During the summer, you need a go-to recipe for family dinners and backyard barbecues. Luckily, it’s super easy to learn how to make pasta salad that everyone will love! We created an easy and classic recipe, as well as 14 flavor combinations to inspire your own version.
What is Pasta Salad Made Of?
The basic formula for a classic pasta salad is 1 pound of uncooked pasta + 1-3 cups dressing + 1-2 pounds mix-ins + 1 cup of flavor-boosting ingredients. After you follow our tried-and-true recipe below, scroll down to learn how to customize it to your taste! Swap in your favorite salad dressings, use funky pasta shapes and add meats or hearty vegetables to make it a filling main.
How to Make Pasta Salad
Yield: 16 servings
- 1 package (16 ounces) medium pasta shells
- 1 package (16 ounces) frozen peas, thawed
- 1 medium cucumber, halved and sliced
- 1 small red onion, chopped
- 1 cup ranch salad dressing
Tools You’ll Need
This clip-on strainer has a sturdy spring-back clip that hooks directly onto your pasta pot, making it easy to strain pasta water without noodles falling into the sink.
We swear by silicone spatulas—especially for saucy projects like this pasta salad. Cleaning is a breeze with this tool because it’s dishwasher safe.
Who could go wrong with a classic Pyrex mixing bowl? This kitchen essential is safe to use in the microwave, freezer and dishwasher. Plus, the bowl is perfect for storing pasta salad leftovers.
Step 1: Cook and drain the pasta
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Start by cooking the pasta according to the package directions. Make sure to season the pasta water with salt to create the best flavor for your pasta salad. When it’s finished, drain it and rinse the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process.
You can do this step ahead of time if you like, although you may want to toss your noodles in a small amount of dressing if you’re cooking them more than a day in advance. This helps to keep them from sticking together.
Pro tip: Have some fun with your pasta shapes! Some of our favorites are shells, macaroni, tortellini, bow ties and spiral rotini. These shapes all work with a variety of dressings, from vinaigrettes to creamy dressings like ranch or Caesar. Traditional pasta shapes like linguine, fettuccine and spaghetti also work, but you’ll want to pair them with a slippery vinaigrette dressing.
Step 2: Combine the ingredients
In a large bowl, combine the pasta, peas, cucumber and onion. If you’re playing around with other ingredients, go ahead and add them here, too. The only ingredients you may want to hold during this step are tender lettuces (like romaine or arugula) just in case you end up with leftovers.
Step 3: Add the dressing
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Add the dressing and toss to coat. For best results, cover the pasta salad and chill it in the refrigerator for at least two hours to let the flavors meld.
Pro tip: Keep in mind that a vinaigrette goes further than creamy dressings, so you may not need as much dressing (that also helps you save calories, too). I always start with less dressing, knowing that I can add more if it’s not coated enough. It’s much harder to save an overdressed pasta salad—you’d have to cook more pasta!
Depending on what ingredients you use in your recipe, it’s easy to make pasta salad in advance (just like these other make-ahead salads). The recipe above below is great for three to five days in the refrigerator. That being said, sometimes the noodles drink up some of the dressing, so you may want to freshen-up a day-old salad with a little extra dressing.
If you’re going the customized route, keep in mind that dressed salad greens don’t store well. Cabbage and coleslaw mix holds up okay, but if you’re adding romaine lettuce, arugula or spring mix, plan to eat your pasta salad in one sitting. You can also keep the greens separate and toss them in fresh, or spoon your leftover pasta salad over a plate of greens for a fresh, healthy lunch!
Customize Your Pasta Salad
Play around with our classic pasta salad formula by mixing and matching pasta shapes with dressings, mix-ins and flavor-boost ingredients. When choosing added ingredients, go for a variety of colors, flavors and textures. If you added bacon and tomatoes, consider using green or yellow bell peppers instead of red. Think about adding several flavor elements, too, such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory.
Keep in mind that many pickled foods, some cheeses and meats can contribute salty flavors to your pasta salad. It’s always a good idea to taste as you go to keep the salt content at the perfect level.
Pasta Salad Dressing Ideas
- Go store-bought: Ranch, creamy Caesar or Italian vinaigrette work great.
- Make a homemade vinaigrette by using 1 part red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar or lemon juice to 3 parts olive oil (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- Create a creamy, savory dressing by mixing equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- This two-ingredient dressing is a cinch. Thin 2 cups of mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons white vinegar (plus the seasonings of your choice)
- Use plain or fruit-flavored yogurt mixed with sour cream or mayo
Pasta Salad Mix-in Ideas
- Meat! Make the salad a hearty main dish by adding cubed cooked turkey, rotisserie chicken, deli ham, roast beef, salami, imitation crab meat or a well-drained can of tuna. It makes a perfect hot-weather lunch!
- Use any variety of fresh or thawed frozen vegetables, like bell peppers, cucumbers, peas, broccoli florets, artichokes and veggie blends
- Fresh or well-drained canned fruit, such as pineapple or mandarin oranges (keep in mind that most fruits are naturally juicy, so you can use less dressing in your pasta salad)
- Cubed or shredded cheese adds saltiness and flavor.
- Hardy salad greens like spinach, romaine, arugula are great to mix in at the last moment.
Easy Flavor Boosting Ingredients
- Add salty, tangy, savory and sometimes sweet elements with a handful of olives, chopped pickles or giardiniera.
- Use intensely flavored meats like prosciutto, bacon or pepperoni.
- Add concentrated flavor accents with marinated sun-dried tomatoes, pesto or olive tapenade.
- Get crunchy with nuts, seeds and chow mein noodles.
- For sweet and tart accents, look to fruits (dried fruits offer concentrated flavor, as well).
- Lean on everyday condiments like onions, herbs, spices and mustard.
- Heat thing up with a touch of spiciness using hot peppers or pepper blends.
How Can I Make Pasta Salad Healthier?
- Swap in a whole wheat pasta or a pasta alternative like quinoa or zucchini noodles.
- Add protein like shrimp, chopped chicken or garbanzo beans.
- Cut added calories, sugars and fats by making your own dressing (we recommend swapping out any mayo-based ingredients for avocado, too!).
- Incorporate tons of good-for-you veggies like green onions, plum tomatoes and spinach.
More Pasta Salad Ideas
Check out our favorite pasta salad combinations below! We’ve added an optional flavor-boost ingredient in parentheses if you really want to get wild with it. Psst—be sure to check out these other easy pasta salad recipes for inspiration, too.
- Cheese tortellini, red wine vinaigrette, broccoli and peppers (pimiento-stuffed olives or prosciutto).
- Shells, mayo-based dressing, imitation crab or tuna and peas (dill or lemon peel to the dressing).
- Farfalle, balsamic vinaigrette, fresh baby spinach and yellow peppers (chopped dried apricots).
- Macaroni, mayonnaise thinned with vinegar, ham, cheddar and peas (chopped green onions, mustard and/or pickle relish).
- Rotini, ham, salami, artichokes, provolone, mozzarella and peppers (pepperoni, prosciutto, olives, giardiniera, marinated hot peppers, basil and/or sun-dried tomatoes).
- Orecchiette, a mix of 2 parts plain yogurt to 1 part mayo, smoked turkey, apples, celery and strawberries (walnuts, Dijon mustard and/or lemon juice).
- Shells, sour cream and mayo dressing, pineapple, cooked shrimp and red peppers (sliced water chestnuts in the mix and curry powder in the dressing).
- Tricolor rotini, ranch dressing, broccoli, cucumbers and tomatoes (Parmesan cheese and/or crumbled bacon).
- Shells, creamy Caesar dressing, cubed mozzarella, broccoli florets and shaved romaine (pepperoni).
- Farfalle, ranch dressing, cubed chicken, grapes and mandarin oranges (poppy seeds in the dressing, cooked chow mein noodles and/or sunflower seeds).
- Whole wheat spaghetti, sesame-ginger vinaigrette, cubed chicken, coleslaw mix and mandarin oranges (cooked chow mein noodles or toasted almonds). It’s one of our favorite spaghetti salad recipes.
- Rotini, Catalina dressing, taco meat, cheddar, tomatoes, peppers and onions (sliced black olives and crushed tortilla chips).
- Orzo or couscous, Greek yogurt thinned with lemon juice or red wine vinegar, deli turkey and grape tomatoes (crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives and/or fresh parsley).
- Tricolor rotini, Italian dressing, frozen California-blend vegetables cooked just to crisp-tender (sliced olives and garlic salt).
What to Serve with Pasta Salad
Pasta salad is a classic potluck dish, and it goes with any kind of grilled meat, sandwiches or vegetable mains. Some of my favorite pairings are pulled pork sandwiches with macaroni salad, cold cut sandwiches with an Italian-style pasta salad or corn on the cob and fried chicken with creamy pasta salad. Check out our grilling ideas for dinner or make a custom sandwich to get inspired.