Why This Recipe Works
- Cooking the pasta just past al dente means it’s soft but not mushy when chilled and served.
- Using concave pasta shapes like shells or orecchiette allows each bite to be filled with vegetables, cheese, and cured meat for maximum flavor and texture.
- Pickled and brined ingredients such as capers, banana peppers, and olives bring brightness and acidity to the salad.
My parents’ pasta salad was a feature at almost every cookout, picnic, and potluck of my childhood. Made with a bottle of Wish-Bone Italian dressing, the salad was filled with soggy rotini, a-touch-too-large hunks of salami and mozzarella, and canned black olives. While I have a nostalgic soft spot for it, the cook in me knows that it and many other pasta salads have some fatal flaws: They’re usually served at the wrong temperature, the pasta is frequently too soft or too hard, and, more often than not, the whole shebang is tossed in an unpleasant, acerbic dressing. (Daniel certainly has some feelings about it.)
Pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad, though—it’s possible to make a spectacular one that’s full of flavor and texture. With careful consideration of technique, I went back at the pasta salad of my childhood, seeking ways to resolve its worst qualities and turn it into something even a pasta-salad skeptic would love. The following rules are what I’ve found to be essential to an excellent Italian-American pasta salad.
Rule 1: Overcook—Yes, Overcook—Your Pasta
As Daniel has written previously, cooked pasta goes through retrogradation as it cools, where “the starch molecules reform into a more solid crystalline structure,” effectively going through the same staling process bread does. Overcooking your pasta by just two to three minutes means it’ll be just soft enough without being mushy, and as the pasta cools, it will firm up to become al dente once again.
Rule 2: Add the Acid—But Skip the Vinaigrette
Let’s be real: Nobody wants a pasta salad that’s too tart and oily from a vinaigrette. The solution is to skip the vinaigrette entirely by deconstructing it into more thoughtful and flavor-packed components, some with bright, punchy tartness and others that are rich and savory.
Here, I make a quick pickle of sorts by marinating juicy tomatoes and roasted red pepper in a mixture of lemon juice and red wine vinegar. I supplement these bright and fruity elements with pickled banana peppers, briny olives, and salty-tart capers. When mixed in with the pasta, they add just enough acidity and brightness without overpowering the dish.
I then dress the salad with a rich and flavorful oil made by crisping salami in olive oil. The rendered fat from crisped-up salami tames the tang and lends a deep savory flavor that balances the sweetness of the tomatoes and roasted red peppers.
Rule 3: Room Temperature Is the Right Temperature
While we generally don’t recommend having your food sit out at room temperature for extended periods of time (more than two hours and the risk of food-borne illness becomes more significant), you really do want to allow the pasta salad to come to room temperature before digging in. Cold pasta has muted flavors and a firm, rubbery texture, making each bite an unpleasant one.
Rule 4: Respect the Mozz
It’s easy to grab a tub of bocconcini and toss those little mozzarella balls into a pasta salad, but it’s not the best way to incorporate the cheese. Due to their small size and the fact that they’ve often spent some time in the refrigerator case, bocconcini tend to be firm and bouncy, with a slick exterior that refuses to interact with the salad around it.
Much better is to buy a ball of high-quality, fresh mozzarella, the kind that’s tender and weeps drops of sweet milk when you cut into it. But don’t cut into it! Instead, tear the mozzarella into shreds, creating a textured surface that will mingle with the oil and juices in the pasta salad, picking them up for each bite. And, because it’s a good fresh mozzarella that’s still soft, you won’t have that unfortunate little-rubber-balls effect of store-bought bocconcini.
The lesson here is that Italian-American–style pasta salad has a lot going for it—if you take the time to give it the attention to detail it deserves.