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Imperfect Pasta is the Secret to Perfect Pasta Salad

Lifehacker logo Lifehacker 5/23/2019 A.A. Newton
a bowl of food © Photo: A.A. Newton

Like other entries in the “carbs coated in mayo” category of side dishes, pasta salad is incredibly polarizing. When it’s good, I can’t stop eating it; when it’s bad, it’s inedible. I’ve found that the secret to really good pasta salad isn’t homemade mayo or a good jar of pickles—it’s really bad pasta. Specifically, overcooked pasta.

How to Make Your Own Duke's-Style Mayonnaise

To me, the single defining feature of a bad batch of pasta salad is crunchy noodles, which happens because starches solidify in cold temperatures. (If you’ve ever eaten leftover spaghetti straight from the fridge, you know what I’m talking about.) All you need to do to combat this is take pasta salad noodles way past the point of al dente—the softer they are when they’re hot, the more tender they’ll be when chilled.

To make the best pasta salad ever, bring a pot of very well-salted water to a boil, add your pasta, and cook for at least a minute or two longer than the package instructions say. The noodles should offer barely any resistance—but not be totally mushy—when you take a bite, and they should be noticeably larger than they started out. Obviously, cooked pasta will always be bigger than dry, but overcooked pasta really swells up:

© Photo: A.A. Newton

From here, all you need to do is let the noodles cool down a bit and then season them to your liking. This particular batch of pasta salad was a clean-out-the-fridge number: some cilantro and parsley root pesto that needed to be used, extra-ripe giardiniera, thawed frozen peas, the remnants of a block of mozzarella, and a jammy egg for good measure. It was delicious—and even after a night in the fridge, the pasta stayed perfectly tender.

Related video: Italian Grandma Makes Fresh Pasta/Fettuccine

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