The Perfect Picnic Pasta Salad


Pasta salad is almost always the most disappointing side dish at the picnic or cookout, but this recipe shows you how to transform what is normally an "afterthought" to a dish that's good enough to enjoy on its own, or as the perfect complement to grilled meat. Top this with extra fresh chopped herbs if you like.

Prep Time:
15 mins
Cook Time:
10 mins
Additional Time:
3 hrs 20 mins
Total Time:
3 hrs 45 mins
8 servings

No matter what pasta shape you use or which ingredients you add, as far as I'm concerned there's only one proper technique for building what we're modestly calling the "Perfect Picnic Pasta Salad." Sorry, I normally try to under-promise and over-deliver, but I couldn't help myself. Plus, no one can prove this isn't "perfect." So there's that.

Anyway, I've been to my fair share of picnics, cookouts, and barbecues. It has been my experience that the most disappointing side dish at these types of events is almost always the pasta salad. We've all seen that virtually full bowl sitting next to the almost empty bowls of mayo-dressed macaroni and potato salad. While folks might take a spoonful out of politeness, they rarely go back for more. There are many reasons for this.

They're usually undercooked, underdressed, under-seasoned, and not nearly acidic enough. Also, the non-pasta ingredients are usually large chunks of raw vegetables, which simply fall to the bottom of the bowl. When I take a forkful of pasta salad, I want to taste everything in one bite. Is that too much to ask? I hope not, and by following the procedure in this video that's exactly what will happen. Enjoy!

Chef John's perfect picnic pasta salad
Chef John

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For the Vinaigrette:

  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

  • ¼ cup cider vinegar

  • ¼ cup rice vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons white sugar

  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper

  • 1 cup olive oil

  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon

  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh chives

  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

For the Salad:

  • 1 pound rotini (corkscrew) pasta

  • 1 cup sliced snow peas

  • 1 cup thinly sliced carrots

  • ½ cup shelled English peas

  • 1 cup broccoli florets

  • ½ cup diced bell peppers

  • 1 cup sliced cherry tomatoes

  • ¼ cup finely diced red onion

  • 2 tablespoons sliced green onions

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste


  1. Whisk Dijon mustard, cider vinegar, rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and cayenne together in a large bowl for about 30 seconds. Whisk in olive oil in 1-teaspoon increments until emulsified. Whisk in tarragon, dill, parsley, chives, and thyme. Remove and reserve 1/2 of the dressing in a separate small bowl.

  2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil; cook rotini at a boil until tender yet firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Add snow peas, carrots, peas, and broccoli about 2 minutes before the pasta is done. Drain pasta and veggies well, but do not rinse.

  3. Transfer hot pasta mixture to the vinaigrette in the large mixing bowl and toss well to combine. Let rest for 5 minutes and toss again. Toss occasionally until the mixture is almost room temperature, 15 to 20 minutes.

  4. Add bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, red onion, green onions, salt, and the reserved dressing and toss well.

  5. Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours before serving. Toss and adjust seasoning before serving.

Chef's Notes:

Use a mild-flavored olive oil, or an olive and vegetable oil blend. You can use sugar snap peas instead of snow peas.

You can serve this right away, but for best results, chill for a few hours before serving.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

492 Calories
28g Fat
51g Carbs
9g Protein
Nutrition Facts
Servings Per Recipe 8
Calories 492
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 28g 36%
Saturated Fat 4g 20%
Sodium 642mg 28%
Total Carbohydrate 51g 19%
Dietary Fiber 4g 14%
Total Sugars 5g
Protein 9g
Vitamin C 34mg 172%
Calcium 40mg 3%
Iron 3mg 16%
Potassium 316mg 7%

* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.

** Nutrient information is not available for all ingredients. Amount is based on available nutrient data.

(-) Information is not currently available for this nutrient. If you are following a medically restrictive diet, please consult your doctor or registered dietitian before preparing this recipe for personal consumption.

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