Pasta Salads are one of the most versatile dishes out there, always a crowd-pleaser, and a reoccurring star on this blog. I can’t get enough of them, especially this time of year! They are a tradition at most gatherings but really shine at potlucks, summer picnics, tailgates, and barbecues.
My favorite pasta salad feature? You can prep pasta salads ahead and toss them together at the last minute…what could be better?! I’ve been thinking about all the elements that can help give your pasta salad the edge, the pop, the WOW at your next gathering…below are my 8 tips for making great pasta salads!
8 Tips for Making Great Pasta Salads
1. Use Short Pasta Shapes
Short pasta shapes are perfect for pasta salads! Especially our fun pasta shapes. Their nooks and crannies will trap and hold the dressing, herbs, and other small ingredients within your salad or dressing . Short shapes are bite size and fork friendly too! Check out our site for the world’s largest selection of shaped pasta!
2. Salt Your Pasta Water
It is always important to salt the water…but even more important to be extra generous with pasta salads. Salting your pasta water when cooking helps flavor the pasta itself. I use kosher salt and just shake and pour right from the box. I’ve measured this before (as I always do the same motion with my hands) and I use approximately 2-3 Tablespoons. This ensures the pasta has plenty of flavor, and no worries, the pasta only holds on to a small portion of the salt after draining and rinsing!
3. Cook Your Pasta “Al Dente”
Your pasta will soak up the dressing over time, so making sure your pasta is “al dente”, which means firm to the bite, or to the tooth. Al dente will help your pasta’s texture over time avoiding any mushy taste. To achieve al dente, read the package instructions, and begin testing the doneness at the beginning of the range of cook time. For example, we recommend cooking our pasta for 6-8 minutes. I’d taste test at 6, 6 ½, 7 etc. For my taste, if using our pasta shapes, it usually reaches al dente in 7 minutes (I start timer after adding pasta to boiling water, and cook pasta in gently boiling water). But this will depend on the pasta you choose, so read the instructions carefully and test & taste early. For more pasta cooking details, read my 3 Steps to Cooking Perfect Pasta post.
4. Rinse Your Pasta
For cold pasta salads, it’s OK to rinse your pasta with cold water in a colander after cooking. This will quickly stop your pasta from overcooking. Also, I usually toss the pasta with 1-2 T. olive oil so the pasta doesn’t stick, especially if you still need time to get the rest of your ingredients together!
5. Use Colorful Ingredients
Your pasta salad needs to taste delicious and look great too. Using a combo of colorful veggies and fruit will make your pasta salad pleasing to the eye! Red, yellow, and green peppers are always favorite, along with multi colored cherry tomatoes, squash, red cabbage, cucumbers, strawberries, pineapple and even mango! Make sure all your chopped veggies and fruits are not too small but in balance with your pasta shapes. Be creative with texture too– blanching or sauteing veggies can be another way to enhance the overall pasta salad.
6. Add Crunchy, Salty, & Chewy!
Nuts like toasted pine nuts, slivered almonds, walnuts, etc. are guaranteed to add some nice crunch and taste to most salads. Don’t forget some yummy ingredients like capers, chopped bacon, olives, and roasted red peppers to round out the pasta flavors. And cheeses are always welcome. Diced cheddar, crumbled feta or goat cheese, even a strong blue cheese in small bites will liven things up!
7. Fresh Seasonal Herbs
Fresh chopped herbs like basil, cilantro, or mint will add a punch and flavor to your pasta salad. They are colorful too! Just make sure you add them at the end, or sprinkle on top as a garnish, so they don’t turn brown. Just like with regular green salads, adding herbs can add layers of flavor and be a nice surprise!
8. Make Your Pasta Salad the Day Of
Pasta tends to soak up the dressing over time, so making it the day of, or even a few hours before is ideal! If you need to make it ahead, plan on adding some additional dressing before serving. DO AHEAD: You can prep the ingredients the day before and toss together the day of!
So, what do you think? Are you ready to make one of the great pasta salads? We have a lot of delicious recipes on this blog…take some time to explore and look around! Or just stay put, we’ll be highlighting some of our FAVORITE pasta salads very soon!