Pasta salad tends to muster up nostalgia for many cookout-goers. Maybe it evokes memories of an aunt who always showed up with a particular recipe you adored. Or maybe digging into the dish reminds you of gathering with friends and family during the summer, with the smell of charcoal in the air and lively conversations buzzing all around.
However pasta salad makes you feel, an outdoor get-together just isn’t the same without it. In fact, the dish is an excellent blank slate, because it allows you to take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients or remix a family recipe, Michael Makuch, an associate professor of the food and health program at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, tells SELF.
Whichever way you plan on serving it, the foundation remains the same: chilled pasta with delicious mix-ins. As for the dressing that holds it all together? There are two types of pasta salad lovers—those who love mayo and those who don’t—and the choice is up to you if you want to go creamy or opt for an oil-based vinaigrette.
What ingredients should you add to pasta salad?
Incorporating different textures is one of the biggest things to keep in mind when crafting pasta salad, Makuch says. To start, get creative with your proteins. Consider mixing in options like grilled chicken, roasted chickpeas, smoked tempeh, or shrimp.
On that note, be intentional about the vegetables you’re using, too. Raw veggies like cucumbers or carrots are great in these recipes because they provide a fresh crunch. Seasonal produce is also a solid option since it tends to be more flavorful than vegetables that might have been picked too early. Try buying local and snagging asparagus, zucchini, and tomatoes for your summer pasta salads, since that’s when they’re in season.
Your dressing is equally important, Makuch says. Typically, pasta salads incorporate some type of coating, like Caesar or Italian dressing, or something homemade, like a mayo-based sauce or a basil pesto mix-in. To kick it up a notch, try grating some Parmesan or squeezing some zesty lemon juice into your sauce.
One more thing: When you’re boiling your macaroni, please don’t forget to salt your pasta water. Otherwise, your noodles might taste bland, Makuch says.
Which type of pasta is the best to use?
The pasta aisle can be overwhelming. Here’s a simple tip to keep in mind when choosing your base: Select any type that has nooks and crannies, Makuch says. These grooves help snatch up the dressing or herbs in your salad, which will ultimately make it more flavorful. Macaroni, rotini, fusilli, and tortellini are all great options for a better bite, he says.
Dealing with a pasta salad that got too soggy? This actually has nothing to do with the amount of sauce you add to it, Makuch says. Instead, it’s more about what’s happening before you throw your ingredients together: Overcooked noodles can get easily overpowered by the dressing. To avoid that fate, cook your pasta al dente, which literally means “firm to the tooth,” so it holds up for your potluck. Most store-bought pasta will give directions for this on the box.
The best pasta salad recipes for your next barbecue
Okay, now that you’re equipped with how to tackle the depths of this side dish, we’ve rounded up 25 easy pasta salad recipes that taste just as good as your aunt’s version.
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