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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell
Recipe Review

We Tried 4 Popular Pasta Salad Recipes – Here’s the One We Liked Best

updated Aug 13, 2022
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When I think of pasta salad, I think of summer potlucks and barbecues. This chilled dish is often served as a side and is rarely the star of the show, but as a pasta-lover, I’ve often wondered why. Is it because we’re all serving subpar pasta salads? It’s high time we fix that.

For this recipe showdown, I set out to find the best-ever pasta salad recipe — the one that would be impossible to overlook at any gathering. I was looking for one with a punchy, boldly flavored vinaigrette; the right ratio of pasta to mix-ins; and the perfect balance of salt, fat, and acid that would keep me coming back for more.

What type of pasta shape would reign supreme? Is fresh produce superior, or are the best mix-ins pickled and jarred? I tried four popular recipes to find out — and I’ll be making the winning recipe all summer long.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

Meet Our 4 Pasta Salad Contenders 

Pasta salad is not to be confused with macaroni salad, which is slicked with mayonnaise. No, pasta salad gets its punch from olive oil and vinegar, and is often studded with summer produce. Recipes vary greatly — from the shape of pasta to the type of vinegar used — not to mention the wide assortment of mix-ins.

To keep the comparison fair, I chose recipes with a similar theme. For this showdown, I went with all Italian-inspired pasta salads. From there, I looked for popular, highly rated recipes and landed on four contenders: Pinch of Yum, Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, and Rachael Ray.  

Pinch of Yum’s pasta salad repeatedly comes up no matter how you search for pasta salad, making it an obvious choice. Out of the four recipes I tried, it was the only one that called for white vinegar.

Ina Garten’s version uses a whopping 1 pound of feta, and utilizes the sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes in both the dressing and salad itself. I’m not a huge sun-dried tomato fan, but I figured if anyone could change my mind, it would be Ina. 

Martha Stewart’s rendition has you mix in fennel, which I’ve never seen used in pasta salad before. She also adds chickpeas, which gave this recipe Italian chopped salad vibes.

Rachael Ray’s recipe intrigued me the most. She blends the dressing in the food processor with vegetable stock and uses three types of peppers in her pasta salad. Could these two tricks make all the difference? 

How I Tested the Pasta Salad Recipes

Unlike showdowns I’ve worked on in the past, it was relatively easy to test all four recipes in one day. I prepped all the ingredients ahead of time so that each pasta salad could be made at the exact same time on testing day. I used the same brand of pasta (De Cecco) for each test. Since the vinaigrette really makes or breaks pasta salad, I was sure to use the same brand of red wine vinegar (Colavita) and the same olive oil (California Olive Ranch), while testing. 

Since pasta salad is (usually) served chilled, I wanted to see how each recipe stood up with time. I tested each recipe immediately after I made it, four hours later, and the next day.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

1. The Most Disappointing: Martha Stewart’s Pasta Salad with Tomatoes, Mozzarella, and Chickpeas 

I hate to say it, but I was really not a fan of this pasta salad. For starters, one of pasta salad’s most attractive qualities is that you can make it ahead and serve it straight from the fridge. But Martha’s recipe asks you to let it sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving, which feels unnecessarily fussy. 

Logistics aside, the main issue I had with this recipe is that it lacked flavor. Even with all the delicious add-ins — fennel, chickpeas, capers, mozzarella — it needed far more acid and salt. I won’t be making it again. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

2. The Smartest Dressing Technique: Rachael Ray’s Italian Pasta Salad

Before making this recipe, I was very skeptical about Rachael’s use of vegetable stock in the dressing, but I’m happy to report it was a super-smart trick! The dressing was great — the stock definitely gave it extra oomph and savoriness — and I’ll definitely be using this technique in future pasta salads moving forward.

With that said, what I should have been focused on is why there are so many peppers in this recipe. I love roasted red peppers, pepperoncini peppers, and cubanelle peppers, but using all three was too much. Next time, I’ll swap out a few of the cubanelle peppers with something salty, like hard salami or black olives. I’ll also swap out the cavatappi for shells: Cavatappi is best when there’s a sauce that can cling to its curves, and in this pasta salad it just felt naked.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

3. The Most Flexible: Pinch of Yum’s Best Easy Italian Pasta Salad

Pinch of Yum calls this the best pasta salad — and for good reason. While I liked Ina Garten’s version slightly more, this is a really excellent recipe. The ingredient combo that’s called for in the recipe worked well, but I also loved that the recipe offered a ton flexibility in terms of add-ins, which feels key for pasta salad.

I will say I was hesitant when I saw the amount of olive oil used (a whopping 1 1/2 cups!), but the dressing really did bring this recipe to the next level in terms of flavor. You’ll want to add most of it to the salad upfront, and then save the rest for adding right before serving.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

4. The Queen of Pasta Salad: Ina Garten’s Tomato Feta Pasta Salad

It’s rare for me to give a recipe 10/10, but Ina’s pasta salad deserves it. There aren’t a ton of different add-ins or techniques used in this recipe. Ina sticks to a handful of classic ingredients that always work well together: fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and feta. Plus, she opts for fusilli pasta, which has lots of nooks and crannies to trap all the delicious dressing.

There are two main factors that set this recipe apart. The first is that you only use 1/2 pound of pasta (most pasta salad recipes, including the rest of the ones in this showdown, call for 1 pound). This might not seem like a big deal, but the result is that the pasta-to-mix-in ratio skews in favor of the mix-ins, which means you’re never eating a plain, cold noodle. The second is that the recipe is all about layering flavor. The dressing is made with sun-dried tomatoes, which are like little umami bombs, along with red wine vinegar, garlic, and a whole cup of grated Parm, so it hits all the right notes of salt, acid, and fat. I can’t wait to take this to potlucks and barbecues all summer long — I know it will steal the show.

Do you have a favorite pasta salad recipe? Let us know in the comments!