut in different sizes, you’ll have a lot of trouble getting a little bit of everything in each bite. Good luck catching rolling peas or tiny corn kernels if you dare go that route.
To avoid distracting from your pasta salad, be sure to cook vegetables before adding them to the mix. Whether you saute, roast, or blanch, you’ll be glad you took the extra step. Also, try to prep veggies in roughly the same size as the pasta shapes so you can easily stab a fork and get everything.
Giving little consideration to the extras
Be creative when it comes to concocting your pasta salad, but don’t allow the extra ingredients to overwhelm the pasta itself. It is pasta salad after all. Consider how a certain cheese fares alongside a particularly pungent choice of olives. Feta, blue cheese, goat, and other crumbly varieties lend creaminess and savory flavor, too. Balance is key, so avoid the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality.
Making pasta salad way too far ahead
I love planning ahead and getting things done as much as the next obsessive cook, but making pasta salad several days in advance is not a good idea. Even the most perfectly cooked pasta and veggie add-ins will become soggy after awhile. A day ahead, sure, go for it.
Stellar pasta salad recipes to get excited about
Just in case you need some amazing pasta salad recipes to get you inspired about this old-school dish, I’ve got you covered. The recipes below are ones I’ve used, adapted for different occasions, and returned to often. I have a feeling you’ll do the same.
This recipe from Smitten Kitchen is perfect for a crowd. The roasted tomatoes, briny olives, and salty feta give it a vibrant Mediterranean vibe that’s hard to resist.
For something a little unexpected, try this recipe from Joy the Baker. Inspired by the flavors of muffuletta—the famous New Orleans sandwich with Italian bread, olive spread, pickled veggies, salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone cheese—this one’s a keeper.
This recipe from Food & Wine is bound to be a favorite as it will produce joy at any gathering. Penne is tossed with tomatoes, olives, and salty pecorino for a winning dish you’ll want to put in your rotation.
I love the fresh green pops of color in this string bean pasta salad from Martha Stewart, a woman who is bound to know a thing or two about showing up other people at casual summer picnics. Do it!
This Southwestern take on pasta salad from Good Housekeeping burst with flavor. Pasta is paired with steak, poblano peppers, corn, tomatoes, and cilantro.
If you want to keep it more traditional, try this recipe from Pinch of Yum. Fusilli plus classic Italian fixings make this one a tried and true favorite for any occasion. Keep the recipe in your back pocket to use again and again all summer long.
While there’s no wrong way to cook up anything once you decide to march into your kitchen for some culinary good times, a few simple tricks and considerations certainly help to elevate a humble dish like pasta salad. If you’ve ever eaten unimpressive pasta salad before then I’m sure you can appreciate when it’s downright mouthwatering. I hope these ideas for prep and the trusty recipes that follow serve as a starting point—a place in which you can imagine making pasta salad that’s a cut or two above the rest.