Prepare your picnic basket.

By Betty Gold and Jenna Helwig
July 15, 2020

Pasta salad is one of those dishes that’s so quintessentially summer that you’ll spot a bowl of it at practically every picnic or backyard barbecue. (It’s half the reason I ever pre-pandemic RSVP’d, tbh.) But for those of us that skip over the burgers, hot dogs, and questionable chicken wings and make a beeline for the noodle bowl, we know that not all pasta salads are created equal. There is a big difference between soggy penne swimming in gloppy sauce and perfectly cooked pasta with the just-right balance of vibrant veggies, fresh herbs, and delicious dressing.

Here are five simple steps that’ll kick your pasta salad up a notch. Use them in one of the fresh pasta salad recipes you’ll find here.

For an un-soggy salad, cook the pasta just until al dente (Italian for “to the tooth,” meaning your noodles should be firm, chewy, and fork-tender). It will soften a bit as it soaks up the dressing.

Whether or not you rinse the pasta after draining affects the finished dish. Rinsing cools the pasta immediately, so it soaks up less dressing, making for a saucier salad. Skipping the rinse—and letting the pasta cool in the dressing—means it absorbs more flavor but is less silky. Choose the option that suits your personal palette and matches the recipe you’re making.

The best, most vibrant vegetables lead to the tastiest pasta salads, meaning this is one time you’ll want to skip the frozen veg route. Look for local produce at the grocery store (many chains feature veggies grown nearby during the summer) and keep your eyes peeled for showstoppers at the farmers’ market. Or use what’s sprouting in your own garden.

You can prep and refrigerate a pasta salad up to a day ahead, but bring it to room temperature a half hour before serving, and add any tender leaves or garnishes at the last minute. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of flaky sea salt will help it pop.

If you’re improvising a pasta salad, include plenty of ingredients that bring big flavor. Zesty vinegars, salty cheeses, and briny olives or capers keep dishes bright and lively.