How To Make the Best Pasta Salad Without Mayo

updated May 23, 2024
4th of july
Pasta Salad (Without Mayo) Recipe
This easy-to-make pasta salad has a creamy flavor, but ditches the mayo in favor of a rich vinaigrette and soft cheese.

Serves8 to 10

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Credit: Joe Lingeman

I have to admit an unpopular opinion: I am just not into mayonnaise-based summer salads. When it is hot out, I want to eat light and refreshing salads, not thick and creamy ones. So when I say this is the best pasta salad ever, it’s with that opinion in mind. But a mayo-free pasta salad can still come with a degree of creaminess. In this case it’s by way of an olive oil-rich vinaigrette and a sprinkling of flavorful soft cheese.

Start by choosing the right pasta for the job, making an oil-based dressing, and adding some personal flair with a number of optional add-ins. Learn how to make your new favorite pasta salad right here, right now.

Why You’ll Love It

  • It’s fresh and flavorful. This mayo-free pasta salad is packed with fresh veggies and a flavorful homemade vinaigrette.
  • You can prepare it in advance. You can cook the pasta, make the dressing, and prepare the vegetables in advance, but wait until just before serving to add the second half of the salad dressing, cheese, and nuts.

Choosing the Best Pasta for Pasta Salad

The best pasta for pasta salad isn’t actually elbow macaroni, which is susceptible to sogginess. Instead choose a small, short pasta like fusilli or even penne. Dry pasta — not fresh or frozen (sorry, tortellini!) — will hold up much better to dressing, storage, and stirring.

Boil the pasta to al dente as recommended by the manufacturer in nicely salted water. Then drain and rinse, but don’t “shock” the pasta as it tends to water log the pasta and rinse away flavor. Instead, have your pasta salad’s dressing ready to go when the pasta is done and dress the salad soon after rinsing. The pasta will absorb more flavor this way.

Making Vinaigrette for Pasta Salad

Have you ever heard the saying, fat is where the flavor’s at? It is entirely true. Fat, be it oil or mayonnaise, is a vehicle for flavor. Instead of dressing your mayo-free salad with more vinegar or vegetables or herbs to get flavor from it, add more oil. Soft cheese helps, too (more on that below).

For this pasta salad, make a vinaigrette that is 50/50 acid for oil. Then coat the pasta with half of the vinaigrette. This half is going to be absorbed by the pasta and also seasons the vegetables. The second half should go on relatively close to serving so that the pasta doesn’t absorb the oil and become simultaneously soggy and dry.

The Best Vegetables for Pasta Salad

Raw vegetables are delicious, but in pasta salad raw vegetables can be jarring. After a bite of supple pasta, crunchy raw broccoli just doesn’t jive. This isn’t true of all vegetables — finely diced red onion, cucumbers, and tomatoes get a pass, but your pasta salad will be improved tenfold by either cooking the vegetables or using jarred vegetables.

Here are a few suggestions, if you want to go off recipe and add other vegetables.

  • Raw: cherry tomatoes, cucumber, finely diced red onion, sliced green onion
  • Jarred: roasted red peppers, pimento peppers, olives
  • Blanched: asparagus, green beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Roasted: raw peppers of all shapes, sizes, and flavors

Flavorful Add-Ins for Pasta Salad

  • Herbs: Both dry and fresh herbs are welcome in pasta salad. Dry herbs do best in the vinaigrette and hold up well in advance. Fresh herbs should be added just before serving to avoid turning brown.
  • Soft cheese: Notice I didn’t say “any cheese” here. Please skip the grated cheddar, the mozzarella pearls, or cubes of Swiss cheese. Instead, use a soft spreadable cheese, such as goat cheese or herbed Boursin, and work it into the salad. The rich creaminess will add more fat and more flavor in the absence of mayo.
  • Toasted nuts: Add nuts with caution, as they too can cause textural confusion. Something small or finely chopped works well. I’m particularly fond of toasted pine nuts and pepitas.

How To Make Pasta Salad (Without Mayo)

  1. Make the vinaigrette. Place the garlic, lemon juice, oregano, vinegar, salt, sugar, Dijon, and pepper together in a glass jar. Add the oil, seal the jar, and shake until emulsified.
  2. Pickle the onion. Pour 1/2 cup of the dressing into a large bowl (reserve the remaining for later). Add the red onion, stir to combine, and set aside.
  3. Cook the pasta. Cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool. Drain well.
  4. Toss the salad. Add the drained pasta, tomatoes, olives, pimentos, cucumber, and basil to the bowl with the dressing. Toss to coat. (At this point, you can set the salad aside for a few hours.)
  5. Finish the salad. When ready to serve, add the reserved dressing, goat cheese, and nuts if using, then toss until well-combined.

Make-Ahead and Storage Tips

  • Make ahead: You can cook the pasta, make the dressing, and prepare the vegetables well in advance, but wait until just before serving to add the second half of the salad dressing and any cheese and nuts. This not only prevents the salad from getting soggy and dry, but also helps the salad look prettier on the picnic plate.
  • Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

What to Serve with Pasta Salad

Pasta Salad (Without Mayo) Recipe

This easy-to-make pasta salad has a creamy flavor, but ditches the mayo in favor of a rich vinaigrette and soft cheese.

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

  • 2 cloves

    garlic, minced

  • 1/4 cup

    freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons

    dried oregano

  • 1 tablespoon

    red wine vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons

    kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons

    granulated sugar

  • 2 teaspoons

    Dijon mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 6 tablespoons

    olive oil

  • 1/4

    medium red onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)

For the pasta salad:

  • 1 pound

    dried short pasta, such as farfalle, fusilli, penne, or orecchiette

  • 1 pint

    cherry tomatoes (about 10 ounces), quartered

  • 1/2 cup

    pitted kalamata olives, halved

  • 1/4 cup

    canned diced pimentos, drained

  • 1/2

    medium English or hothouse cucumber, diced (about 1 cup)

  • 1/4 cup

    loosely packed fresh basil leaves

  • 4 ounces

    goat cheese, crumbled

  • 1/2 cup

    toasted pine nuts (optional)

Instructions

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  1. Place 2 cloves minced garlic, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, 2 tablespoons dried oregano, 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper together in a glass jar. Add 6 tablespoons olive oil, seal the jar, and shake until emulsified.

  2. Pour 1/2 cup of the dressing into a large bowl (reserve the remaining for later). Add 1/2 cup finely diced red onion, stir to combine, and set aside.

  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add 1 pound dried short pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool. Drain well.

  4. Add the drained pasta, 1 pint quartered cherry tomatoes, 1/2 cup pitted and halved kalamata olives, 1/4 cup canned diced pimentos, 1 cup diced English or hothouse cucumber, and 1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves to the bowl with the dressing. Toss to coat. (At this point, you can set the salad aside for a few hours.)

  5. When ready to serve, add the reserved dressing, 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese, and 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts if using, then toss until well-combined.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: This salad can be made through Step 4 and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Let the salad come to room temperature, and taste and season with more salt as needed, as cold temperatures can dull the flavors. Wait until just before serving to drizzle with remaining vinaigrette and add the cheese and nuts.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.