How to Build the Perfect Pasta Salad
By Tiffany Terczak, Contributing Writer
Pasta salad has always been my go-to meal for potlucks. They’re easy to make, easy to transport and often don’t require refrigeration (which is great for picnics during the hot summer months). Besides, who doesn’t love a great pasta salad?!
These are also the same reasons why we include pasta salads in our meal plans almost every week. They’re frugal, and a great way to use up almost any leftover ingredient in the fridge (which helps save money by reducing our food waste).
Back in my pre- real food days, my favorite pasta salad was the boxed kind where you “just add oil and water” to the seasoning packet. (Classic flavor, if I’m brutally honest.) But that box got tossed out with the other processed foods when my husband said our kitchen was filled with boxes, instead of food.
Now we make the whole thing from scratch. It isn’t any more difficult that the “just add this” method, and since we can use whatever we happen to have in the kitchen at the time, it’s a whole lot more convenient!
A great pasta salad starts with great noodles. Pasta is one of the real food staples we always have on hand, and having a few different varieties in the pantry is handy. No noodle is off-limits, and the type of noodle you use should fit with the flavor of your salad, but there are two basic guidelines:
- Smaller noodles tend to work better than bigger ones. For a heavy salad that could be a main dish, try noodles where the sauce can hide (like shells). For lighter, side dish salads, use shaped noodles or noodles that don’t have nooks and crannies (like bow-ties).
- Cook the noodles appropriately. For serving a cool pasta salad (chilled in the fridge and then brought to the party), cook the noodles 1-2 minutes beyond al dente stage (check the package for the exact time on the al dente stage for the noodle you chose). This makes the noodles soft but not mushy, and prevents the noodles from getting hard after they’ve cooled. For serving warm pasta salads immediately, cook the noodles al dente according to package directions.
Note: Options for allergy-friendly noodles are endless. We’re fortunate to not have allergies in the family, but I know some families use alternative options (including rice and even zucchini noodles) in lieu of wheat noodles!
The key to dressing a pasta salad is using ingredients that won’t go weird on you if it the weather starts to change.
That means avoiding butter-based dressings or heavy meat-based ragus. Buy the best olive oil you can afford, choose an olive oil-based sauce and go minimal on the vinegar (if you add any at all) since the vinegar can cause an unpleasant aftertaste.
Pasta salads usually have a signature tang, and we think it comes from vinegar. Instead, the best pasta salads get their tang from a little bit of pickled ingredients.
Vegetables like pickled carrots, pickles themselves and kalamata olives from a tangy brine bring that bright, tart flavor to the salad without overpowering everything else.
You can also “quickly pickle” a vegetable for pasta salad by letting it sit in vinegar for about 15 minutes. Choose a mild cooking vinegar like sherry, rice or homemade apple cider vinegar for the best flavor.
Using vinegar for tang isn’t completely off limits, and works fine if you’re in a pinch. Go light though, and remember that a little bit goes a long way in flavor.
Three is key.
A combination of three items added in with the pasta is the perfect amount of “stuff” in the pasta salad. Less than three can be boring and more than three can make the pasta salad too complicated to enjoy.
Another key to success in pasta salads is using only one bold add-in (like kalamata olives). Two bold add-ins creates competition in flavor, which also makes the pasta salad complicated. Think of the bold flavor as the main character, and the other two playing supporting roles.
Tip: Save leftover vegetables from each meal separately. Then at the end of the week, you can mix/match the vegetables to create a specific flavor for pasta salad!
Cheese is totally optional, but it can add a huge punch of flavor. Fresh cheese (i.e. mozzarella or feta) and hard cheese (i.e. Parmesan) are great options for big flavor and great performance in the salad.
If you add cheese, avoid the ones that are super soft (i.e. Brie) and even semi-soft (i.e. cheddar) because they have a tendency to get a bit “sweaty” as it co-mingles with the other pasta ingredients.
Common Flavor Combinations
Ready to get cooking? Choose your pasta and start opening the cupboards to take stock of what you have. Here are some of my favorite flavor combinations to get you started!
- Tex-mex: black beans + corn kernels + tomatoes + homemade salsa. Mix it up by using homemade chili verde salsa or pureed mango salsa in place of a traditional red salsa.
- Cobb: garbanzo beans + avocado + tomatoes + gorgonzola + homemade ranch dressing. (Gorgonzola is very similar to blue cheese, but it’s more affordable.)
- Caprese: tomatoes + fresh basil + mozzarella cheese + olive oil + balsamic vinegar.
- Greek: kalamata olives + sundried tomatoes + cucumbers + feta cheese + Greek dressing. Feel free to substitute black olives and/or fresh tomatoes in a pinch.
- Steakhouse: cubed chicken + bacon crumbles + tomatoes + gorgonzola
- Italian: black olives + cucumber + tomato + Parmesan cheese + Italian dressing
Make Your Own!
This is my favorite because as I mentioned earlier, we include it in our meal plans weekly to help use up every last bit of leftovers in the fridge and save money by reducing our food waste.
Start by making enough pasta for everyone in the family. Put each leftover in its own bowl and put all of the bowls along with olive oil, fresh herbs and spices on the table. Let each person top their pasta however they want!
The next time you’re invited to a potluck or BBQ or any other social function, offer to bring a pasta salad and skip the box. Use this guide to build the perfect pasta salad with what you already have on hand and your dish will be the highlight of the table!
What is your favorite flavor of pasta salad?
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Yum – so many good ideas here!!
Pasta salad, that’s perfect idea for the summer.
One of our favorites Bridgite!
I wasn’t aware pasta salad in a box was even a thing! (we don’t have that here in New Zealand).
Some great flavour combinations here, thanks!
It very well could be Jenny, and it’s definitely popular too!