Pasta Salad Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Prep/Total Time: 25 min.
This is the best pasta salad recipe for parties, potlucks and cookouts. Learn how to make it your own with different pasta shapes, dressings and mix-ins.

Updated: Apr. 17, 2024

Pasta salad is a timeless crowd-pleasing dish with endless possibilities. From Italian pasta salad tossed in a zesty vinegar-based dressing to cool, creamy, ranch-style pasta salad topped with a smattering of bacon, there’s a pasta salad recipe for every person and every occasion. Vegetarian? Check! Vegan? Check! Meat-lover? Check!

This recipe is a great foundation for learning how to make pasta salads with an array of ingredient combinations. We’ll walk you through all the basic building blocks for making your very own perfect pasta salad.

How to Make Pasta Salad

Pasta salad is made in four easy steps:

  1. Cook the pasta: Each pasta shape cooks differently, so consult the package directions for cook times.
  2. Prepare the vegetables and mix-ins: Cook any hearty veggies like broccoli, and chop everything into bite-sized pieces.
  3. Whisk together the dressing: Use a blender, or combine the dressing ingredients in a jar.
  4. Toss it all together: Once it all comes together, taste the salad, and adjust the dressing and seasonings as needed.

That final taste test is the best way to know how to customize your pasta salad. Take a bite, and ask yourself what the dish needs: 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 or cayenne. For a flourish of color and freshness, add fresh herbs like basil, dill or chives. If it needs acidity, try lemon juice or pickled vegetables. If it needs depth, try soy sauce, Worcestershire, grated cheese or even fish sauce!

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

Pasta Salad Ingredients

ingredients for pasta saladTMB studio

  • Pasta: We love tricolor spiral pasta, but feel free to have some fun with pasta shapes! Look for a short- to mid-length noodle with plenty of nooks and crannies so the dressing clings to every bite. Some of our favorite short-cut shapes include shells, macaroni, tortellini, bow ties and spiral rotini.
  • Vegetables: Use any variety of fresh or thawed frozen vegetables. Crisp vegetables such as bell peppers, peas, broccoli florets, artichokes, cabbage and cherry tomatoes are popular options. These hearty options hold up well to dressing (and, in fact, get better the longer the salad sits).
  • Cheese: Use your favorite grated, cubed or crumbled cheese for creaminess. We like fresh mozzarella cheese pearls for their smooth texture. Feta crumbles or provolone cubes work well, too.
  • Dressing: The options for pasta salad dressing are virtually limitless. Keep things simple and classic with store-bought Italian dressing. Or give the salad a creamy consistency with ranch, Caesar dressing or even Greek yogurt blended with your favorite herbs and spices. To take the salad to the next level, use one of these homemade salad dressings.
  • Add-ins: Olives give this recipe an Italian pasta salad vibe. Other popular add-ins include pickles, pepperoncini, and nuts like pine nuts, almonds and walnuts.
  • Protein: The grilled chicken is optional here, but it’s a great way to make the salad more filling. You can also add bulk with other protein-rich foods like chickpeas, salami, ham, chicken or hard-boiled eggs.

What else can you put in pasta salad?

Building the perfect pasta salad begins with a foundation of key ingredients. The basic formula for the best pasta salad is 1 pound uncooked pasta, 1 to 2 pounds veggies, 1 to 3 cups dressing and 1 cup add-ins or other flavor-boosting ingredients. This tried-and-true ratio of ingredients yields the best pasta salad every time without fail.

Once you get that ratio locked down, you can mix and match different pasta shapes, homemade dressings, mix-ins and other flavor-boosting ingredients. Choose a variety of colors and textures for best results. For example, contrast crisp veggies with tender meats or soft cheeses. And create an eye-pleasing presentation by selecting an array of colorful vegetables (e.g., pairing tomatoes with yellow peppers rather than red peppers).

Directions

Step 1: Cook the pasta and broccoli

cooking broccoli in water on a hot plateTMB studio

In a Dutch oven, cook the pasta according to the package directions. During the final two minutes cook time, add the broccoli to the pasta. Drain and rinse in cold water.

Editor’s Tip: Cooking the pasta to al dente texture is the best way to ensure pasta salad doesn’t turn out mushy. You’ll also want to season the pasta water with salt to create the best flavor for your pasta salad.

Step 2: Combine the ingredients

mixing ingredients for pasta salad in a bowlTMB studio

Transfer the pasta and broccoli to a large bowl. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, orange pepper, onion and olives.

Editor’s Tip: If you decided to add other ingredients, go ahead and add them now.

Step 3: Add the dressing

mixing pasta salad in a bowlTMB studio

In a small bowl, whisk together the salad dressing, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Pour the dressing over the pasta mixture, and toss to coat. Gently mix in the cheese, basil and, if desired, chicken.

large serving bowl of pasta saladTMB studio

Editor’s Note: You may not need all of the dressing. Start with less, knowing you can always add more as needed. Save any extra dressing for refreshing leftover pasta salad later (it usually needs it, as pasta tends to soak up dressing as it sits). Or use it in one of these simple salad recipes.

Pasta Salad Variations

  • Chickpea pasta salad: Use chickpeas instead of chicken to add vegetarian protein. If you puree the chickpeas, you’ll create a creamy hummus pasta salad.
  • Gluten-free pasta salad: Swap in gluten-free noodles to make gluten-free pasta salad. Make sure to check the dressing and any other add-ins to make sure there isn’t hidden gluten in the ingredients label.
  • Italian pasta salad: Add deli meats like prosciutto or salami to make deli-style pasta salad or spicy cured meats for pepperoni pasta salad.
  • Macaroni pasta salad: Swap in a mayonnaise-based dressing and macaroni noodles. Just be forewarned: There are so many great macaroni salad recipes, you’ll have a hard time choosing one!
  • Orzo pasta salad: Use tiny orzo pasta instead of larger shapes to make a robust Greek orzo salad.
  • Pesto pasta salad: Add pesto to the dressing to make a garden pesto pasta salad.
  • Tortellini salad: Increase the creamy, cheesy vibes by using cheese-filled pasta for Greek tortellini salad.
  • Tuna pasta salad: Add a can of drained tuna to make tuna pasta salad.

Can you make pasta salad ahead of time?

pasta salad served in a bowlTMB studio

Pasta salad is a great make-ahead salad recipe. The flavors meld together in the fridge, so the salad actually tastes better after even an hour in the fridge. The noodles will drink up some of the dressing, so you may want to toss the salad with a little extra dressing just before serving.

If you’d rather toss it all together fresh, just cook the pasta ahead of time. Toss the cooked noodles with a small amount of dressing or olive oil to keep them from sticking together in the refrigerator. This is a good option if you want to add greens such as arugula, spinach or romaine. These tender vegetables can become wilted or soggy if they sit in the dressing too long.

How long is pasta salad good for in the fridge?

Pasta salad lasts for up to five days in the refrigerator. For best quality, store it in an airtight container, and refresh it with extra dressing just before serving.

If you’re serving pasta salad at a picnic or barbecue, it can sit at room temperature for up to two hours. After that, transfer it to the fridge. Check out our tips on how to keep food cold during a picnic.

Can you freeze pasta salad?

While it is possible to freeze pasta, we typically don’t recommend freezing pasta salad. Upon thawing, the pasta and veggies can become soggy, and the dressing will lose much of its oomph. It’s better to save the freezer for these freezer-friendly recipes for a crowd.

Pasta Salad Tips

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

What mistakes should you avoid to make the best pasta salad?

There are a few common mistakes to avoid when you’re making pasta salad. The best pasta salad recipes start with salting the pasta water for flavor. Then, make sure to cook pasta so it’s neither undercooked nor overcooked. From there, make sure to choose a dressing that complements the ingredients and maintains the balance of flavors. Make sure you don’t go too heavy-handed on the dressing (but don’t be stingy, either!).

Should you rinse pasta for pasta salad?

When preparing pasta salad, it’s best to rinse (or “shock”) that pasta after cooking it. This halts the cooking process to ensure your pasta remains al dente rather than becoming mushy. Rinsing pasta is a pasta mistake for warm noodle dishes, but it’s a key step to ensuring pasta salad success.

Is pasta salad healthy?

Pasta salad can be a healthy choice, but it all depends on the ingredients. You can customize this recipe to make a healthy pasta salad that fits your dietary needs. Use whole wheat pasta to add a serving of whole grains, or opt for protein-rich pasta alternatives like farro, quinoa or bulgur. Or instead of leaning heavily on noodles, load the salad with a colorful rainbow of vitamin and mineral-rich vegetables. For a more protein-rich salad, include beans, chickpeas or lean meats like chicken or turkey bacon.

What goes well with pasta salad?

Pasta salad is a classic potluck or cookout dish that goes well with grilled recipes and hot or cold sandwiches. Try pairing it with tangy pulled pork sandwiches, fried chicken or corn on the cob.

Watch how to Make Pasta Salad

Pasta Salad

Prep Time 25 min
Yield 12 servings.

Ingredients

  • 1 package (16 ounces) uncooked spiral pasta
  • 2 cups fresh broccoli florets
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes
  • 1 medium cucumber, quartered lengthwise and sliced
  • 1 medium sweet orange or yellow pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 small red onion, halved and sliced
  • 1 can (6 ounces) pitted ripe olives, drained
  • 1-1/2 cups Italian salad dressing
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese pearls
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 3 cups grilled chicken strips, optional

Directions

  1. In a Dutch oven, cook pasta according to package directions, adding the broccoli during the last 2 minutes of cooking. Drain and rinse in cold water.
  2. Transfer to a large bowl. Add tomatoes, cucumber, orange pepper, onion and olives. In a small bowl, whisk salad dressing, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Pour over pasta mixture; toss to coat. Gently mix in cheese, basil and, if desired, chicken.

Nutrition Facts

3/4 cup: 287 calories, 11g fat (4g saturated fat), 15mg cholesterol, 507mg sodium, 36g carbohydrate (5g sugars, 3g fiber), 9g protein.

It's so easy to mix and match ingredients in pasta salad recipes. Try this with different veggies, cheese and vinaigrette dressings. You can serve it as a side or add a protein like chicken, shrimp or ham for a main dish. —Taste of Home Test Kitchen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin