How To Make A Perfect Pasta Salad

Forget everything you know about macaroni-mayo gloop—these four tips guarantee pasta salad nirvana.

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How To Make A Perfect Pasta Salad: Mediterranean summer pasta salad in white bowl on blue placemat

Mediterranean summer pasta salad. Photo, Angus Fergusson

Pasta salad: two words that on their own are perfectly fine, but together can be mildly depressing. Blame the macaroni-mayo gloop, the pesto-drenched, tri-coloured tortellini, the curried chicken with currants and bowties—eep!

But pasta salad can and should be so much better. Done right, it’s the ultimate summer meal full of fresh, seasonal, eat-’em-now ingredients, best enjoyed on a back deck, from a supersized bowl. Especially when the weather is hellishly hot (because, let’s be real, how many dishes are at their best served room temp?) and the farmer’s market haul won’t wait another day.

The beauty of pasta salad is that the formula is simple but the variations are endless. Start with firm (please never mushy) pasta and a bright dressing, then add texture: something crisp, something crunchy, something creamy. Nuts, seeds, fresh peas, sweet tomatoes, charred eggplant and tangy goat cheese are all good ideas. Go luxe with Dungeness crab or spot prawns if you’re on the west coast, lobster or snow crab on the east. And don’t be afraid to get a little weird—the Best of Bridge grand dames combined citrus-infused orzo with cherries, avocado and bell peppers. And you know what, it’s retro great.

To achieve pasta-salad nirvana, just remember a few simple rules:

Size matters

Choose bite-size pasta shapes, preferably with dents or ridges—all the better to soak up the dressing and ensure you can cram every delicious salad component onto each forkful. And dry pasta is better than fresh, as it’ll retain the all-important firm texture. To achieve that…

Treat the pasta right

Cook it in heavy salted water (yes, you’ve heard it before: salty as seawater!) and pull it out when it’s aggressively al dente, a few minutes shy of cooked. You want it to still have plenty of bite no matter how long it sits. And don’t rinse it. Instead, immediately toss it in the dressing while it’s still warm to absorb all that good flavour. But to that point…

Go super light with vinegar

Or consider omitting it altogether from the dressing. Ever notice how some pasta salads leave you with an unpleasant metallic aftertaste? That’d be the vinegar.

Save the fresh for last

If the recipe calls for fresh herbs or raw veg, toss them through when you serve the salad, and not a moment before. That way they’ll stay bright and crisp.

Need more inspiration? Check out our 10 terrific pasta salad recipes.