Pasta salad is a classic summer side dish for a grill, barbecue, pot-luck or pretty much any gathering with lots of family and friends. Quick to make, and suitable for so many tastes, it’s an easy choice no matter the crowd. Throw in some meat or other protein, and it quickly becomes a hearty main meal as well.
Because there are so many different types, and because it’s very straightforward to make, I’ve reviewed thirty recipes this time. I’ll still give a sense of what’s popular, but I’ll also focus on the options available to you, and more. Hopefully by the end of this you have a good sense of what’s possible, and know how to make the perfect pasta salad for your tastes.
Before we dig into it though, let’s look at exactly what it is.
What is a pasta salad?
Pasta salad is a dish of cooked pasta, combined with some vegetables, maybe some meat or other protein, and a dressing. Typically eaten cold, it can be eaten as a side dish, or pumped up with additional ingredients for a delicious main.
What about macaroni salad?
Maybe you’ve had, or heard of, macaroni salad before, but not pasta salad. Now you’re wondering if they’re different, or are they kinda the same?
According to Lyuba from Will Cook for Smiles, the difference is in the dressing. Specifically, does it contain mayonnaise or not.
“Traditionally, the difference between the two was in the way you dressed the salad. Macaroni salad featured small pasta like ditalini or small elbow macaroni and creamy, mayonnaise based dressing. Pasta salad, on the other hand, would have larger pasta like rotini or fusilli and dressed with an oil and vinegar based dressing.“
While this may have been traditionally true, based on these thirty recipes the lines are a lot more blurred these days. It’s true that the macaroni and ditalini recipes all have mayonnaise dressings, but many of the others do too.
Based on what I’ve read I think the best definition is that they’re all pasta salads, regardless of the pasta or the dressing. And a macaroni salad, is a type of pasta salad, based on a traditional style with short tubular pasta and a creamy mayo dressing, and not too many ingredients.
Ultimately though it doesn’t matter. There are lots of wonderful options available, so there’s sure to be at least one (and probably several) for every taste.
What’s in a pasta salad?
This is not a straightforward question to answer, because it depends on what you like. There are more than 100 different ingredients amongst these thirty recipes!
But don’t worry, there are a few foundational blocks on which most pasta salads are built:
- Some type of protein (meat, cheese, etc)
- One or more vegetables
- A dressing
- More often than not, one or more other ingredients such as herbs, olives and more
It could hardly be a pasta salad without this namesake ingredient, so it’s no surprise that all thirty recipes have pasta. There’re quite of number of different types in use though:
- Rotini/fusilli, a spiral pasta, is the most common, appearing in twelve recipes.
- Ditalini and farfalle appear in three recipes each. Ditalini is a very short tubular pasta. In Italian farfalle means butterflies, hence the name for this bow-tie shaped pasta (which is also known as bow-tie pasta).
- Two recipes each use macaroni, penne, rigatoni or shells. The first three are all tubular pasta shapes, with macaroni the smallest of the group and rigatoni the largest. Shells are, well, shells!
- The other five recipes each use a unique pasta shape or type – spaghetti (the well known long slender shape), gemelli (another spiral pasta shape), campanelle (a ruffled cone shape) and tortellini (a small stuffed pasta variety).
So how should you choose? The best shapes are those that will hang on to the most dressing. Pasta that’s hollow, or has deep indentations or ridges will do this the best. And if it has more than one of these features (looking at you, rigatoni) even better.
Of course, you needn’t stop at the list above. If all this variety proves anything, it’s that you can make a pasta salad with almost any pasta shape you like. Very helpful if you only have cavatelli, radiatori or ruote in the pantry!
All but three of the thirty recipes include one or two types of protein – meat, cheese or eggs. As well as adding unique flavour and texture, these additions can make the dish more substantial, giving you the option to make your pasta salad into a main meal.
More than two-thirds of the recipes include some type of cheese, mostly shredded, cubed or crumbled. A number of different varieties appear too:
- Mozzarella and crumbled feta are the most popular, appearing in five recipes each. The mozzarella is more often than not included whole (the small balls/pearls).
- Four recipes include shredded or cubed cheddar, either the sharp or regular varieties.
- Parmesan and cubed Colby-Jack appear in two recipes each.
- The rest of the recipes with cheese have a unique type, including Swiss, an off-the-shelf Mexican cheese blend and cotija (a salty aged Mexican cheese).
Just under half of the recipes include one or more types of meat:
- Bacon is the most popular addition (surprise, surprise), but only just, appearing in five recipes.
- Four recipes include salami, all of which are Italian pasta salads. More on this later.
- Chicken appears in three of the recipes. A rotisserie chicken would be perfect here.
- Ground beef appears in another two, both of which have a chili/Mexican flavour (cumin, chili powder, etc).
- One recipe uses diced ham, and another has corned beef.
The addition of meat not only gives the salads a nice savoury hit, it will add texture. There are obviously many other meats you could try, like canned tuna, fresh salmon, shrimp/prawns, turkey and more.
While many readers comment they’ve added them, only three of the recipes actually include eggs. One, from Mary at Barefeet in the Kitchen, has six eggs, although to be fair this is for a deviled egg pasta salad.
Although none of these recipes include them, several readers recommend the addition of legumes like black beans or chickpeas for both texture and taste.
Although all but two of the recipes includes one or more vegetables, even the most popular choices are only moderately common:
- The most popular vegetable is onion, although even this only appears in just over half of the recipes. Diced red onion is the most common, followed by sliced green onion/scallion.
- Half of the recipes include tomatoes, and the authors overwhelmingly favour cherry or grape tomatoes. A few use diced larger tomatoes, but most shy away from this approach because of their tendency to break down in the salad.
- Bell peppers (capsicum) appear in nine recipes. Red are favoured, although green and orange both makes appearances as well.
- Eight recipes include chopped or diced cucumber.
- Leafy or salad greens are used by seven authors. Romaine lettuce and red cabbage are the most popular choices here.
- Four recipes include sliced celery, which is great for crunch.
- Avocado appears three times.
- Shredded carrots, corn kernels and raw broccoli appear in two recipes each.
- One recipes uses thawed frozen peas.
As you can see, there are plenty of options for adding vegies to your pasta salad, and you can of course add more than one type. One of these recipes, from Karina at Café Delites, has six different vegetables in it. There are many other vegies that will work well too – asparagus, artichoke hearts or zucchini, for starters. And don’t forget fruit either. Pineapple, strawberries or peaches could bring a great freshness to the right salad.
Twenty authors use a variety of other great flavour additions, including herbs, condiments and more.
Ten recipes use one or more fresh herbs. Basil and parsley are the most popular, each appearing five times. Dill and cilantro/coriander both appear twice as well. Most authors chop or finely slice their herbs. A number use them as a garnish as well.
If you’re looking to add some more strongly flavoured ingredients to your salad, the authors offer some great choices:
- Nine of the recipes use sliced olives, either black or kalamata.
- Chopped baby dill pickles appear in two recipes.
- Another two recipes include chopped or sliced pepperoncinis (mild pickled chilies).
- One author adds some sweet pickles, one uses sauerkraut and another some sun-dried tomatoes.
You could also add spicy options like chopped jalapenos or red pepper flakes for some heat.
Nuts and seeds are uncommon, with peanuts, pine nuts and sesame seeds making one appearance each. Other nuts like sliced almonds, or chopped pecans or hazelnuts could also add a wonderful crunch to your salad.
The all-important dressing
For most pasta salads, it’s the dressing that really defines it. It not only plays a major role in the flavour of the salad, but also the texture.
As mentioned earlier, and the same as green or other salads, there are two major styles of dressing – creamy and vinaigrette.
Twenty of the thirty recipes use a creamy dressing. And if you don’t like mayonnaise, turn away now, because most of these are based on it.
Mayo makes the perfect base for a creamy salad dressing. It has a great flavour all on its own, and mixes well with many other ingredients. And for this reason, all but six of the creamy dressings are mayonnaise dressings. And four of the other six use ranch dressing, which is a mayonnaise-based dressing itself.
Even though mayo is an emulsion of oil, egg yolk and an acid, nine of the mayonnaise dressings use additional acids. Vinegar is the most common, main red or white wine vinegar, although a couple use pickle juice instead. Lemon juice and lime juice are also used in one dressing each.
Eight of the creamy dressings also include some mustard, with Dijon being the most common variety. As well as the slight spice of mustard seed, mustard is also made with vinegar, so will also add more acidic tang to the dressing.
Seven of these dressings add dairy products for additional creaminess, flavour or both. The most popular choice is sour cream. Buttermilk and cream cheese are other options here.
Herbs, spices and other flavours
Almost every creamy dressing includes some additional flavours. The most popular choices are:
- Garlic, either fresh or powder
- Worcestershire sauce
- Onion powder
- Barbecue sauce
- A bit of sugar
- Some form of spice – buffalo wing sauce, hot chili sauce, chili powder or cayenne
Other creamy dressing options
Rather than mayo-based dressings, a few of the recipes use a different approach.
Most are combination vinaigrette/creamy dressings. Sue at The View from Great Island adds a small amount of peanut butter to her vinaigrette, and Natasha from Natasha’s Kitchen includes a small amount of mayonnaise with hers. Aimee from Like Mother Like Daughter uses a store-bought creamy French dressing, which is most likely a vinaigrette with some added dairy for creaminess.
And Angela from Count of the Netherworld doesn’t use any oil, instead using peanut butter as the fat in her dressing.
Most of the non-creamy dressings are vinaigrettes. Interestingly the foundation of a vinaigrette is not very different from mayonnaise, as both are emulsions of an oil and an acid. Mayo has the addition of egg yolks which creates the trademark creaminess and flavour.
Most of the vinaigrette dressings are based on olive or vegetable oil mixed with vinegar, lemon juice or both. The most popular vinegar choices are red and white wine vinegar, plus a couple of uses of rice wine vinegar in the two Thai recipes.
Garlic is also a popular addition to the vinaigrettes. There are a few unique inclusions as well, with flavours like Dijon mustard, parmesan cheese, honey, maple syrup and a couple of herbs (especially oregano) each making one or two appearances.
Three authors use store-bought Italian dressing, which will almost certainly contain an oil and vinegar emulsion with flavours like garlic and oregano added.
A note on styles
Many of the recipes are based on a particular style or flavour profile. Some of the more prominent options are:
- Classic/traditional macaroni salad. As mentioned earlier, this is typically a simpler salad, with short tubular pasta and a creamy dressing.
- Italian. These typically use a larger pasta, like one of the spiral types, and an Italian vinaigrette. They also have some common ingredients, including salami, tomato, mozzarella and olives.
- Ranch. These vary, but are often similar to the classic style, being simple, but with ranch dressing in place of mayonnaise.
- Greek. Very similar to Italian, but with some classic Greek ingredients, like feta, kalamata olives, oregano and lemon.
- A Thai pasta salad. The two here are quite different, but both use peanut butter (peanuts are popular in Thai cooking), and both use rice wine vinegar.
After these, there are a number of unique styles, including:
- A Reuben pasta salad, from Holly at Spend with Pennies, based on the famous sandwich.
- A Mexican corn pasta salad, from Kylie at Midwest Foodie, with a classic Mexican flavour profile and plenty of corn.
- A Cowboy pasta salad, from Amy at Belly Full, with hot chili sauce, barbecue sauce and ground beef.
- A Caesar pasta salad, from Kelly at Just a Taste.
- A basil pesto pasta salad, from Abeer at One Pot Recipes.
And more. If you’re looking to build your own pasta salad, picking one of the tried and tested styles can help you choose great combinations of ingredients and flavours. I’ve separated some of the more common styles in the list of recipe links at the bottom of the page in case you’re interested in exploring one particular type. And most of the links are named so you can find the individual styles too.
Making your pasta salad
Pasta salads are wonderfully easy to make.
- Make your dressing. This doesn’t have to be done first, but the longer the flavours have to intermingle, the better!
- Cook your pasta.
- Cook your meat if you’re adding some.
- Chop, grate, shred and slice all of your ingredients.
- Once all your ingredients have cooled, mix it all together.
Getting your pasta just right
A number of authors recommend salting the water you cook your pasta in. This is a great way to enhance the flavour of your pasta. And the key here is to be generous with the salt. You want several tablespoons, not teaspoons.
Once it’s in the pot, most of the authors advise you to cook your pasta until it is just al dente, meaning it is done but still has a bit of “bite” to it (essentially tender but not soft). A few others advise going just past al dente. Ultimately this will come down to personal preference, but the ideal will obviously be not undercooked (hard), but not overdone (soggy or mushy). As a couple of authors note, these are fine lines which are very quickly crossed, so make sure you’re checking your pasta regularly as it nears the end of its cooking time.
Almost every recipe has you rinse your pasta under cold water once it’s cooked. This is important for a couple of reasons. It stops your pasta from cooking further, and crossing the line we’ve just seen. It also washes away the extra starch from the water the pasta boiled in, which helps prevent it from clumping together. The few authors that don’t rinse their pasta overcome the clumping problem by tossing it in olive oil. They tend to recommend cooling the pasta in the fridge too, to help limit overcooking.
Making it in advance
Much like a chicken salad, pasta salads tend to get better with a little time. This allows the flavours to marry together fully.
One important point to note is avocado. The three authors who use avocado caution about preparing your salad more than a few hours in advance. Avocados go brown quite quickly, altering their taste and ruining the look of your salad. If you’re making your salad in advance, the best approach is to leave the avocado out until just before serving if you can.
And if you’re looking to make it further in advance, most of the authors note that pasta salad typically doesn’t freeze well. The creamy salads will suffer from the mayonnaise splitting or separating during freezing and thawing, and many of the other ingredients won’t stand up well either. Better to make it, keep it in the fridge and use it all within two or three days.
Keep both of these points in mind if you’re looking for packed lunch box ideas for the family too. Ignoring avocado’s short shelf life once it’s cut, ingredients like cut tomato won’t last well beyond a day or so, and wet ingredients like tomatoes and cucumbers can make the salad sloppy. Your best bet is to either stick to simpler salads like a classic macaroni style, or don’t add the wetter ingredients until the morning of.
The essence of pasta salad
If you’re looking to create a pasta salad, you first need to make a few choices:
- Start by choosing your preferred dressing, because it could influence your other choices. A mayo dressing or a lighter textured vinaigrette are good places to start.
- Pick a type of pasta. Pretty much any shape you like, but hollow, curly, or ridged varieties will hang onto the dressing better.
- Choose one or more types of protein. This is optional, but most good pasta salads have some meat, cheese or hard-boiled egg.
- Choose one or more vegetables. This is also optional, but again, most tasty pasta salads include at least one, if not more, vegies for both texture and taste.
- Think about any additional flavour boosters you enjoy, like herbs or salty olives.
Alternatively you could start with a well-known style, and tweak from there. Two great options are:
- A classic creamy macaroni salad – tubular pasta, creamy mayo dressing, and maybe a bit of onion, celery or dill pickles.
- An Italian pasta salad – try a spiral pasta, with an oil and vinegar dressing, salami, tomato, onions, bell peppers and olives. And don’t forget the mozzarella!
Making your pasta salad is nice and easy:
- Make your dressing, usually just by thoroughly mixing the ingredients together (vigorously for a vinaigrette).
- Cook the pasta and rinse it well under cold water.
- Cook the meat if you need to, and allow it to cool.
- Chop, grate, shred and slice all of your ingredients.
- Mix it all together, and enjoy!
So there you have it – the essence of pasta salad. Hopefully this has helped you figure out an approach to crafting your own, or made it easy to choose one of the great recipes I’ve reviewed. Either way, let me know what you decide in the comments below.