Well-made pasta salads are moist, colorful, and bursting with textures and flavors. But without proper preparation, these beloved dishes can easily turn dry and mealy. Following these steps will help you create a delicious pasta salad every time.
Choosing your pasta
Avoid using fresh pasta in pasta salads; while tender and flavorful, fresh pasta simply isn't sturdy enough for the job. Stick with dried pasta, preferably thicker pieces that are easily speared with a fork; thinner pasta pieces, such as spaghetti or linguine, could break. Some good pasta options include rotini, farfalle, and gemelli.
Preparing the Pasta
Step 1: Salt the water.
Fill a large pot with water, and sprinkle in a generous amount of salt, roughly one tablespoon per quart of water. This step is important for infusing flavor: Since pasta salad is served cold, flavors will be more muted in the finished dish. Season now to avoid a bland dish later!
Step 2: Boil the pasta.
Bring water to a rolling boil and add pasta, cooking for 2 to 3 minutes past al dente. This is also a good time to blanch any firmer veggies, such as fresh green beans or broccoli, that you're planning to add to the salad later; blanching helps keep these vegetables colorful and crunchy. Add veggies to the boiling water one to two minutes before the end of the pasta's cook time; any longer, and they'll become tender rather than crunchy.
Step 3: Cool with ice water.
Drain the pasta and toss the hot noodles (and any veggies you were blanching in the same pot) into a bowl of ice water. This stops the cooking process immediately, preventing the noodles and vegetables from further softening. It also rinses excess starch from the pasta's exterior, which, if left, can make the pasta salad's texture overly sticky.
Drain the pasta and vegetables and remove ice chunks, then dry and store any blanched vegetables separately in the refrigerator. Place pasta in a mixing bowl.
Step 4: Dress for success.
Toss cooked pasta with lemon juice and olive oil, then cover the bowl and allow it to chill in your refrigerator overnight. Use a 2:1 ratio of olive oil to lemon -- think 2 tablespoons olive oil and one tablespoon lemon juice per pound of pasta. This overnight soak is the secret to moist pasta salad: Lemon and olive oil infuse the pasta with flavor and moisture, which prevents too much dressing from being absorbed the next day when the salad is assembled.
Assembling the Salad
After your pasta has had its overnight soak, it's time to put all the pieces together.
Step 1: Prepare the add-ins. Chop ingredients into bite-size pieces for easier eating. If you like, remove the seeds from add-ins such as tomatoes and cucumbers; this prevents excess moisture from puddling in the dish over time.
Step 2: Stir up your dressing. Different dressing ingredients yield different textures; use a base of mayonnaise, sour cream, and/or dairy-based salad dressings for creamier results. For a lighter flavor profile, vinaigrette dressings are a convenient option.
Step 3: Mix it up! Stir the dressing in with the pasta and add-ins, tossing lightly to ensure even distribution of ingredients.
Step 4: Chill. This is the hard part: You'll need to allow the pasta salad 4 to 24 hours in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld. Don't worry -- the wait will be worth it.