Have you ever been to a potluck supper where someone didn't bring in a pasta salad? A well-made pasta salad is an excellent accompaniment to almost any main course, and can even stand on it's own. Unfortunately, a lot of people do not know how to make a pasta salad “well-made”. Many of us had had to suffer through mushy, over-cooked pasta with watery dressing, while smiling and telling everyone how good we thought it was. That is the 'social' aspect of potluck suppers, meaning that we eat stuff that we would throw away at home.
The key to good pasta salad is, as the name suggests, correctly cooked pasta. And the first step is carefully selecting your pasta. Of course, the very best is to make your own, but that is a subject for a future article. We will just be discussing commercially-made pastas here. Regardless of the various shapes, there are basically just three types of commercial pasta; Teflon-Rolled, or Extruded, Bronze-Rolled, or Extruded, and Whole Wheat (so-called). Teflon-Rolled pasta is the standard 'Bargain' type of pasta most of us are familiar with. The rollers used to make it are Teflon-Coated to make them non-stick. It is usually a medium-golden color, with a smooth surface, and very brittle. It is edible, but only just. The smooth surface has no pores for sauce or dressing to stick to, and it is very easily over-cooked. The difference between perfect pasta and dead pasta can be measured in mere seconds. With Teflon-Rolled pasta, there is about a 1-1/2 minute of opportunity where the pasta is perfect. Bronze-Rolled Pasta is the 'Premium' type you see at better grocery-stores and specialty shops. The machine rollers used to make it are solid bronze, and are continuously coated with vegetable oil to make them non-stick. This pasta has a rough textured surface, is much lighter gold-colored than Teflon-Rolled, and is softer to the touch. It has lots of pores for dressing and sauce to stick to. It also much more forgiving on cooking times. You have maybe a 2 or 3 minute safety-margin where the pasta is about right. Whole wheat (which is anything but) is just Teflon-Rolled pasta that has had some of the husk added back into it to make it brown (and other things added that it is better not to think about too much). It cooks like Teflon-Rolled, and is no more nutritious. It often has an unpleasant 'knobby' texture because the husks were not milled fine enough. And even if it says 100% Whole Wheat, it is not true, because in order for it to last on a store shelf, the oils (where most of the nutrients are) have to be removed, or the flour will quickly become rancid, usually within a few days if it is not used. But that is also a subject for a future article. I am a firm believer in Truth in Advertising, something that is increasingly rare in today's world. Suffice to say that for the best results, try to stick to using Bronze-Rolled pasta.
Now that we have our pasta, it has to be cooked. This is where most pasta is ruined. There are many opinions on the best way to cook pasta, and some are actually valid, but it mostly depends on what you intend to use the pasta for. However you do it, be sure to have all of your salad ingredients ready to go before you start cooking the pasta. Cut all of your veggies, make your dressing, and do any other prep work that needs to be done beforehand. You'll see why in a little bit.
For salads, the following steps are the best method. You need to understand what correctly-cooked pasta looks, feels, and tastes like. Under-cooked pasta is still somewhat stiff, and will still taste a little 'raw'. The 'Smoking-Gun” is to cut a piece in half and look at the cross-section. Under-cooked pasta will have a whitish, powdery ring in the center. Cook it a bit longer, and check it again. On the other end of the spectrum, over-cooked pasta is soft, limp, sometimes slimy, falls apart, and has a 'yuckey', mushy mouth-feel to it. Throw it away, or feed it to the dogs, if they will eat it, or otherwise dispose of it, and start over. Perfect pasta will be “al dente” which means it is still springy, lively, and firm.
The next 'trick' is to use the largest, tallest pot you own, or can obtain, no matter how much you are cooking. There is no such thing as 'too much water' for cooking pasta, but there is a such thing as too little. The pasta needs to be able to roll around in the water to cook evenly. If your pasta sticks to the bottom of the pot, or sticks together in clumps, you cooked it in too small a pot, with too little water. Next, be sure to add a generous amount of salt to the water, at least 2 tablespoons. A small amount will soak into the pasta, and flavor it, but most will simply dissolve in the water. But the salt does two important things. Through a complicated chemical process that I will not go into here, the salt helps the pasta absorb water quicker, and it also toughens the outside of the pasta, allowing it to cook more evenly, so that the inside gets done correctly, without the outside becoming mushy. Now we come to a major point of contention between cooks; to oil, or not to oil the water. The majority of cooks do not understand the purpose of adding oil to the water. The oil does nothing to prevent the pasta from sticking together, as many believe, and does not even flavor the pasta. If you look next time you add oil to cooking water, it floats on the surface, and never mixes with the food. Except through purposeful emulsion, oil and water do not mix. What the oil does do is to prevent the starches in the pasta from foaming up, and causing a messy boil-over. The oil goes down the drain with the water, so there is no need to waste expensive olive oil. Any cheap vegetable oil will work.
The next critical stage is to not, under any circumstances, add pasta to the cooking water until it is at the maximum boil. The water needs to be hot enough to immediately cook the outside of the pasta, and seal it so the inside can cook at the same rate as the outside. It is also the only way to correctly time the cooking. Leave the heat on 'High' so that if the water cools after adding the pasta, it will rapidly return to the proper cooking temperature. Once you are sure it is remaining at the maximum boil, you can lower the heat slightly if you need to to prevent a boil-over. Give the pasta a little stir right after you add it, and a few more times during cooking. It helps it to cook evenly. Pasta will cook in 6-8 minutes, depending on the shape, type and thickness. You should start checking it (by tasting it, as this is the only way to properly evaluate it) at around 4-5 minutes, and check it frequently.
You should remove the pasta about 1 minute before you think it is ready, because it will continue to cook for a few minutes after being drained. The exception to this is when you are making pasta salad. If you add your raw salad ingredients, such as onions, celery, tomatoes, mayonnaise, etc... to hot pasta, it will cook them, and ruin your salad. For salad, you need to cook the pasta until it is done 'al dente', then immediately drain it in a colander, and rinse it well with cold water to stop it from cooking further. Rinse it until it is completely cold. Use you hands (washed, of course) as soon as you can handle it, to toss the pasta under the cold water , and make sure it is cold all the way through. This is the only time I advise rinsing pasta. You could allow it to cool on it's own, but then it will quickly dry out, and lose it's flavor and texture. You could prevent it drying out by tossing it with olive oil, but then it will become slick, and the dressing will not stick to it, leaving a pool of dressing in the bottom of your bowl, or plates. There really is no acceptable alternative to rinsing for salad.
Once our pasta is ready, your can transfer it to a large mixing bowl and add the rest of your ingredients. At this point, the pasta is very forgiving, and plays well with most raw ingredients, so don't be afraid to be creative. Just add your ingredients, and your dressing, and toss it all together, thoroughly. Allow it to chill, covered, in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours before serving, to allow time for the flavors to develop. Keep it chilled as much as possible until serving time.
Here's a Few Suggestions for Pasta Salad Ingredients
Try to keep your ingredients consistent with the style you're going for. In other words, if you want to make an oriental-style salad, stay with oriental vegetables like baby corn, snow pea pods, water chestnuts, etc... For a Mediterranean, Greek or Italian-style, use cut green beans, Roma tomatoes, Feta Cheese, black and/or green olives (but be sure to cut back on the salt when using green olives, as they are very salty on their own), etc.... Keep your salad true to form.
Be sure to cool any cooked vegetables, such as steamed broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, etc... before adding them to the salad, so they won't cook the other ingredients.
Canned ingredients are fine, right out of the can, such as peas, SPAM, Treat, cooked mushrooms, French-Cut Green Beans, olives, anchovies, canned boiled shrimp, crab meat, chicken meat, tuna, salmon, etc....
When making your dressing, be sure it is completely emulsified, especially when using vinegars. Otherwise, the pasta will absorb the vinegar, and the oil will just stick to the outside of the pasta (yeeech...). Use the mildest vinegar you can get, like Rice Wine Vinegar. Stronger vinegars like Malt., Apple Cider, and White vinegars will leech the bright colors from your vegetables, and start to pickle them, making the salad dull, ugly, and with unanticipated flavors. Balsamic vinegar is delicious, but it will turn your pasta a really ugly brown color, so it is best avoided.
The entire taste experience is made up of 3 parts; The initial taste, the secondary taste, and the finish. You control this by how much of each flavor is added. Your main flavor should be the largest ingredient (other than the pasta). Your secondary flavor should be about half the amount of the initial flavor. The finish should be half of the secondary. The dressing, and any herbs and seasonings should be selected to compliment these three flavors. Just think: 4-2-1 on your proportions. So, if you want an Italian flavor experience, the fresh vegetables, especially the tomatoes, green peppers, and/or black olive should stand out, followed by the musky flavor of onions, garlic and pasta, for an old-world taste, and the finish should be one of mild basil, oregano, and/or a kiss of rosemary. This can be supplied by the dressing. Just be careful and don't overdo it. Ham and Pea Pasta Salad is supposed to be a country-simple flavor experience, so you don't want a lot of spice, or complicated flavors fighting for attention. The initial taste should be one of country ham ( or SPAM/Treat), followed by the creamy sweetness of green peas, and a rustic buttermilk finish. The only added flavors should be salt and pepper to taste, and/or maybe just a finely diced carrot, a little celery, sliced very thin, and a trace of onion. Leave the garlic for another day. The dressing should be very mild and plain, such as a very mild Ranch, Buttermilk, or just plain mayonnaise, or sour cream. Just remember, you don't want too much dressing, but you need enough. The basic rule of thumb is 1 cup of dressing for every pound of uncooked pasta.
Your choices of ingredients and dressings are limited only by your creativity. Now that you know how to make a pasta salad, it will be easy for you to tweak the salad to your personal tastes. You can use a commercial dressing, or make your won. Here are two of my favorites:
Creamy Buttermilk Dressing
This is outstanding when you don't want the dressing to overpower your primary and secondary flavors. This makes about 2 cups, enough for 2 lbs of pasta + ingredients.
2/3 cup each or buttermilk, sour cream and mayonnaise
¼ cup of Rice Wine vinegar, or lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, minced fine, or 2 tsps garlic powder.
salt and pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients together, making sure they are well-blended. Use immediately. *Optional- to make creamy Italian, just add a little basil, oregano, and maybe a pinch of rosemary.
1-1/3 cups olive oil
½ cup Rice Wine vinegar, or lemon juice
1 tbsp each of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients well, and use immediately
Makes 2 cups