Five Steps To Perfect Pasta Salad

Follow the five steps outlined here for a stunning, irresistible pasta salad.

Pantry Pasta Salad

Pantry Pasta Salad | Photo by CJ

A pasta salad is only as good as the noodles that hold it all together. Have fun with different pasta shapes-short or long, narrow or wide, solid or hollow, big or small, flat or stuffed … you can put a brand new face on the same salad simply by varying the pasta. Pasta is made from many different types of flour, and colored beautifully with many different vegetables, so be adventurous and try something out of the ordinary-from rainbow radiatore, spinach ravioli, and whole wheat fettuccine, to corn macaroni, buckwheat soba noodles, and rice vermicelli. There’s no way to get bored with pasta when the choices are so deliciously endless.

If you’re nervous about making your own salad, simply pretend you’re at a salad bar. Be creative with ingredients you like to eat, but use a little common sense. When making an Asian-style salad, for example, use typical stir-fry ingredients such as celery and bell peppers.

Using this formula as a guide, you’ll create beautiful pasta salads that will have people asking for your recipe. The proportions given make enough to serve as a side dish to 12 to 16 people.

1) Cook 1 pound of pasta.

Select a 16-ounce box or bag of bite-size pasta. I recommend farfalle (bow ties), fusilli (corkscrews), penne, ziti, rotelle (wagon wheels), macaroni or small shells. Cook the pasta in a gallon of boiling water seasoned with 2 tablespoons of salt (that’s right, 2 tablespoons!) until just tender. Drain but do not rinse the pasta. Instead, dump it onto a large-lipped cookie sheet to cool and dry. Don’t worry if the pasta sticks together.

It’s even more important with pasta salad than with hot pasta dishes that you avoid overcooking the pasta. Overcooked pasta will fall apart when you try to toss it with dressing. Not only that, but if you allow your salad to “marinate” for several hours to let the flavors mingle, the pasta will soak up the moisture from the dressing and the other ingredients, turning slightly overcooked pasta to absolute mush.

Pasta Salad

Pasta Salad | Photo by bellepepper

2) Prepare 2 pounds of key ingredients.

These are the salad’s major add-ins: cooked and raw vegetables, poultry, seafood, canned beans and mild cheeses, for example. Some need little or no preparation before going into the salad. Others can be cooked in the pot of water along with the pasta. Still others are best sauteed or grilled. Choose at least 3 major flavorings. It’s good to let one ingredient lead (for example, 1 pound of asparagus with 8 ounces each of sliced mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, for a total of 2 pounds).

Options for cooked vegetables

These can cook right along with the pasta in the pot of boiling water. Add them to the cooking pasta during the last minute of boiling. Drain and cool them with the pasta for that just-right, tender-crisp texture.

  • Broccoli or cauliflower, florets cut into bite-size pieces, stems peeled and cut into 1/4-inch thick coins
  • Asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite-size lengths
  • Carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch coins
  • Green beans, trimmed and cut into bite-size lengths
  • Snow peas or sugar snap peas, strings removed
  • Zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced 1/4-inch thick

Options for no-fuss vegetables

  • Canned artichoke hearts, drained, rinsed, and quartered
  • Bean sprouts
  • Celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • Mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • Cucumbers, quartered lengthwise, cut into bite-size pieces and lightly salted
  • Fennel, trimmed, halved, cored and thinly sliced
  • Avocados, halved, pitted, peeled, and cut into bite-size pieces (add at last minute to prevent darkening)
  • Zucchini, halved lengthwise if small, quartered lengthwise if large, then thinly sliced
  • Cherry tomatoes, halved and lightly salted
  • Bell peppers, cored and cut into bite-size strips
  • Tomatoes, seeded and cut into medium dice and lightly salted
  • Frozen green peas, thawed

Options for grilled or broiled vegetables

All of these vegetables should be brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper before grilling or broiling.

  • Eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds; cut into bite-size pieces after grilling
  • Fennel, trimmed, halved, core left intact, and cut into wedges; cut away tough core after grilling
  • Large whole mushrooms; slice or quarter after grilling
  • Bell peppers, cored, seeded, and quartered; cut into bite-size pieces after grilling
  • Zucchini, cut on the diagonal into slices 1/2-inch thick

Options for sauteed vegetables

Asian-style salads taste best with lightly sauteed vegetables, particularly celery and peppers.

  • Celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • Bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into bite-size strips

Options for other major add-ins

  • Canned beans, drained and rinsed
  • Chicken breasts, grilled, sauteed or steamed and cut crosswise into thin bite-size strips
  • Italian sausage, steam-sauteed and sliced thin on a slight bias
  • Cooked lobster
  • Cooked and peeled shrimp
  • Canned tuna, drained
  • Mild cheeses (e.g., mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Crabmeat (pasteurized lump), picked over for shell
  • Ham, sliced 1/4-inch thick and cut into bite-size strips
Pasta Salad with Vegetables II

Pasta Salad with Vegetables II | Photo by roadrunnerkel

3) Choose intense flavors.

Stronger- tasting than the major add-ins, these ingredients should be used more sparingly. Pick at least one representative from this category, but feel free to use two or three–roasted peppers, pine nuts and feta cheese, for example, will give the salad a Mediterranean feel. If making an Asian-style salad, stick to nuts and seeds.

In most cases, add about 1/2 cup, unless otherwise noted.

  • Feta, crumbled
  • Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler
  • Goat cheese, crumbled
  • Capers, drained (1/4 cup)
  • Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • Peperoncini, drained and thinly sliced
  • Roasted peppers, cut into strips
  • Sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, cut into small dice
  • Bacon, fried and crumbled (8 ounces)
  • Prosciutto (8 ounces), thinly sliced, cut into small dice
  • Smoked salmon (8 ounces), thinly sliced, then cut into thin strips (other smoked fish and shellfish are possibilities as well)
  • Pine nuts, toasted
  • Roasted cashews, coarsely chopped
  • Roasted or honey-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
  • Toasted sesame seeds (1/4 cup)
  • Sunflower seeds
Pesto Pasta Caprese Salad

Pesto Pasta Caprese Salad | Photo by Molly

4) Add onions and herbs.

No matter what else is in your pasta salad, always add three large green onions, sliced, or half of a small red onion, diced. The types of onions are completely interchangeable, although I tend to use green onions for Asian-style salads.

Then mince 3 tablespoons fresh herbs and/or grate 2 teaspoons orange or lemon zest (the peel minus the bitter white pith).

For Asian-style pasta salads, consider cilantro, basil, and/or the citrus zests. Dill and mint are usually compatible with creamy-style salads. Because rosemary and tarragon are such strong flavors, use just 1 tablespoon of either herb combined with 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.

And if you’re ever in doubt about which herbs to use, you’ll never go wrong with good ol’ chopped fresh parsley.

5) Make a dressing.

You’ll need about 1 cup salad dressing to coat the salad. The key is to make sure the dressing is thick and emulsified; otherwise, the pasta absorbs the vinegar while the oil clings in droplets to the pasta’s surface. Stick with milder rice wine vinegar or lemon juice. Balsamic vinegar, while flavorful, turns the pasta an unattractive brown, and stronger vinegars make bright green vegetables drab.