If you attend more than one or two cookouts or picnics over this summer, you'll eventually be confronted with a pasta salad. And, to be perfectly honest, it probably won't be very appetizing. While they sound tasty in theory, most pasta salads—greasy assemblages of unappealing flavors and mismatched textures—represent a strange departure from our usual standards for good food.
To make a pasta salad that's worth eating this July 4th, you first have to recognize one fundamental fact: Pasta salad is pasta, not salad. As such, it should be sauced rather than dressed, made with cooked vegetables rather than raw ones, and served at room temperature. Keep these guidelines in mind (though there are exceptions, as you'll see below!), and you can indeed end up with a pasta salad that completely changes how you view the dish. These eight recipes, including ones for Spanish pasta salad with chorizo and peppers, spicy peanut noodle salad, and an old-school macaroni number, are all stellar examples of what this dish can truly be.
Spanish Pasta Salad With Chorizo, Piquillo Peppers, and Pickled Onion
This salad is made hearty with a sauce of Spanish chorizo and garlic, plus pickled red onion and roasted piquillo peppers—remember, cooked veggies are what you're after! Avoid attempting to add extra tang in this pasta salad (or most others) with more vinegar, which can leave an unpleasant acerbic aftertaste. Instead, we use parsley, scallions, and lemon zest to brighten things up here.
Blistered-Tomato Pasta Salad With Basil
You can get terrific results by applying our guidelines to a standard tomato and basil pasta salad. To do it, cook ripe cherry tomatoes in olive oil until they blister and burst, creating a flavorful sauce to coat the noodles. Since fresh herbs are the exception to the no-raw-veggies rule, we finish the salad with a handful of fragrant torn basil leaves.
Italian Seafood-Salad Pasta Salad With Vietnamese Noodles
There's a catch to our pasta-salad rules: They apply only when you're using Italian-style dried wheat noodles. For reasons we can't quite fathom, Asian-style noodles work much better for traditional vinaigrette-dressed pasta salads (and also pair just fine with uncooked vegetables—go figure). This fusion recipe capitalizes on that versatility, bringing Vietnamese rice noodles together with a summery Italian seafood salad, dressed lightly with olive oil, lemon, and herbs.
Whole Wheat Spaghetti Salad With Grilled Zucchini, Kalamata Olives, and Feta
Whole wheat pasta has a bit more chew than white pasta, which makes it a good candidate for standing up to vinaigrettes. Here, we toss the cooked noodles with grilled zucchini, fresh tomatoes, basil, and briny olives and feta, then coat the mixture in a simple red wine vinaigrette. This salad is a great make-ahead option—just wait to add the basil leaves until right before you serve it.
Soba Salad With Seaweed, Cucumbers, and Asparagus
Again, with an Asian noodle like soba, the rules go out the window—not only is this salad coated with an acidic lemon-soy vinaigrette, it's got raw cucumbers thrown in! Adding rehydrated seaweed and blanched asparagus to the mix gives the salad plenty of textural contrast, and a hit of fresh ginger perks up the dressing.
Spicy Peanut Noodle Salad With Cucumbers, Red Peppers, and Basil
For a refreshing and lighter take on Asian pasta salad, try flipping the typical ratio, focusing primarily on the vegetables and mixing in a modest quantity of noodles. That's what we do for this dish, which is crammed with sliced cucumber, bell pepper, scallion, mung bean sprouts, chilies, and herbs. Peanut butter, soy sauce, chili sauce, and lime juice combine to make a creamy dressing that's rich enough to complement the freshness of the other ingredients.
Sichuan Shirataki Sesame Noodle Salad With Cucumber, Sichuan Peppercorn, Chili Oil, and Peanuts
Shirataki, a kind of Japanese noodle made from yam starch, has a reputation as a bland health food, since it's sometimes used as a gluten-free pasta alternative. But it's more than that—these noodles have a slippery, slick texture that's perfect for cold salads, and they're essentially flavorless, which makes them a good canvas for all sorts of dressings. Here, we use a fiery sauce of Sichuan peppercorns, black vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce, and fold in crushed peanuts and chopped cucumber for crunch.
Tangy and Creamy Macaroni Salad
Not every traditional picnic side has to be reimagined in a nouveau light. This is a real-deal, old-fashioned, creamy-mayo-dressed macaroni salad, though with a few helpful additions—namely, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice, which give it more depth. For texture, we also incorporate chopped celery, shallots, and scallions.
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