Dressing Up Pasta Salad: 7 Tips and Tricks

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Megan Gordon)

When it comes to warm-weather lunches and light dinners, summer is pasta salad season around our house. I find pasta salad is pretty much always the solution to the “what do we have for dinner” question when there’s nothing but a few veggies and maybe a little cheese in the crisper. While it always satisfies, there are some pasta salads that are infinitely better than others. What are their secrets?

My many years as a vegetarian (relying on pasta salads often) taught me a thing or two about what makes an exceptional one. I’m also lucky to have a handful of friends that work in restaurants and a mom that excels in summer pasta dishes, so below you’ll find a few tips I’ve learned along the way:

1. Try Unusual Dressings: It’s standard practice to rely on creamy dressing for cold pasta salads. You know the drill: a little mayonnaise, maybe a touch of vinegar and a little salt and pepper. But what about this Avocado Dressing or an Asian-inspired Creamy Peanut Sauce?

2. Go Seedy! I love pasta salads with interesting textures, and seeds are an easy way to add some toasty crunch. My favorites are toasted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds.

3. Add Salty Cheese: When you can’t quite figure out what it is that your pasta salad needs, salty cheese is often the answer. I love ricotta salata or feta, but any mild sheep’s milk cheese will work wonders, too.

4. Broaden Your Noodle Horizon: If your go-to is traditional pasta noodles, try a whole-wheat pasta, a spelt pasta or — my recent favorite—buckwheat soba noodles. All add a different flavor to any recipe.

5. Experiment with Spices: Obviously, spices alter any recipe and can help awaken an otherwise lifeless dish. For some inspiration, try za’atar for a Mediterranean influence, or a little dill or tarragon for a brighter finish.

6. Fresh Herbs Make It: This time of year, I can’t get enough fresh chives or parsley. Each makes its way into everything from morning eggs to evening salads — pasta salad being an obvious, fitting contender.

7. Play it By Ear: Pasta salad is one of those dishes that I find really doesn’t need a recipe. If you allow yourself to be guided by the seasons and what’s fresh in the markets, you’ll likely be better off than following a recipe to the tee.

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