The Best Pasta for Pasta Salad
The best pasta for pasta salad isn’t actually elbow macaroni, which is susceptible to sogginess. Instead choose a small, short pasta like fusilli or even penne. Dry pasta — not fresh or frozen (sorry, tortellini!) — will hold up much better to dressing, storage, and stirring.
Boil the pasta to al dente as recommended by the manufacturer in nicely salted water. Then drain and rinse, but don’t “shock” the pasta as it tends to water log the pasta and rinse away flavor. Instead, have your pasta salad’s dressing ready to go when the pasta is done and dress the salad soon after rinsing. The pasta will absorb more flavor this way.
An Oil-Heavy Vinaigrette Creates a Creamy Texture
Have you ever heard the saying, fat is where the flavor’s at? It is entirely true. Fat, be it oil or mayonnaise, is a vehicle for flavor. Instead of dressing your mayo-free salad with more vinegar or vegetables or herbs to get flavor from it, add more oil. Soft cheese helps, too (more on that below).
For this pasta salad, make a vinaigrette that is 50/50 acid for oil. Then coat the pasta with half of the vinaigrette. This half is going to be absorbed by the pasta and also seasons the vegetables. The second half should go on relatively close to serving so that the pasta doesn’t absorb the oil and become simultaneously soggy and dry.
Adding Vegetables? You’re Gonna Have to Cook Some
Raw vegetables are delicious, but in pasta salad raw vegetables can be jarring. After a bite of supple pasta, crunchy raw broccoli just doesn’t jive. This isn’t true of all vegetables — finely diced red onion, cucumbers, and tomatoes get a pass, but your pasta salad will be improved tenfold by either cooking the vegetables or using jarred vegetables.
- Raw: cherry tomatoes, cucumber, finely diced red onion, sliced green onion
- Jarred: roasted red peppers, pimento peppers, olives
- Blanched: asparagus, green beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower
- Roasted: raw peppers of all shapes, sizes, and flavors
Pro tip: Do your diners a favor and chop the vegetables close to the same size as the pasta. This makes it easier to get a little bit of all the good stuff in each bite.
Additional Pasta Salad Flair
Herbs: Both dry and fresh herbs are welcome in pasta salad. Dry herbs do best in the vinaigrette and hold up well in advance. Fresh herbs should be added just before serving to avoid turning brown.
Soft cheese: Notice I didn’t say “any cheese” here. Please skip the grated cheddar, the mozzarella pearls, or cubes of Swiss cheese. Instead, use a soft spreadable cheese, such as goat cheese or herbed Boursin, and work it into the salad. The rich creaminess will add more fat and more flavor in the absence of mayo.
Toasted nuts: Add nuts with caution, as they too can cause textural confusion. Something small or finely chopped works well. I’m particularly fond of toasted pine nuts and pepitas.
Pro tip: Be sure to taste and season the salad at different temperatures. You’ll probably need more salt than you think if serving the salad cold.
Avoid the Sad-Soggies
You can cook the pasta, make the dressing, and prepare the vegetables well in advance, but wait until just before serving to add the second half of the salad dressing and any cheese and nuts. This not only prevents the salad from getting soggy and dry, but also helps the salad look prettier on the picnic plate.