Pasta salads are a summer picnic essential. Whether you make it with Italian-style pasta or Asian noodles, or toss it with vinaigrette or coat it with a creamy mayo dressing, some type of pasta salad is likely to cross your path during the warmer months of the year. But not every pasta salad recipe is created equal, as anyone who’s picked at a boring mix of tri-color rotini, canned black olives, and cubes of mystery cheese know.
To some food experts, the problem with pasta salad is that it’s pasta salad. “Pasta salad is one of the worst things to ever come out of the American kitchen,” declared Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats. “It pretends to be wholesome and delicious, but more often than not it’s guilty of grave culinary sins.”
What’s wrong with this classic American dish, according to Gritzer? The oil-and-vinegar dressing most people use on pasta salad is all wrong, and tossing in uncooked vegetables is a mistake, since the texture doesn’t complement the cooked pasta. Plus, pasta salads are often served straight from the fridge rather than at room temp, so you end up with a bowl full of chewy fusilli sitting atop congealed dressing.
Others argue that while most pasta salads are pretty disappointing, that’s not a reason to write off the dish entirely. With a little effort, pasta salad can be tasty, according to Bon Appétit. You need to use the right pasta — skip the farfalle and tortellini in favor of fusilli or orecchiette, editor Dawn Perry advised. Seasoning the pasta as it cooks is also important, as is using plenty of fresh herbs.
In short, making the perfect pasta salad is a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance. You might want to start with this antipasto pasta salad recipe from America’s Test Kitchen (via KCET). It’s familiar enough to please pasta salad traditionalists, but the recipe developers have made a few key tweaks to ensure a tasty final result.
Antipasto Pasta Salad Recipe
The ingredients in this pasta salad recipe from America’s Test Kitchen will look (and taste) familiar, but a few quirks in the preparation make for an improvement on conventional pasta salads. Cooking the meat in the microwave for a minute or so before adding it to the salad cuts down on the grease, while sauteing the mushrooms beforehand results in a perfectly seasoned add-in. A little bit of mayo in the dressing adds a bit of creaminess without overwhelming the dish.
- 8 ounces sliced pepperoni, cut into ¼-inch strips
- 8 ounces sopressata or salami, halved and cut into ¼-inch strips
- 10 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 (12-ounce) jar pepperoncini, drained, (2 tablespoons juice reserved), stemmed, and chopped coarse
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper
- 1 pound fusilli or campanelle pasta
- 1 pound white mushrooms, quartered
- 1 cup shredded provolone cheese, aged
- 12 ounces roasted red peppers, drained, patted dry, and chopped coarse
- 1 cup chopped fresh basil
Directions: Place a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Arrange the pepperoni in a single layer on the paper towel. Cover with another paper towel and layer sopressata on top. Top with another paper towel and microwave on highest power until meat begins to render fat, about 1 minute. Set meat aside.
Whisk together 5 tablespoons vinegar, olive oil, mayonnaise, pepperoncini juice, garlic, red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in medium bowl.
Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta and cook until al dente. Drain pasta, return to pot, and toss with 1/2 cup dressing and remaining vinegar. Adjust seasonings to taste, then spread dressed pasta on rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate until chilled, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring remaining dressing to simmer in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook until they release their juices and are lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Transfer to large bowl and cool.
Add meat, provolone, roasted red peppers, chopped pepperoncini, basil, and cooled pasta to mushrooms and toss well. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature. Salad can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Pasta salad recipe tips
Yes, you read those instructions correctly. An entire tablespoon of salt may sound like a lot, but don’t hesitate to add that much to the pasta’s cooking water. Doing so will ensure your noodles aren’t dull and flavorless. “You need to season more aggressively when you’re eating food cold,” Bon Appétit’s Perry explained.
Once you’ve drained the pasta, toss with the dressing immediately. Don’t give in to the temptation to rinse the pasta, even if that’s how you’ve made pasta salad in the past. You want your noodles to still be warm when you add the vinaigrette, which will help them absorb more flavor, according to The Kitchn.
If you are making the pasta salad in advance, consider holding off on adding the basil until just before serving, since the leaves will quickly turn brown and unsightly when paired with the vinaigrette, according to Bon Appétit. Finally, using shredded rather than cubed cheese distributes the flavor more evenly throughout the finished salad.