During the summer, you need a go-to recipe for potlucks and backyard barbecues. Luckily, it’s super easy to learn how to make pasta salad that everyone will love! We created an all-purpose recipe, as well as 14 flavor combinations to inspire your own version.
What is pasta salad made of?
The basic formula for pasta salad is 1 pound of uncooked pasta + 1-3 cups dressing + 1-2 pounds mix-ins + 1 cup of flavor-boost ingredients. After you follow our tried-and-true recipe below, scroll down to learn how to customize it to your taste! You can swap in your favorite salad dressings, use funky pasta shapes and add meats or hearty vegetables to make it a filling main.
Can you make pasta salad ahead of time?
Depending on what ingredients you use in your recipe, you can totally make pasta salad in advance (just like these other make-ahead salads). Our recipe below is great for three to five days 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 salad with a little more dressing.
If you’re going the customized route, keep in mind that dressed salad greens don’t store well. Cabbage and coleslaw mix holds up okay, but if you’re adding romaine lettuce, arugula or spring mix, plan to eat your pasta salad in one sitting. You can also keep the greens separate and toss them in fresh, or spoon your leftover pasta salad over a plate of greens for a fresh, healthy lunch!
What goes 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 Italian-style pasta salad or corn on the cob and fried chicken with creamy pasta salad. Check out our top grilling ideas for dinner or make a custom sandwich to get inspired.
How to Make Pasta Salad
Yield: 16 servings
- 1 package (16 ounces) medium pasta shells
- 1 package (16 ounces) frozen peas, thawed
- 1 medium cucumber, halved and sliced
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 cup ranch salad dressing
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Step 1: Cook the pasta
Start by cooking the pasta according to the package directions. Make sure to season your pasta water with salt to create the best flavor for your pasta salad. When it’s finished, drain it and rinse the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process.
You can do this step ahead of time if you like, although you may want to toss your noodles in a small amount of dressing if you’re cooking them more than a day in advance. This helps to keep them from sticking together.
Pro Tip: Have some fun with your pasta shapes! Some of our favorites are 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. Traditional pasta shapes like linguine, fettuccine and spaghetti also work, but you’ll want to pair them with a slippery vinaigrette dressing. (Here’s a complete list of all the pasta shapes.)
Step 2: Combine the ingredients
In a large bowl, combine the pasta, peas, cucumber and onion. If you’re playing around with other ingredients, go ahead and add them here, too. The only ingredients you may want to hold during this step are tender lettuces (like romaine or arugula) just in case you end up with leftovers.
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Step 3: Add the dressing
Add the dressing and toss to coat. For best results, cover the pasta salad and chill it in the refrigerator for at least two hours to let the flavors meld.
Pro Tip: Keep in mind that a vinaigrette goes further than creamy dressings, so you may not need as much dressing (that also helps you save calories, too). I always start with less dressing, knowing that I can add more if it’s not coated enough. It’s much harder to save an overdressed pasta salad—you’d have to cook more pasta!
Customize Your Pasta Salad
Play around with our formula by mixing and matching pasta shapes with dressings, mix-ins and flavor-boost ingredients. When choosing added ingredients, go for a variety of colors, flavors and textures. If you added bacon and tomatoes, consider using green or yellow bell peppers instead of red. Think about adding several flavor elements, too, such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory.
Keep in mind that many pickled foods, some cheeses and meats can contribute salty flavors to your salad. It’s always a good idea to taste as you go to keep the salt content at the perfect level.
- Ranch, creamy Caesar or Italian vinaigrette
- Homemade vinaigrette using 1 part red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar or lemon juice to 3 parts olive oil (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- Create a creamy, savory dressing by mixing equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- Thin 2 cups of mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons white vinegar (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- Plain or fruit-flavored yogurt mixed with sour cream or mayo
- Meat! Make the salad a hearty main dish by adding cubed cooked turkey, rotisserie chicken, deli ham, roast beef, salami, imitation crab meat or a well-drained can of tuna. It makes a perfect hot-weather lunch!
- Use any variety of fresh or thawed frozen vegetables, like bell peppers, cucumbers, peas, broccoli florets, artichokes and veggie blends
- Fresh or well-drained canned fruit, such as pineapple or mandarin oranges (keep in mind that most fruits are naturally juicy, so you can use less dressing in your pasta salad)
- Cubed or shredded cheese
- Spinach, romaine, arugula or other hardy salad greens
- Add salty, tangy, savory and sometimes sweet elements with a handful of olives, chopped pickles or giardiniera. You can also add intensely flavored meats like prosciutto, bacon or pepperoni.
- Give your pasta salad richness with salty cheeses like crumbled feta or grated Parmesan.
- Achieve concentrated flavor accents with marinated sun-dried tomatoes, pesto or olive tapenade.
- Get crunchy with nuts, seeds and chow mein noodles.
- For sweet and tart accents, look to fruits (dried fruits offer concentrated flavor, as well).
- Feel free to add in other accent flavors like onions, herbs, spices, mustard and other condiments. You can also add a touch of spiciness with hot peppers or pepper blends.
14 Combo Inspirations to Get You Started!
Check out our favorite flavor combinations below! We’ve added an optional flavor-boost ingredient in parentheses if you really want to get wild with it.
- Cheese tortellini, red wine vinaigrette, broccoli and peppers (pimiento-stuffed olives or prosciutto).
- Shells, mayo-based dressing, imitation crab or tuna and peas (dill or lemon peel to the dressing).
- Farfalle, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh baby spinach and yellow peppers (chopped dried apricots).
- Macaroni, mayonnaise thinned with vinegar, ham, cheddar and peas (chopped green onions, mustard and/or pickle relish).
- Rotini, ham, salami, artichokes, provolone, mozzarella and peppers (pepperoni, prosciutto, olives, giardiniera, marinated hot peppers, basil and/or sun-dried tomatoes).
- Orecchiette, a mix of 2 parts plain yogurt to 1 part mayo, smoked turkey, apples, celery and strawberries (walnuts, Dijon mustard and/or lemon juice).
- Shells, sour cream and mayo dressing, pineapple, cooked shrimp and red peppers (sliced water chestnuts in the mix and curry powder in the dressing).
- Tricolor rotini, ranch dressing, broccoli, cucumbers and tomatoes (Parmesan cheese and/or crumbled bacon).
- Shells, creamy Caesar dressing, cubed mozzarella, broccoli florets and shaved romaine (pepperoni).
- Farfalle, ranch dressing, cubed chicken, grapes and mandarin oranges (poppy seeds in the dressing, cooked chow mein noodles and/or sunflower seeds).
- Whole wheat spaghetti, sesame-ginger vinaigrette, cubed chicken, coleslaw mix and mandarin oranges (cooked chow mein noodles or toasted almonds).
- Rotini, Catalina dressing, taco meat, cheddar, tomatoes, peppers and onions (sliced black olives and crushed tortilla chips).
- Orzo or couscous, Greek yogurt thinned with lemon juice or red wine vinegar, deli turkey and grape tomatoes (crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives and/or fresh parsley).
- Tricolor rotini, Italian dressing, frozen California-blend vegetables cooked just to crisp-tender (sliced olives and garlic salt).