5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Pasta Salad

updated Jun 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

There’s something about this particular time of year that makes eating pasta salad even more wonderful. Filled with squiggly noodles, flavorful dressing, a medley of vegetables, and sometimes meat and cheese, this side dish is a mainstay of summer picnics and backyard get-togethers.

Before whipping up a bowl for your next shindig, be sure you’re not making any of these pasta salad mistakes.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

1. Not using the right size and shape of pasta.

When it comes to picking a pasta for your salad, there are a lot of choices. And believe it or not, the size and shape of the pasta matter when making this summery side dish. It’s best to stay away from fresh pasta, which doesn’t hold up quite as well. Also, while linguine and spaghetti are delicious, pasta salad isn’t the dish to use them in.

→ Follow this tip: For a truly standout pasta salad, stick with dried pasta instead of fresh. It can be served chilled or at room temperature, and holds up well when tossed with dressing and other ingredients. Also, short pasta shapes, with plenty of nooks and crannies — like fusilli, farfalle, rotini, and penne — are ideal choices for pasta salad. Their small size makes them easy to serve and eat, and their little folds and pockets provide plenty of spaces to trap dressing, herbs, and small ingredients.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

2. Overcooking or undercooking the pasta.

Pasta is the star of this dish, so it’s important to make sure it’s cooked just right. Leave it on the stove too long and you’ll find yourself with mushy pasta; take it off too soon, and the noodles are too tough.

An important thing to remember about pasta is that it hardens and gets chewy as it cools. Since it’s not being served hot or with sauce, the pasta benefits from an extra minute of cooking, but don’t let it get mushy.

→ Follow this tip: For a well-cooked pasta salad, plan to cook the pasta until just past al dente. Adding an extra minute or so of cook time will keep the pasta soft while it cools.

3. Not seasoning the pasta enough.

Unlike warm meals, the flavors in cold dishes can be more muted and require a little more seasoning. The last thing you want is a bland pasta salad.

→ Follow this tip: To make sure your pasta salad is well-seasoned and flavorful, it’s best to start seasoning early. The best time to do this is right out of the gate when you’re cooking the pasta. Use extra-salted water and the pasta will be well-seasoned by the time it’s cooked. Be sure to taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary as you add the dressing and other ingredients.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

4. Not dressing the pasta salad while it’s still warm.

There’s no reason to wait until the pasta is completely cooled to add the dressing. In fact, if you do, you’re missing out on an even more flavorful pasta salad.

→ Follow this tip: Toss the pasta with about two-thirds of the dressing while it’s still warm, and add the remainder before serving. The warm pasta will absorb the dressing a lot easier, creating a pasta salad that’s well-seasoned and full of flavor.

5. Making your pasta salad too far in advance.

I love getting a jump start on meal prep whenever I can, but if I make this dish too far in advance, I end up with a bowl of soggy pasta salad.

→ Follow this tip: While it will stay good for a couple days, it’s best to make pasta salad the day of or the day before you plan to eat it.

What’s your best advice for making pasta salad?

Try these pasta salads!