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.
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.
An Oil-Heavy Vinaigrette Creates a Creamy Texture
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.
Adding Vegetables? You're Gonna Have to Cook Some
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, pimentos peppers, olives
- Blanched: asparagus, green beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower
- Roasted: raw peppers of all shapes, sizes, and flavors
Pro tip: Do your diners a favor and chop the vegetables close to the same size as the pasta. This makes it easier to get a little bit of all the good stuff in each bite.
Additional Pasta Salad Flair
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.
Pro tip: Be sure to taste and season the salad at different temperatures. You'll probably need more salt than you think if serving the salad cold.
Avoid the Sad-Soggies
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.
How To Make the Best Pasta Salad Without Mayo
Makes 8 to 10; serves 8 to 10
What You Need
- For the vinaigrette:
freshly squeezed lemon juice
red wine vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
medium red onion, finely diced (1/2 cup)
- For the pasta salad:
dried short pasta, such as farfalle, fusilli, penne, orecchiette
cherry tomatoes, quartered (about 10 ounces)
pitted kalamata olives, halved
canned diced pimentos
medium English or hothouse cucumber, diced (about 1 cup)
loosely packed fresh basil leaves
goat cheese, crumbled
toasted pine nuts (optional)
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; set aside.
Pickle the onion: Pour 1/2 cup of the dressing into a large bowl (reserve the remaining 1/4 cup for later) and add the red onion. Stir to coat, then set aside.
Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to cool. Drain well.
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.)
Finish the salad: When ready to serve, add the reserved dressing, goat cheese, and nuts if using, then toss until well-combined.
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.