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Planning on going to any picnics, family cookouts, or neighborhood street parties now that the warmer weather has finally arrived?
If you want to bring something tasty that’s easy to make, give yourself a bit of a break by preparing a pasta salad ahead of time.
It’s understandable if you feel a little hesitation about this particular dish. Unfortunately, many of us have eaten bad, bland, pasty piles of questionably prepared ingredients – and on more than one occasion!
But pasta salads don’t have to be boring or mushy. When made correctly, they’re packed with flavor and wonderful textures.
We’ve compiled our best tips and techniques to make zesty dishes that are full of fresh flavors, bold aromas, and pleasant textures.
And not a soggy salad in sight!
Read on to review how to build a better pasta salad in just five steps, and check out our favorite recipe suggestions before you make one for your next summer gathering.
5 Steps for a Perfect Pasta Salad
Perfect for large, casual gatherings, pasta salad is a very popular and versatile dish, appearing most often in the spring and summer months.
With little effort, they can be dressed up or down with a colorful list of ingredients, flavor intensives, toppings, and dressings.
Pasta salads are usually served chilled or at room temperature. They can be prepared with different shapes of pasta, a variety of vegetables and herbs, and different styles of dressing.
Typically, you’ll find a dressing that is either creamy with a base of mayonnaise, or something acidic and vinegar-forward like a balsamic vinaigrette, though there are plenty of other creative ideas to choose from.
Ingredients will vary widely due to seasonal availability, regionality, and personal preferences, and these can cover the gamut of food groups. They can include vegetables, legumes, cheeses, nuts, herbs, spices, meats, poultry, seafood, and more.
You could also display your salads as individual servings in edible and natural bowls, like hollowed tomatoes or cucumbers.
A fresh option amongst other make-ahead recipes, pasta salads require no additional prep directly before serving, except maybe the addition of a final garnish.
These attractive and tasty dishes really lend themselves to being assembled ahead of time – but not too far in advance!
The flavors beautifully blend together and improve after at least 2 hours in the refrigerator, but ideally they’re made no more than 12 hours in advance to prevent your guests from experiencing that notoriously mushy texture.
You’ll also want to be mindful of how you store the finished recipe!
So you don’t ruin your favorite wooden salad bowl with the cold temperature from the fridge and moisture from the ingredients, store the salad in an airtight glass or plastic container, or tightly cover the top of your mixing bowl with plastic wrap.
When you’re ready to serve, transfer it to your preferred serving bowl.
Ready to party? It’s time to make your own!
Pasta salads will be much more flavorful and interesting if you make them yourself, rather than buying them from the store.
Get creative with your favorite ingredients and flavors, But you must understand that each part of the preparation process – from choosing the pasta to the final garnish – needs your attention.
While keeping in mind that whatever recipe you’re interested in making will have specific instructions to respectfully adhere to, you can use our basic strategies and advice to guide you every step of the way.
To produce delicious pasta salads every time, just follow these five simple steps for success:
1. Cook the Pasta
The shape of your pasta is an important factor to consider.
Choose small, extruded pastas that are easy to eat in one bite in a casual setting – you should be able to eat this salad standing up, with only one hand to hold a utensil and the other to hold your plate or bowl.
With that said, you want to try to avoid the longer noodles like spaghetti or linguine that may be difficult to pierce, unless that shape is specifically called for.
Some ideal shapes are:
- Elbow macaroni
- Small shells
Follow the package directions and cook the pasta in boiling water that is generously seasoned with salt until just tender with a bit of a bite, known as an al dente texture.
Overcooking the pasta is a major cooking mistake, ultimately leading to a soggy and mushy end result. And undercooking is no better – no one wants to bite into weirdly chewy chunks!
Do not rinse the pasta after cooking, which will strip any starches on the exterior and prevent the dressing from clinging properly.
Drain and toss with a splash of olive oil to prevent sticking and cool to room temperature, tossing occasionally to cool evenly.
Instead of olive oil, you can also use a little of the dressing. Add just enough to very lightly coat the pieces.
2. Prepare the Main Ingredients
Aside from the pasta, next up are the recipe’s other major components.
Cooked and raw vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, and cheeses all fall into this group.
Some will require little or no preparation while others may require par-boiling, par-steaming, roasting, sauteing, or grilling.
Grate, chop, slice, and dice as per the directions, ensuring all are cut into bite-sized pieces that are close to the same size, so as not to overwhelm the size of the pasta – as well as the size of the eater’s mouth!
To keep your recipe simple and straightforward, try to select about three major ingredients, letting one of them take the lead.
For example, roasted chicken breast with gently steamed broccoli florets and red bell peppers is a smart, simple, and tasty combination.
The lead ingredient can be distinguished from the others by including it in greater quantities, or using a specific cooking technique.
Consider these popular cooking methods to prepare your main ingredients:
Par-Steamed or Par-Boiled Vegetables
Some of the veggies recommended for these summer salads benefit from par-steaming or par-boiling for that perfect, tender-yet-crispy texture.
Use a pot with a steamer insert, or you can par-boil by adding the veggies to a pot of boiling water, cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute, drain, and cool completely.
While optional, we prefer to shock them in an ice bath after removing veggies from the hot pot to maintain their color and texture.
Good candidates for par-steaming or par-boiling are:
- Broccoli or cauliflower florets
- Green beans
- Snow peas or sugar snap peas
Just like with the pasta, you can also use your electric pressure cooker to expertly steam your vegetables. Review our tutorials for cooking broccoli, green beans, asparagus, carrots, and corn on the cob in the electric pressure cooker.
Choose your favorites from a long list of ingredients that are best served raw. Any of the following would all be deliciously fresh options to include:
- Bean sprouts
- Bell peppers
- Tomatoes (grape, cherry, plum or romas)
Particularly when serving raw vegetables, it is important to thoroughly rinse and dry your produce. Don’t let any dirt get in the way of you and your guests enjoying some good eats!
Grilling vegetables adds smoky layers of depth to the overall flavor of these cool salads.
Grilled Balsamic Vinegar and Garlic Mixed Vegetables – Get the Recipe Now
Suitable vegetables for the grill include:
- Bell peppers
- Large mushrooms (portobellos)
- Zucchini and summer squash
If the flavors complement the other ingredients in your pasta salad, try our recipe for grilled balsamic vinegar and garlic mixed vegetables. It’s simple, bright, and tangy!
How can anyone hate on the deeply caramelized crust and tender interior of expertly roasted vegetables?
This is a great option for producing concentrated savory flavors – perfect for when you want your veggies to take the lead rather than meats.
Smart choices for roasted vegetables include – but are certainly not limited to – the following:
- Peppers (learn how to roast them 3 ways!)
- Broccoli or cauliflower florets
- Squash (winter and summer)
Proteins and Other Hearty Ingredients
Going beyond beef, poultry, and seafood, there are so many other protein-forward ingredients that can create a hearty addition to your salads.
Some proteins and other options suitable for consideration as main ingredients include:
- Firm and mild cheese (cheddar, gouda, havarti, mozzarella)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp, or prawns)
With this list, you won’t have to worry about finding options for guests and family members who might be adhering to strict vegan or vegetarian diets. And with recipes like our paprika marinated grilled tofu or small baked falafel, you’ll be able to creatively utilize meatless ingredients!
Once your main ingredients are ready to go, mix them with the room temperature pasta.
3. Choose the Flavor Intensives
Bolder and stronger in flavor than the main ingredients, flavor intensives should be used sparingly.
Treat them as minor characters in your dish so that they don’t overwhelm the other ingredients.
Some good options for flavor intensives are:
- Anchovies, drained and chopped
- Bacon, crumbled
- Capers, drained
- Nuts, roasted and seasoned
- Olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
- Pickled vegetables, drained and thinly sliced
- Prosciutto, thinly sliced or diced
- Seeds, roasted and seasoned
- Smoked salmon, thinly sliced, then cut into thin strips
- Strong or salty cheeses (fresh chevre, blue, feta, parmesan, pecorino)
- Sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
Don’t add too many intensives, and limit the variety you want to use. Just a few will do!
Add at least one or up to three of this style of ingredient to your salad – again, letting only one of them be the lead.
Stir in your flavor intensives after the main ingredients.
4. Accent with Herbs and Aromatics
Regardless of what else goes into your salad, just a hint of fresh herbs or other aromatics will awaken the dish in its entirety.
Use the following herbs and aromatics for a brightening effect:
- Citrus zest
- Fresh herbs
- Green onions or scallions
- Red onion
If you prefer a punch of oniony flavor, a few thinly sliced green onions or scallions, or some diced red onion, will work in pretty much any recipe.
If you can’t decide on which herbs to use, you’ll always be safe selecting parsley, which is fairly mild and popular.
Add herbs and aromatics with the intensives or with the dressing. This group of ingredients is also ideal as a finishing garnish directly before serving.
5. Add the Dressing
You can make your favorite dressing separately ahead of time, but be sure to give it a good shake before adding it to your salad.
Whether it’s a vinaigrette or a mayonnaise-based sauce, you want to make sure all of the ingredients are well-emulsified before mixing it with the pasta and other ingredients.
OXO Good Grips Salad Dressing Shaker, green, available from OXO
The pasta will absorb any ingredients that have separated such as lemon juice or vinegar, so a well-shaken dressing is mandatory.
You can choose to whisk everything together vigorously in a bowl, or go the easier route by utilizing a dressing shaker.
Remember that red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar will slightly discolor the other ingredients, so don’t be shocked to see this after you mix everything together.
And don’t forget that pesto is also a superb dressing idea!
OXO Good Grips Salad Dressing Shaker, black, available from Sur La Table
Add the dressing and toss the salad prior to serving. As mentioned before, you want the pasta salad to soak in all of the flavors from the aromatics and the dressing. However, there is definitely a limit on how long the salad should be allowed to sit in the dressing – the texture of the pasta and other ingredients will start to suffer when stored for a long period of time.
Make sure it can rest in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or for up to 12 hours max, before you plan to serve it.
Determine when you want to serve the salad, and work backwards from that moment to figure out the exact timing so you’ll know when you should combine everything. And set a timer!
We can help you craft the perfect dish with some of our own tried-and-true recipes that we love to make for sunny gatherings!
Continue reading for our fresh and fun suggestions.
Do you crave the classic flavors of a BLT?
Ranch BLT Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
Make this fun option inspired by your favorite sandwich, with a creamy dose of ranch dressing.
We toss together rotini, crispy bacon, crunchy romaine, and cherry tomatoes. You may never crave the handheld version ever again after eating this!
And to follow our suggestions appropriately as described above, the bacon and romaine should be tossed in at the last minute to keep them crisp!
Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato
This is the perfect recipe for those of you who can’t get enough sun-dried tomatoes!
Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
With a crafty blend of oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh herbs coating the penne, the fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, and olives get to play in this tangy mix.
Crumbled feta cheese adds a salty punch.
Grilled Tomato and Broccolini with Balsamic Vinaigrette
This isn’t your standard balsamic vinaigrette!
Grilled Tomato and Broccolini Pasta Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette – Get the Recipe Now
With ground cumin and ground ginger, the dressing includes a unique combo of spices, and it is the perfect accompaniment to all of the other ingredients in this carby mix.
You’ll love the lightly charred grilled broccolini and cherry tomatoes – which are literally bursting with flavor – mixed with rotini and grated parmesan cheese.
Butternut Squash and Kale
Yes, yes, yes – while spring and summer are the typical seasons to enjoy pasta salads, we couldn’t entirely leave out fall and winter!
Butternut Squash and Kale Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
If you’re in need of a heartier fall or winter side dish, check out this cold-weather rendition featuring seasonal produce.
We mix together roasted kale and butternut squash cubes with orzo and a light lemony dressing.
Lemon Basil with Vegan Parmesan
Alright, that’s enough snow. Let’s get back to summer!
Lemon Basil Orzo Pasta Salad with Vegan Parmesan – Get the Recipe Now
Put on your sunglasses for this sunny and vegan-friendly version that includes a brilliant mix of orzo, freshly squeezed lemon juice, fresh basil, and cherry tomatoes.
We also share our bonus recipe for an easy, homemade vegan parmesan substitute made with walnuts, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, and sea salt.
Another incredible option when the tomatoes are ripe for the plucking beneath the summer sun, this will be your ultimate summer side dish.
Fresh Tomato Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
Ripe tomatoes and fresh basil come together with penne, fresh mozzarella, and parmesan cheese.
Fresh Pesto with Green Peas
This pasta salad is creamy and dreamy with fresh pesto and peas, and the contrasting tart and savory tastes of the lemon juice and parmesan cheese are wonderful flavor bombs on your taste buds.
Fresh Pesto Pasta Salad with Green Peas – Get the Recipe Now
Like Sicily herself, this salad is full of intense Mediterranean flavors. The sauce includes a cooked mix of fragrant garlic, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, tomato paste, and white wine. And there’s also sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives, and fresh herbs in the mix.
Pecorino cheese is the final salty topping, an aged, sharp sheep’s milk cheese that crumbles easily.
Sicilian Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
This tasty dish is bright and colorful summer in a bowl, with fresh sweet corn kernels, zesty lemon, and basil flavoring a base of farfalle.
Fresh Corn Pasta Salad – Get the Recipe Now
And now you know how to make the perfect pasta salad, complete with our list of suggested recipes to try.
If you’re new to making this type of dish, we recommend sticking with the recipe for your first few tries before you start experimenting.
Follow our steps closely, be mindful of how long you let the finished mix sit in the refrigerator, and enjoy every fresh bite!
Once you become comfortable with all of the recommended steps, you’ll gain the confidence to play with whatever flavors you’re interested in trying the next time.
You have all summer to try as many new ingredient combinations as you like! And the fun doesn’t stop there – host your next shindig soon, and serve your latest creation to your hungry and excited guests.
Do you have a favorite pasta salad you love to make? What are your own pieces of advice to achieve the best flavors and textures? Leave a comment below with your ideas!
If you want to continue learning how to make the best food for a fun party, feast on a few more helpful articles from Foodal with step-by-step guidelines, tips, tricks, and recipe suggestions:
- 5 Steps to Create the Perfect Meat and Cheese Board
- How to Purchase and Cook Prime Rib
- 9 Tips for Cooking in Bulk for a Large Dinner Party
Photos by Fanny Slater, Meghan Yager, Lorna Kring, Felicia Lim, and Raquel Smith © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock. Product photos via OXO and Sur La Table. Originally published on July 2, 2015. Last updated on May 8, 2023. With additional writing and editing by Nikki Cervone.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.