Is there any side dish more fun, more adaptable, more picnic-ready than pasta salad? A meal we’ve enjoyed since childhood that never seems to get old, pasta salad is infinitely customizable to a wide range of palates, both youthful and more mature. Whether you’re going the classic route of an Italian pasta salad studded with diced cured meats and mozzarella cheese, a Southwest pasta salad jazzed up with chipotle peppers and dried spices, or a creamy macaroni salad bound with mayo and accented with sweet cherry tomatoes, you truly can’t go wrong — especially when your destination is a cookout or potluck.
As simple as pasta salad can be to make — it’s basically a matter of combining cooked, cooled pasta with a mayo or oil-based dressing and mixing in additional ingredients and flavorings of your choice — there is a big misstep you’ll want to avoid when preparing the dish at home.
Have you ever spied a colorful, tasty-looking pasta salad at a picnic or BBQ and made yourself a plate of it, only to bite into cold, hard pasta busily surrounded by a bunch of other ingredients? If so, you wouldn’t be the only one. According to Serious Eats, the phenomenon of hard pasta is a common pasta salad pitfall. Although we’re constantly counseled to cook our pasta until it’s al dente and not a second more, that tactic only works when you’re going to be enjoying the pasta hot.
Pasta that’s cooked until just-tender — that is to say, cooked correctly — and then cooled and mixed into a salad will actually get hard and chewy, The Kitchn explains. That’s due to the starch in the pasta going through a process called retrogradation (nothing to do with Mercury, we assure you) while cooling, in which the molecules settle into a more solid, crystalline structure (via Science Direct). It’s not too tasty, and the way to avoid it is somewhat counterintuitive: You’ve got to overcook your pasta, so that when it cools, it will firm up to about al dente and no more. Keep in mind that there is a delicate balance between pasta that is slightly over-cooked and pasta that becomes mushy. Serious Eats advises cooking the pasta about two or three minutes past al dente, then cooling it under a rinse of water. After that you’ll be all set to make the best pasta salad of your life.