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How to Build the Perfect Pasta Salad (Plus 6 Tasty Combos)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Pasta salads can easily be turned into a main dish

Pasta salads can easily be turned into a main dish

How to Build a Better Pasta Salad

There are so many ways to make pasta salad. Why do we always resort to the boring (and calorie-laden) standard of elbow macaroni with chopped dill pickle and an over-abundance of full-fat mayonnaise?

There are so many much more imaginative ways to make a pasta salad; let’s look at the basic ingredients, as well as at possible ways to combine them.

Step 1: Choose a Pasta

Two words—whole grain. No, please don’t run away! Whole grain pasta made today are not the gummy cardboard-tasting kinds of pasta of just a few years ago. Give it a try, and consider these interesting shapes:

  • shell
  • penne
  • tortellini
  • farfalle
  • orecchiette
  • cavatappi
  • rotelle

Step 2: Add Vegetables

The choices are almost endless. Use the “already washed/diced/chopped” vegetables in plastic-wrapped containers if you are running short of time.

  • arugula
  • artichoke hearts (canned/rinsed/drained or frozen/thawed)
  • avocado, diced
  • baby bok choy
  • broccoli florets, blanched
  • carrot, grated
  • celery, diced
  • green beans, blanched and sliced
  • green onion, sliced
  • mushrooms, sliced
  • red onion, diced
  • peas, fresh or frozen/thawed
  • peppers (red, orange, yellow, or green), diced
  • spinach, fresh
  • tomatoes, chopped
  • zucchini, diced

Step 3: Select a Protein

Adding protein to a salad transforms your side dish into a hearty main dish meal.

  • beans (black, cannellini, garbanzo, kidney), rinsed and drained
  • canned tuna, water- or oil-packed, drained
  • cheese, diced or crumbled
  • cooked bacon, cooked and diced
  • cooked chicken, diced
  • cooked crab, diced or shredded
  • cooked ham, diced
  • cooked shrimp
  • cooked turkey, diced
  • hard-boiled eggs, chopped
  • prosciutto
  • salami
  • smoked salmon

Step 4: Top With Yummy Add-Ins

Invigorate your salad with these little pops of flavor:

  • capers
  • dried cranberries
  • dried raisins
  • minced fresh basil leaves
  • minced fresh cilantro
  • minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • olives (black, green, kalamata), rinsed and chopped
  • jarred roasted red bell pepper, rinsed, drained, and chopped
  • sun-dried tomatoes
  • walnuts, chopped

Step 5: Finish With Dressing

Bottled salad dressing is convenient but high in sodium and often full of preservatives. Making your own is so very easy. Here are two simple recipes.

Creamy Salad Dressing


  • 1/2 cup buttermilk or Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar

Directions: Mix by hand or blend with a food processor.

Simple Vinaigrette


  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (any combination of oregano, basil, marjoram, tarragon, parsley)
  • 2 tablespoons finely minced shallots
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Place in a jar with a lid and shake to blend, or pulse in a blender.


Combo 1. Greek Salad

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked farfalle (bowtie) pasta
  • Veggies: 1 cup diced tomato, 1 cup diced cucumber, 1/2 cup chopped artichoke heart
  • Protein: 1/2 to 1 cup feta cheese
  • Yummy add-ins: 1/2 cup sliced kalamata olives, 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Vinaigrette dressing

Combo 2. Smoked Salmon and Roasted Red Pepper

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked penne
  • Veggies: 1 cup roasted red pepper, 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • Protein: 1/2 cup flaked smoked salmon
  • Yummy add-ins: 1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Vinaigrette dressing

Combo 3. Rosemary Chicken Pasta Salad

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked farfalle (bow-tie) pasta
  • Veggies: 1 cup celery, diced
  • Protein: 2 cups diced cooked chicken
  • Yummy add-ins: 1/2 cup dried cranberries, 2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary, 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • Creamy salad dressing

Combo 4. Ham and Swiss Pasta Salad

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked rotini
  • Veggies: 1 cup fresh (or frozen, defrosted) green peas, 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • Protein: 1 1/2 cups diced cooked ham
  • Yummy add-ins: 1 cup diced Swiss cheese
  • Creamy salad dressing

Combo 5. BLT Pasta Salad

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked fusilli pasta
  • Veggies: 1 cup diced fresh tomato, 1 diced avocado, 2 cups fresh spinach leaves
  • Protein: 1/2 cup crisp cooked bacon, diced
  • Yummy add-ins: 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, 1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
  • Creamy Salad Dressing

Combo 6. Tuna, Chickpea, and Pasta Salad

  • Pasta: 4 cups cooked shell pasta
  • Veggies: 2 cups green beans, blanched (cooked crisp)
  • Protein: 1 can tuna, drained and flaked, 1 can garbanzo beans
  • Yummy add-ins: 1/4 cup minced fresh basil leaves
  • Vinaigrette dressing

© 2015 Linda Lum