Perfect every time: This is the only pasta salad recipe you'll ever need
For seasoned cooks and kitchen novices, cookbook author and nutritionist Robin Miller takes it back to basics with great, family-friendly recipes worth making over and over again.
What could be better than colorful corkscrew pasta tossed with salami, cheese, olives, veggies and a garlicky, herby, lemon dressing? Not much. This is, quite possibly, the best pasta salad you will ever eat. And it's darn pretty to look at too.
Pasta salad is great for all types of gatherings from weekday lunches to casual picnics and elegant bridal showers. Indoors and out, it’s always a welcome addition to the table. But, have you noticed that some pasta salads are distinctly better than others?
A disappointing pasta salad can be bland or overly salty, a mess of greasy noodles and mediocre vegetables. But, with a few tips and tricks, you'll be able to make flawless pasta salad every time.
What's the secret to making perfect pasta salad?
Two keys to a great pasta salad are finding the right ratio of dressing to noodles and creating the right balance of add-ins.
First, the dressing needs to be fabulous. Rather than a quick marriage of olive oil and vinegar, create a dressing flavorful enough to stand on its own with tangy, sweet and aromatic nuances.
In the recipe that follows, I've shared my ideal pasta salad dressing, a lemon-based vinaigrette that features honey, Dijon, garlic and herbs in proportions that work exceptionally well with the buttery and salty ingredients in the salad.
Secondly, don't skimp on the dressing. I call for ¾ cup of dressing for twelve ounces of pasta, which may seem like a lot, but the noodles soak up every drop.
Finally, when it comes to the additions, the pasta takes a backseat to the intensity flavors of two types of cheese, salami, bell peppers, red onion, tomatoes, black olives, parsley and basil.
The result is colorful, chunky, salty, buttery, sweet and downright amazing.
The basic recipe for pasta salad
To make Italian pasta salad, cook the pasta according to the package directions. Spread it out on a baking sheet to cool for 15 minutes. While the pasta cools, prep the dressing and remaining ingredients. Toss everything together, season with salt and black pepper and serve. That's it!
How much pasta should I use in pasta salad?
Classic pasta salad is made with rotini or spiral pasta, a shape that does a great job holding on to the dressing.
When shopping, you’ll find that regular rotini is typically sold in 16-ounce packages, while many others, including tricolor, gluten-free and those made with brown rice, chickpeas or yellow peas are sold in 12-ounce packages.
Since the preponderance of spiral pasta is sold in 12-ounce packages, that’s what my recipe calls for.
If you choose a 16-ounce package, the ingredients list doesn’t change and you will likely still have enough dressing and you can always add a little more olive oil and lemon juice to taste.
What are the best cheeses to use in pasta salad?
My pasta salad features two types of cheese – creamy, fresh mozzarella and salty parmesan.
For the mozzarella, you can use mozzarella pearls, or you can cube a block of fresh mozzarella.
Is fresh mozzarella worth the hype?:Absolutely. Here are the recipes to prove it
If you would like to use regular mozzarella (whole milk or part-skim) instead of fresh, that’s OK, but processed mozzarella isn’t as creamy or buttery as the fresh varieties.
For the parmesan, freshly grated is preferable, because it's flavor is nuttier and more robust. That said, if you already have pre-grated parmesan cheese handy, it will work just fine.
Easy pasta salad substitutions
It's easy to customize this Italian pasta salad to suit your needs.
If you want to leave the salami out or substitute pepperoni or ham, please do.
For a vegan salad, skip the meat and cheese and add more vegetables.
For gluten-free salad, simply use gluten-free pasta.
Recipe: Perfect Pasta Salad
This salad is great for entertaining as it's easy to double or triple to serve a crowd and it's prep-ahead friendly. You can make pasta salad up to two days in advance (it's better the second day). Simply store the salad in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Makes: 12 cups
- 12 ounces spiral pasta, regular, gluten-free or tricolor (see note above)
- 2 cups seeded and chopped bell peppers, any color, or about 10 chopped sweet mini peppers
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, either mozzarella pearls or a block of fresh mozzarella, cubed
- 6 ounces hard salami, such as Genoa, Felino, or Sopressata, cut into bite-size pieces, you can also use pepperoni or ham
- 10 ounces (about 1 cup) grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
- ½ cup sliced black olives
- ⅓ cup finely chopped red onion
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese, preferably freshly grated
- ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
- ¼ cup chopped fresh basil (if you are using dried, add 1/2 teaspoon to the dressing)
For the Italian dressing:
- ½ cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic, or 1/2 teaspoon minced dried garlic
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried basil (if not using fresh)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Crushed red pepper flakes for serving, optional
- Cook the pasta according to the package directions in salted water. Drain, reserving ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Transfer the pasta to a large rimming baking sheet to cool for 15 minutes.
- To make the dressing, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, garlic, oregano and basil (if using dried). Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- Transfer the cooled pasta to a large bowl and add the bell peppers, mozzarella, salami, tomatoes, black olives, red onion, parmesan, parsley and basil (if using fresh).
- Add 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water to the dressing and whisk to combine. Add the dressing to the pasta mixture and toss to coat. If desired, add more pasta cooking water to the salad. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
- Serve at once or refrigerate until ready to serve (up to 2 days).
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