How To: The Two Things You're Not Doing for Perfect Macaroni & Pasta Salad

The Two Things You're Not Doing for Perfect Macaroni & Pasta Salad

The noodle is a noble thing. And while I love ramen and pasta, I have a real soft spot in my heart for macaroni salad (especially the kind that comes with Hawaiian plate lunch) and the type of pasta salad that's dished up during picnics and barbecues.

Traditionally, the only vegetables in Hawaiian macaroni salad are carrots and celery, diced fine. Image via A Cozy Kitchen

There is a trick to making these classic American salads really flavorful, but I couldn't figure out what it was. After many failed attempts to duplicate both Hawaiian macaroni salad and the Havarti, dill, and pasta salad I grew up eating at potlucks and PTA barbecues, I did some research (i.e., called a friend's mom and poked the internet with a sharp stick) and found out there were two essential steps I was skipping.

The Trick: Overcook the Pasta

To make a really great pasta salad, you need to cook the pasta to the point right in-between al dente and mushy. If you like your pasta fully done, I suggest you cook the pasta for one or two minutes past your preferred cook time. If you generally prefer al dente pasta, cook it for three minutes longer than usual.

You really want to see the heat rising from those noodles. Image via Shutterstock

Once your pasta is done, quickly drain it and then return it to the pot. Do not run it under cold water!

The Secret Ingredient: Apple Cider or Red Wine Vinegar

Next, evenly sprinkle your vinegar of choice over the pasta and toss well until it's all absorbed. The acid in the vinegar and the residual heat from the cooking pasta make the noodles more absorbent so they'll really soak up the flavor from your dressing, whether you use a mayonnaise-based one or a vinaigrette. Plus, the vinegar adds a nice tang that balances out the richness of said dressing.

You need a vinegar with a hearty flavor to make this trick work. Image via I Believe I Can Fry

This recipe for Hawaiian macaroni salad suggests using ½ cup of apple cider vinegar to a pound of pasta, which is a good gauge to use for future reference. I sometimes just eyeball the amount of pasta I'm using and sprinkle red wine vinegar over it until it tastes right.

What tricks do you have for making great pasta salad?

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Cover images via Joshua Bousel/Serious Eats


My secret ingredient is the liquid from sweet gherkins together with grated sweet onion and California carrots, and plenty of finely chopped celery, using mostly the white part. Added cut up cooked shrimp for a delicious variation.

Couldn't disagree with this more. Tried the vinegar bath 3 times, everyone who normally gobbles down my pasta salads asked me "What did you change?" "Can you make it the old way next time?" Sorry, but unless the pasta salad is normally made as a sweet tasting food, that vinegar flavor (especially if a Ranch or Sundried Tomato based salad) makes it taste oddly sour / spoiled. When I make creamy crab (seafood) salad, the family recipe has called for 2 Tbs of good apple cider vinegar since since at least the 1960s. Also, adding a minute or two to pasta cooking time (whatever you normally cook that style of pasta) is kind of normal / standard. At least all the recipe books from the likes of Betty Crocker or Pillsbury recommend it. And if your dressing is one that is a bit fluid (as with many pasta salads) bathing the pasta in cold water to stop the cooking is recommended, other wise if you chill the salad overnight it will not only have the dressing "stuck to the pasta" but will actually have soaked up all that moisture and gotten a bit mushy and stuck together. And if you are making a tomato and garlic pasta salad where some of your guests are visiting Italians or Italian Americans that keep an "Old World Style" kitchen at home, don't add those extra minutes to the pasta cooking time or you will get odd looks from some or direct questions from the bolder ones of "did you accidentally leave the pasta in the boil too long?"

But feel free to be your own judge...

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