How to Make Pasta Salad

It's so easy to learn how to make pasta salad. All you need is your favorite pasta shape, a tasty dressing and a few different mix-ins to make it your own.

When it comes to crowd-pleasing recipes with endless possibilities, few can top a quick pasta salad. From Italian pasta salads tossed in zesty vinegar-based dressings to cool and creamy ranch-style pasta salads topped with a smattering of bacon, there’s a pasta salad for everyone and every occasion.

When learning how to make pasta salad and selecting ingredients, keep in mind that those made with creamy dressings are best reserved for occasions where they can be kept chilled or will only need to sit out for a short period of serving time. Planning a potluck? Opt for a pasta salad with a non-creamy dressing with an oil and vinegar base. These recipes tend to hold up better in hot temperatures where dishes may be left out for an extended period without refrigeration.

Ready to get cooking? Keep reading for our simple pasta salad recipe. It contains all the basic building blocks of a perfect pasta salad (also found in any one of Grandma’s favorite pasta salads). This versatile recipe is a great starting point for an array of flavor combinations.

Basic Pasta Salad Formula

The basic formula for a classic pasta salad is 1 pound uncooked pasta + 1-3 cups dressing + 1-2 pounds mix-ins + 1 cup flavor-boosting ingredients. This tried-and-true ratio of ingredients yields the best pasta salad every time without fail. After mastering the basics with our favorite classic pasta salad recipe below, try swapping in your favorite salad dressings, funky pasta shape or other ingredients.

How to Make an Easy Pasta Salad

This recipe, created by Amanda Cable of Boxford, Massachusetts, makes 14 servings.

Key Ingredients for Pasta Salad

Building the perfect pasta salad begins with a foundation of key ingredients. Here’s how to choose the best noodles, dressings and add-ins.


Have fun with your pasta shapes! Some of our favorite short-cut pastas include shells, macaroni, tortellini, bow ties and spiral rotini. These shapes all work with a variety of dressings, from vinaigrettes to creamy dressings like ranch or Caesar. Long-cut pasta shapes like linguine, fettuccine and spaghetti can also work, but you’ll want to pair them with a slippery vinaigrette dressing to prevent them from clumping together.


Dressings for pasta salad are only limited by your imagination. Keep things simple and classic with your favorite store-bought ranch, Caesar or Italian vinaigrette. You can also make your dressing from scratch with this homemade vinaigrette or a creamy, savory dressing using equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise (plus the seasonings of your choice). For a lighter spin packed with protein, opt for plain Greek yogurt blended with your favorite herbs and spices.


Use any variety of fresh or thawed frozen vegetables that you enjoy. Crisp vegetables such as bell peppers, peas, broccoli florets, artichokes, cabbage and cherry tomatoes are popular options since they hold up well (and, in fact, get better the longer the salad sits).

Tender vegetables and greens such as arugula, spinach or romaine are best tossed in right before serving so they do not become wilted or soggy.


Salty, spicy, savory or sweet? With just a dash of this or a sprinkle of that, you can elevate, enhance and change the flavor profile of your pasta salad. Add heat with diced chiles, cayenne or freshly cracked black pepper. For a flourish of color and freshness, add a blend of your favorite herbs (fresh or dried). We especially love basil, dill, chives and oregano in pasta salad.

Other Add-Ins

From olives, pickles and giardiniera for saltiness to pine nuts, almonds and walnuts for a little crunch, the possibilities are endless. You can also add your favorite grated, cubed or crumbled cheese for creaminess or add bulk with protein-rich foods like salami (as seen in this deli-style pasta salad), ham, chicken or hard-boiled eggs.


  • 1 package (12 ounces) tricolor spiral pasta
  • 4 cups fresh broccoli florets
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 1 can (6 ounces) pitted ripe olives, drained
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1-1/2 cups Italian salad dressing (try one made with roasted red pepper and Parmesan for maximum flavor)


Step 1: Cook and drain the pasta

Start by cooking the pasta to al dente according to the package directions. Make sure to season the pasta water with salt to create the best flavor for your pasta salad.

Step 2: Add the Broccoli

During the last two minutes of cooking the pasta, add the broccoli to the pot. Next, drain and rinse the pasta and broccoli in cold water to stop the cooking process.

Step 3: Combine the ingredients

Transfer the pasta and broccoli to a large bowl and combine with the tomatoes, olives, salt and pepper. If you’re playing around with other ingredients, go ahead and add them here too.

Step 4: Add the dressing

Top the pasta salad with the dressing and toss to coat. Enjoy immediately or chill until ready to serve.

Editor’s Note: Keep in mind that a vinaigrette goes further than creamy dressings, so you may not need all of the dressing. Start with less, knowing more may be added as needed. If you have extra, save it for freshening up leftover pasta salad (pasta tends to soak up dressing as it sits) or toss it over one of these other simple green salad recipes.

Customize Your Pasta Salad

This easy pasta salad recipe is super versatile. Use it as a base formula and try mixing and matching with other pasta shapes, homemade dressings, mix-ins and other flavor-boosting ingredients. When experimenting with ingredients, go for a variety of colors and textures for best results. For example, contrast crisp veggies with tender meats or soft cheeses and select an array of colorful vegetables (e.g. tomatoes and yellow peppers rather than red) for a pleasing presentation.

Remember that it’s best to try and keep a balance between your salty, sweet, spicy and savory flavors. For example, if you add something salty, like olives, consider adding something with natural sweetness, such as tomatoes.

Tips for Making Pasta Salad

close up of Tri colored spiral pasta salad in a bowl with wooden spoonsTMB Studio

What mistakes should you avoid when making pasta salad?

While pasta salad may seem rather straightforward, there are a few common hiccups that can cause this simple dish to go awry. For best results, make sure to properly salt your pasta water and cook your pasta properly so it isn’t undercooked or overcooked. Check out this pasta cooking guide for more helpful tips.

Dressing can also make or break a great pasta salad. Choose one that complements the ingredients and maintains the balance of flavors. Last, make sure not to go too heavy-handed on the dressing (but don’t be stingy, either).

Should you rinse pasta before making pasta salad?

Yes! Also known as “shocking” your pasta, rinsing your pasta after cooking halts the cooking process to ensure your pasta remains al dente (rather than becoming mushy). While this is usually a pasta mistake for warm dishes, it’s key for cold pasta salads.

How far in advance can you make pasta salad?

Depending on what ingredients you use in your recipe, it’s easy to make pasta salad in advance (just like these other make-ahead salads). The recipe above can be prepared in its entirety three to five days in advance and stored in the refrigerator. That being said, sometimes the noodles drink up some of the dressing, so you may want to freshen up a day-old pasta salad with a little extra dressing.

You can also cook the pasta and chop your veggies ahead and store them in individual containers, so all you have to do is toss with the dressing just before serving. If you go this route, we suggest mixing the noodles in a small amount of dressing or olive oil to keep them from sticking together while storing.

How can you make pasta salad healthier?

To lighten up a pasta salad, try swapping or mixing in an array of healthy, wholesome ingredients. For instance, opt for whole wheat pasta to add a serving of whole grains, or opt for a protein-rich pasta alternative like farro, quinoa or bulgur. Beans, chickpeas or lean meats like chicken or turkey bacon are other great ways to inject protein without adding extra fat.

Counting carbs? Load up your pasta salad with veggies. While most pasta salads lean heavily on the pasta, there’s no rule against focusing instead on a colorful rainbow of vitamin and mineral-rich vegetables.

What do you serve with pasta salad?

Pasta salad is a classic potluck dish, and it goes with any kind of grilled meat, sandwiches or vegetable mains. Some of my favorite pairings are pulled pork sandwiches with macaroni salad, cold-cut sandwiches with an Italian-style pasta salad or corn on the cob and fried chicken with creamy pasta salad. Check out our grilling ideas for dinner or make your favorite sub sandwich to get inspired.

How do you store pasta salad?

Pasta salad should be stored in an airtight container and kept in the refrigerator. The amount of time a pasta salad can be stored will vary between recipes. Most can be enjoyed for three to five days if stored properly and refreshed with extra dressing before serving.

Can you freeze pasta salad?

While it is possible to freeze pasta recipes, we typically don’t recommend freezing pasta salad. Upon thawing, the pasta and veggies can easily become soggy, and the dressing will often lose much of its oomph. If you’re hoping to make pasta salad ahead, follow our tips outlined above and save the freezer for these freezer-friendly recipes for a crowd.

Lauren Habermehl
Lauren Habermehl is a recipe developer, food photographer and creator of the blog, Frydae. She is a prolific quoter of FRIENDS, lover of weekend DIY projects and procrastinating fitness enthusiast who enjoys exploring the Milwaukee-area with her husband, daughter and ugly mutt named Tyson Doodles.