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Here's the secret to perfect pasta salad every time

Here’s how to make one of summer’s best sides even better.
Pasta Salad
Pasta salad may not look like a traditional salad, but it's called a salad for a reason. Fresh herbs and veggies can make a big difference when it comes to pulling everything together.Ray Kachatorian / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A refreshing yet hearty pasta salad is almost as crucial to a great barbecue spread as the burgers or hot dogs.

Pasta salads can be cold and creamy or tangy and zesty — these endless possibilities for ingredients are what make a great pasta salad so, well, great!

However, there are a few simple steps every home cook can take to make sure their pasta salad is always a crowd pleaser. With summer fully underway, experts shared their favorite pasta salad-making tips with TODAY Food.

1. Pasta needs to be seasoned from the beginning

Salting pasta water is essential. Though experts disagree on exactly how much salt should be used, most pasta enthusiasts say this step is necessary regardless of what dish you're making.

“Cooking your pasta in salty-like-the-sea water is the first step in building flavor,” Clare Langan, a San Francisco-based chef, told TODAY. That salty water seasons the pasta from the inside out.

Ginger-Miso Pasta Salad

Ginger-Miso Pasta Salad

Valerie Bertinelli

2. Use the right pasta shape and size

Variety of types and shapes of dry Italian pasta - fusilli, farfalle and penne, top view. Uncooked whole wheat italian pasta. Image with copy space.
Short pasta shapes work best for cold pasta salads. Anna Kurzaeva / Getty Images

Just as certain types of pasta lead to better macaroni and cheese, the same can be said for the ideal pasta salad. Short pasta cuts, like macaroni, rotini, farfalle, gemelli or even orecchiette are great for pasta salad. “Their small shape mimics the size of other ingredients, like sliced olives, bits of cheese, diced salami and vegetables,” said Langan.

This usually makes for a much more visually appealing dish, plus it’s easier to eat.

3. Never overcook the pasta

It's best to cook your pasta to al dente, or to the tooth. “A little bite to your pasta is what you’re looking for, typically two minutes less than the package instructions,” said Langan.

If you're making a cold pasta salad, it's OK to drain and quickly rinse your pasta in cold water once you're done cooking it. “This stops it from overcooking,” said Langan. Rinsing away some of the starch also prevents it from congealing.

4. Time out prep

Pasta tends to soak up dressing pretty well, so making it the day of, or even a few hours before, is ideal.

“If you need to make it ahead, plan on adding some additional dressing before serving,” Carey Aron, owner of Pastabilities, told TODAY. You can prep all of the ingredients the day before and toss them together the day you're planning the pasta salad.

5. Make a fresh dressing

Fresh Salad Dressing with Rosemary, Garlic and Lemon
Take the time to make a homemade dressing for your fresh pasta salad. Getty Images

Don't go through all the trouble of making a fresh salad and then top it off with a store-bought dressing.

"Make a homemade vinaigrette for your dressing," Dave Anoia, chef and owner of DiAnoia's Eatery in Pittsburgh, said. For many pasta salads, you can't go wrong with a simple mixture of oregano, red wine vinegar and olive oil.

Also, make sure that dressing is ready as soon as the pasta is out of the pot. "Dress your pasta as soon as it's cooked," said Anoia. Adding the dressing while it's still hot allows the pasta to absorb more of the flavorful dressing.

Tuna Macaroni Salad

6. Choose fresh, colorful ingredients

Pasta salad may not look like a traditional salad, but it's called a salad for a reason. Fresh herbs and veggies can make a big difference when it comes to pulling everything together. Chopped herbs like basil, cilantro or mint will add a punches of flavor and color to any salad, said Aron.

“Consider using a combo of colorful veggies and herbs to make your pasta salad pleasing to the eye,” he added. Red, yellow and green peppers are a favorite, along with zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes.

7. Keep ingredient ratios consistent

Pasta salad
Keep pasta salads fresh and exciting with a diverse mix of ingredients. Getty Images

For a satisfyingly beautiful (i.e. totally Instagrammable) pasta salad, plan on a ratio of about one part pasta to one part mix-ins. “Not only does this create more interesting textures and flavors in every bite, but going a bit lighter on the pasta leaves room on your plate for everything else,” said Langan.

Of course, one should always leave room for potato salad!

Ready to get started? Try these recipes.

Giada's Fregola Pasta Salad with Citrus
Al's Orzo Pasta Salad
Valerie Bertinelli's Pasta Salad Alla Norma