This classic picnic side dish is infinitely adaptable, making it the perfect way to use up odds and ends. 

By Tiffany Stevens
April 07, 2020
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Now is the perfect time for pasta salad, as it serves perfectly as the base for nearly any spring vegetable you might be craving. Whether you prefer a Southern-style macaroni salad loaded with vegetables and mayo, or you prefer a lighter salad drizzled with vinaigrette, you can’t go wrong with a bowl full of chilled pasta and delicious, seasoned mix-ins. Besides being perfect for in-season vegetables, pasta salads are a great choice for bulk meals, since they keep well and can be served straight from the fridge. 

Sure, you may have only grabbed pre-made macaroni salad from the grocery store deli before, but trust me, whipping up your own is a breeze. And if you’ve never made the classic picnic dish yourself, it can be so worth the effort to make your pasta salad exactly how you want it. Whether you’re putting together your first take on homemade pasta salad, or you're looking to shake up your usual recipe, this guide will lead you to your best pasta salad yet.

Step One: Choose Your Pasta Base

For many pasta salads, macaroni is the classic noodle of choice. That’s because salads with a fair amount of dressing (and especially mayo-based dressings) do best when constructed with pasta well-suited to holding sauce. But if you’re not a fan of macaroni (or don’t have a box on hand), there’s no reason to limit yourself. Penne or fusilli are also excellent pasta options for lovers of creamy pasta salad. And if you’re a fan of lighter dressings, pretty much any pasta will do. The only hard rules are that the pasta should be bite-sized and easily forkable.  

Once you’ve decided on a pasta, cook it according to package directions. Drain your pasta, then set it aside to cool while you select your other ingredients.

Photo: Caroline Arcangeli; Prop Styling: Elise Christiansen; Food Styling; Jasmine Smith

Step Two: Choose Your Mix-Ins

As with other easily customizable potluck sides, like coleslaw and potato salad, the mix-in stage of making pasta salad is easily the most fun. After all, plain pasta noodles are pretty boring, so this is the stage where you get to exercise your creativity. Cooking and mixing in various proteins—like steak, chicken, shrimp, ham or beans—can quickly jazz up a pasta salad, but so can mixing in any number of raw or cooked vegetables. If you’d like, you can even create a pasta salad with a set theme, like the Greek or Tex-Mex salads listed above. And, of course, if you’d like more of a traditional salad-feel to your pasta salad, you could mix in some fresh arugula. Pasta salad even presents a great opportunity to use up leftovers, if incorporated in a creative way. Anything goes at this stage, so feel free to experiment. 

Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Prop Styling: Kay Clark; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners

Step Three: Choose Your Dressing

Now that you’ve got your pasta and mix-ins all lined up, it’s time to decide what kind of binding dressing you’d like to use to bring everything together. If you’re still a fan of creamy pasta salad but want to avoid mayo, sour cream, coconut cream, or Greek yogurt can make great substitutions. But there’s a world of flavor outside of the creamy styles as well. Dijon mustard, pesto, and lemon or lime based dressings all make for a fantastic pasta salad. Even drizzling oil along with fresh herbs and spices can create a dish that looks bright and tastes fantastic, without the heaviness that can come with some Southern-style pasta salads. 

After choosing your dressing, mix your pasta and other ingredients together until everything is evenly coated. Chill for at least a few hours or overnight before serving.

Additional Pasta Salad Styles

Victor Protasio

How to Make Warm Pasta Salad

While most pasta salads are served cold, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a warm pasta salad. And the upside is that there’s no waiting time, unlike chilled varieties. For a warm pasta salad, cook your pasta and drain as usual, and then cook up whichever ingredients you’d like to feature in your salad. For example, sauteed eggplant and cherry tomatoes make for perfect accompaniments, as seen in the recipe above. Add your ingredients to your pasta, and finish with a dressing of your choice. Serve immediately.