5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Pasta Salad

updated May 16, 2019
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Pasta salad, when assembled correctly, is sublime. A great pasta salad is the star of any backyard barbecue or picnic potluck. All too often, though, it is subject to mediocrity, thanks to too much mayo, squishy pasta, and not enough salt. Don’t make these common mistakes! Let this be the year you master the perfect pasta salad.

5 Mistakes to Avoid When Making Pasta Salad

1. Using the wrong pasta.

The wrong pasta type or size can make pasta salad soggy, slimy, or just plain hard to eat. Fresh noodles won’t survive the heavy dressing or the trip from cooking to cooling. Likewise, some shapes stick together or don’t dress well. Even the ubiquitous elbow shape can do more harm than good in the salad.

Use dry pasta in small shapes: Pick a small shape about the size of a quarter or smaller. Farfalle, fusilli, penne, or orchiette are our favorites. Avoid tubes, which can trap the dressing and vegetables.

2. Salting only once, at the end.

Because pasta salad is usually dressed with a fat-dense dressing, many folks worry about adding too much salt while making it — the result is a cold, bland salad that actually doesn’t taste like much.

Salt as you go: Salt the water for cooking the pasta. Season the vegetables before cooking. Taste and season the salad dressing before it goes on the salad. Season it once the salad components are all together.

3. Too many raw ingredients!

I love crunchy vegetables as much as anybody, but when I bite into soft pasta followed by raw broccoli stems that even T-Rex couldn’t chomp through, I feel nothing but dread for the next bite.

Try this instead: Be picky about which vegetables you leave raw, and cut those into small pieces. Blanch or roast other vegetables to soften their texture. Or choose jarred or pickled ingredients.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Overdressing or underdressing the salad.

Mayo-based dressings require a bit more finesse than vinaigrette, lest you end up with a gloopy salad. But you don’t want dry pasta salad either!

Dress it twice: Make your dressing and use about half or three-quarters of it to dress the salad before chilling. This gives the salad time to “soak up” some of the dressing. Then add a few more tablespoons of dressing before serving, if needed.

5. Not seasoning again just before serving.

Cold foods taste blander because the cold dulls our tastebuds a bit. This means that even properly seasoned pasta salad might be a little bland just out of the fridge.

Try this instead: Taste the salad again and add a pinch of salt or a drizzle of lemon juice to brighten it up just before serving.

Try These Pasta Salad Recipes: