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A tricolor fusilli pasta salad with sliced black olives and chopped salami on a white plate
The Sporadic Cook
| Credit: The Sporadic Cook

Making a rave-worthy pasta salad requires a bit more than just tossing pasta and add-ins into a bowl, drowning them in dressing, and hoping for the best. We've figured out just the right balance of ingredients you need to produce irresistible pasta salad that will have people begging you for your secret recipe.

How to Make Pasta Salad in 5 Easy Steps

Whether you're making an Italian pasta salad, a Greek pasta salad, an Asian pasta salad, or the Easy Tuna Pasta Salad, you'll use the same basic formula so you get the right balance of ingredients. The ingredients themselves will change, but the formula will stay the same.

This formula makes enough pasta salad to serve as a main dish for 6 to 8 people or a side dish to 12 to 16 people.

Pasta Salad Infographic

1. Cook 1 Pound of Pasta

Photo by Meredith

Choose 16 ounces of bite-size pasta such as penne (shown above), farfalle (bow ties), fusilli (corkscrews), ziti, rotelle (wagon wheels), macaroni, or small shells. Cook the pasta in one gallon of boiling water seasoned with 2 tablespoons of salt until just tender. Drain but do not rinse the pasta. Instead, toss it with olive oil and dump it onto a rimmed baking sheet to cool. Don't use butter because it clumps up when it cools.

Tip: Cook pasta until tender but slightly underdone. Why? Overcooked pasta falls apart when you toss it with dressing. And if you let your salad marinate for several hours, the pasta absorbs extra moisture and could turn mushy if it was overcooked.

2. Prepare 2 Pounds of Main Ingredients (About 8 Cups)

Photo by Meredith

These are the salad's major add-ins, including cooked and raw vegetables, poultry, seafood, and canned beans. Some need little or no preparation before going into the salad. Others can be lightly cooked. Still others are best sauteed or grilled.

Tip: Choose at least 3 major flavorings. Let one ingredient dominate. For example, combine 1 pound of asparagus with 8 ounces each of sliced mushrooms and cherry tomatoes for a total of 2 pounds.

Ideas for adding cooked vegetables:

These can be boiled or blanched in the pasta water. Just add them to the pot during the last minute of boiling. Drain and cool them with the pasta, or shock them in ice-cold water for a 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

Ideas for adding raw or canned vegetables:

Raw vegetables add snappy color and texture, while canned vegetables are convenient time-savers.

  • 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

Ideas for grilled or broiled vegetables:

Brush vegetables with olive oil and season 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

Ideas 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

Ideas for proteins:

Be sure to cut up meats and cheeses into bite-size pieces

  • 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

3. Add Strong Flavors

Salami, Cheese, and Olives
Photos by Meredith

More intensely flavored than the main ingredient vegetable and protein add-ins, these bold tastes are essential but should be used sparingly so they don't overwhelm the pasta salad: Italian pasta salads often include salami and basil. Roasted peppers, pine nuts, and feta cheese are typical add-ins for Greek pasta salads. For Asian-style pasta salads, try sesame or sunflower seeds and pickled ginger.

Ideas for strong flavors:

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

  • Salami, sliced and quartered
  • Feta, crumbled
  • Parmesan, shaved with a vegetable peeler
  • Goat cheese, crumbled
  • Capers, drained (1/4 cup)
  • Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
  • Pepperoncini, 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

4. Add Bright Accents

Photo by Meredith

No matter what else is in your pasta salad, always add a few sliced green onions or half of a diced small red onion. The types of onions are completely interchangeable, although green onions are usually included in Asian-style pasta salads. Then mince 3 tablespoons fresh herbs and/or grate 2 teaspoons orange or lemon zest (the peel minus the bitter white pith).

Flavor tips: For Asian-style pasta salads, consider cilantro, basil, and/or the citrus zests. Dill and mint are usually compatible with creamy-style salads. Rosemary and tarragon are strong flavors, so 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 Salad Dressing

Italian Dressing Mix
Photo by CC

Recipe shown: Italian Dressing Mix

You'll need about 1 cup salad dressing to coat the salad. The key is to make sure the dressing is thick and emulsified, so the pasta absorbs the oil and vinegar evenly. For best results, use a mild rice wine vinegar or lemon juice. Balsamic vinegar turns the pasta an unattractive brown.

Assembling the Pasta Salad

Finally, place all of your ingredients in a much larger bowl than you'll serve the pasta salad in, and give everything a good toss. The larger the bowl, the better chance you have of evenly distributing all the bits with the dressing without flinging it all around the kitchen.

Some pasta salads need an overnight rest in the fridge to let the flavors meld and blossom, and some can be served right away. Your recipe should give you guidance, but read the reviews to see what home cooks recommend, too.