Pasta salad always seems like a misnomer to me. What qualifies it as a salad? The fact that it’s usually served cold? The dressing, usually a bracingly tart vinaigrette?

Regardless, pasta salad often is not as good as it should be.

Much of the time, the pasta in salads is mushy. When paired with crunchy vegetables and bottled vinaigrettes, which can be aggressively flavored, the noodles are completely lost in the equation. Remember, it’s a pasta salad, so the pasta should shine.

It is possible to make a perfectly cooked and dressed pasta salad, though.

Here are a few tips for making your next pasta salad the star of the picnic.

Pick the right pasta. Spaghetti is wonderful, but not in this case. Stick to short, smallish pasta. I like fusilli, but orecchiette, penne and cavatappi all make great choices.

To rinse or not to rinse. This is a controversial topic. I don’t know any chefs who rinse pasta if they’re going to serve it hot. When it’s being served cold, the opinions are divided. I like to give the drained pasta a quick rinse, just to wash off a bit of the starch on the outside. This will help keep the pasta from being gummy when it cools. I then toss it in a little olive oil and let it cool completely on a baking sheet.

Bring on the fresh herbs. Pasta loves herbs, whether it’s being served hot or cold, so whether it’s fresh basil, chives, cilantro or parsley, be generous. You won’t be sorry.

Too crunchy can be too much. When thinking about which vegetables to include in the salad, try to avoid the extra crunchy ones, which can overwhelm the softer pasta. Think tomatoes, spinach or arugula. Or try adding roasted or grilled vegetables.


Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter: