I'm going to level with you: Pasta salad is one of the worst things to ever come out of the American kitchen. It pretends to be wholesome and delicious, but more often than not it's guilty of grave culinary sins. I've hated just about every pasta salad I've ever come across. It's stale while still fresh, tart in all the wrong ways, and prone to the worst types of degradation. I don't care if it's coated in a thick shellac of mayo or slick with vinaigrette, the best thing pasta salad has going for it is what it's associated with: Picnics. Backyard cookouts. Summertime and sunshine and cold beer. Those good things are enough to fool you into thinking the pasta salad itself is good. But repeat after me: it's not.
As tempting as it might be to banish pasta salad to the eighth circle of culinary hell, I had a hunch that good pasta salad might actually be possible, so I've been tinkering with some recipes recently. Turns out, not only is good pasta salad possible, downright delicious pasta salad is possible! Meet my new rules of good pasta salad.
Rule #1: Pasta Salad Is Not a Salad
The first step in making great pasta salad is to stop thinking of it as a salad: All the rules of vinaigrettes and acid-fat balance that govern most salads don't apply here—we don't want pasta prepped as a salad, we want pasta that just happens to taste good when not hot.
Rule #1, Subsection A: Sauce It, Don't Dress It
Hear the word salad, and you're likely to think that a vinaigrette, or at least a tangy cream dressing, is required. That's usually true, but not with pasta salad... at least not if you want it to be good. Vinegar and other acidic ingredients do strange things to the flavor of pasta when used in salad-level amounts. Ever notice an irritating acerbic aftertaste just about every time you've eaten pasta salad? That's the vinegar announcing itself, and it's not pleasant.
Instead, create sauced pastas—you know, the kind you'd eat hot—that just happen to perform well even when cooled to room temperature. Most of the time, that means olive oil-based sauces, not buttery ones or meat-heavy ragùs, which might form a gritty, congealed-fat texture as they cool. That doesn't mean you can't use any meat, though: Take the chorizo-infused recipe I'm sharing today, for example, which blends olive oil with the rendered fat and crispy bits of diced Spanish sausage without any negative consequences.
If you want to add a hit of acidity to your pasta salad, consider adding a small amount of pickled vegetables to the mix instead of infusing the pasta itself with all that tanginess.
Rule #1, Subsection B: Save the Raw Vegetables for Crudités
Salads are almost always designed to showcase beautiful raw vegetables, so it makes sense that people would extend that idea to pasta salads. But with very few exceptions, cooked pasta and raw vegetables—whether bell peppers, tomatoes, or celery—just don't work well together. That's because pasta is at its best when it's coated with the things it's served with, not just sitting adjacent to them. Plus, the texture of raw vegetables generally doesn't complement the texture of the cooked pasta.
If you want to serve vegetables with your pasta salad, it's often best to cook them first. That might mean blanching vegetables like asparagus to give them a bit of tenderness, or letting tomatoes burst in a pan, releasing enough juices to form a rich, flavorful sauce for the pasta.
A couple exceptions: herbs and some alliums, like garlic, scallions, and chives.
Rule #2: Refrigerator-Cold Is Not a Good Thing
Letting any dish sit out at room temperature for more than a couple hours can increase the risk of food-borne illness, but in the case of pasta salad, the solution isn't to serve it well chilled. Pasta salad that's still shivering from the fridge is more firm (often unpleasantly so), and the flavors of the sauce are too subdued; fats are also more prone to congealing. It's much better to serve the pasta at room temperature, which helps the pasta have a more appealing texture and lets the flavors loose. Just make sure you don't let it sit out for more than a couple hours to avoid any food-poisoning scenarios.
Rule #3: Overcook Your Pasta
Pasta that's cooked al dente and then served hot is perfetto. Pasta that's cooked al dente and then served cold is a disgrace. That's because, as the cooked pasta cools, the starch in it goes through a process known as retrogradation, in which the starch molecules reform into a more solid crystalline structure—in essence, it rapidly becomes stale like bread.
The key to cooking pasta that has a better texture when served cool is to overcook it by about two to three minutes beyond the al dente stage, so that it's very soft (but not mushy) throughout. That way, once cooled down under cold running water, it will firm up just enough to regain that desirable al dente texture.
Rule #4: Think Before You Cheese
Some cheeses work well in pasta salads. Fresh cheese like fresh mozzarella, feta, and ricotta, for example, are all good options. Very firm ones, too, like grated or shaved Parmesan, can be excellent. But any cheeses that are extra-gooey (like Brie or Camembert) or semi-hard (like cheddar, Gouda, or Gruyère) have no place in a pasta salad. Cut into cubes and coated in oil or sauce, they become grotesque little nuggets of slimy, sweaty dairy. Avoid!
The Exception to the Rules: Asian Noodles
All of the above holds true for Italian-style wheat-based pasta salads, but it turns out that a lot of Asian noodles work differently: They can be dressed with a vinaigrette and served with raw vegetables. In the second half of this pasta salad series, I'll give a couple examples of pasta salads made with Asian noodles to show just how great (and forgiving!) they can be.
- Spanish Pasta Salad With Chorizo, Piquillo Peppers, and Pickled Onion
- Blistered-Tomato Pasta Salad With Basil
- Soba Salad With Seaweed, Cucumbers, and Asparagus
- Italian Seafood-Salad Pasta Salad With Vietnamese Noodles