How to make a pasta salad

Create your own picnic favorite

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You’ll be invited to plenty of picnics this spring and summer, so why not devise an incredible warm-weather recipe to wow the guests -- instead of bringing the same tired potato salad or coleslaw? There are plenty of pasta salad recipes online, but you can create your own spring- or summer-fresh version with ingredients you have on hand every day.

Pasta salads seem simple to make because they are. But they are a bit tricky if you're trying to invent your own recipe. By carefully designing your flavor profile and knowing when less is more, your pasta salads will soon become the hit of every picnic you attend this year.

Choose your pasta

When it comes to pasta salad, there are a variety of pastas to choose from. For most pasta salads, you'll want a bite-sized pasta. Popular favorites are rotini or fusilli (spirals), farfalle (bow tie) and conchiglie (shells). You can also use ziti (short tubes) or rotelle (wagon wheels).

Which pasta you choose will depend on what kind of dressing you'll be using. Pastas with more ridges and grooves (e.g., fusilli or farfalle) will hold onto the dressing better and are the best options when using a thinner (oil and vinegar-based) dressing. Smoother pastas (ziti, for example) are best for thicker dressings, like ranch or a creamy Caesar.

There's also flavor to think of. While most pasta salads will work well with a plain white flour pasta, some may be more appropriate with a wheat- or vegetable-based pasta.

You'll need 16 ounces of whichever pasta you choose.

Learn to make homemade pasta >>

Choose your dressing

The dressing will form the base flavor profile of your pasta salad. It's important to choose a dressing that not only sticks to the pasta you're using, but compliments the protein and vegetables you'll add.

You can use a pre-made dressing off the shelf or make your own. To alter the flavor profile of a pre-made dressing, try adding herbs and spices or milk or citrus juice.

You'll need a half to a full cup of dressing (depending on how well it coats and how long you plan to chill it). Start with less -- you can always add more later if it's dry.

Choose your add-ins

When you're creating your first pasta salad, it helps to start with a theme, like Greek or Asian, and choose a dressing and add-ins that fit the theme. You can add just about anything. The key is choosing ingredients that compliment your dressing.

  • Protein -- chunks of chicken, sausage, ham or even fish in the right salad can turn a side dish into a meal.
  • Vegetables and fruits -- add bits of cooked or raw fruits and veggies to make sure you get those essential vitamins.
  • Cheese -- experiment with cheeses to add creamy, nutty or salty elements.
  • Nuts and seeds -- nuts and seeds will give texture to your salad.

You'll need 1 to 2 pounds of add-ins, depending on your personal preferences. It's best to let one add-in be the star of the show and use the others to compliment it. You should also stick to three or four add-ins to avoid confusing the eaters' palettes.

Don't have time to create your own? Try this recipe!

English pea pasta salad recipe

Ingredients:

  • 16 ounces (1 box or bag) ziti, cooked and chilled
  • 4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 4 ounces cheddar cheese, cubed
  • 2 eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and chopped
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 3 to 4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Mix the mayonnaise and lemon juice in a small bowl. If you like your pasta salads with more or less dressing, adjust the proportions accordingly. You may require more dressing if you plan to chill it overnight.
  2. In a large bowl, place the ziti, bacon, cheese and eggs, then mix with the mayonnaise mixture until well coated.
  3. Salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Chill for at least an hour or overnight if desired.

More pasta salad recipes

Vegan pasta salad recipe
Antipasto pasta salad recipe
Caprese pasta salad recipe

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix the Fish. You can follow her on Twitter @HireHeather.