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5 Ways To Class Up Your Pasta Salad, According to Pro Chefs

Let us be clear here: There is definitely a time and place for classic, mayo-heavy pasta salad. This summer-barbecue staple packs plenty of nostalgia value, and there’s an undeniable appeal to its cool temperature and creamy texture. That said, those who enjoy bold flavors and who relish fresh produce during the warm-weather seasons may prefer a pasta salad with less mayonnaise and more nuance and creativity. Because we count ourselves among this number, we decided to ask pro chefs for their favorite “upscale” spins on pasta salad, leading to this collection of 5 recipes easy enough to make at home, but sophisticated enough to take your backyard barbecue spread to the next level. 

Farro Salad With Maple Vinaigrette

 (By Hugh Acheson, chef/owner, Five & Ten, Empire State South, and By George, Georgia)

Okay, so “farro” isn’t exactly a pasta. It’s an ancient grain with a passing resemblance to quinoa, but in terms of texture and cooking methodology, it bears many similarities to short-cut pastas like orzo, making it a prime candidate for a pasta alternative with extra health benefits. Celebrity chef Hugh Acheson likes to use farro as a “pasta salad” base, combining it with seasonal veggies, mint, and a vinaigrette made with real maple syrup. “This farro salad is so much more than a typical summer salad. Although sometimes unexpected in a salad, real maple syrup elevates this dish to add the perfect touch of sweetness, while the farro’s nutty flavor and the cooling of the mint balance the dish. With sweet peppers, carrots, and snap peas, this dish uses vegetables you’ll likely have on hand, with the real maple syrup vinaigrette tying the dish together,” Acheson says of his recipe.


  • 1.5 cups farro
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • .5 cup maple vinaigrette*
  • 1 cup thinly sliced carrot rounds
  • 1 cup finely chopped carrot tops
  • 1 cup chopped fresh sugar snap peas
  • 1 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
  • .5 cup torn fresh mint leaves
  • Black pepper, to taste


    1. Rinse the farro under cold running water in a fine-meshed sieve.
    2. Place the farro in a pot and cover with 4.5 cups of water. Bring to a boil and then add 1/2 teaspoon of the salt.
    3. Simmer farro for 30 minutes. Drain and toss with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a bowl and set aside.
    4. In a separate large bowl, combine the carrots, carrot tops, snap peas, bell peppers, and mint. Add .25 cup of the vinaigrette and a teaspoon of kosher salt. Toss well.
    5. Add the farro and the remaining .25 cup of vinaigrette. Toss again and serve.

Maple Vinaigrette:

  1. Mince 1 shallot and put in a Mason jar with 1 tbsp Dijon mustard. Seal with the lid and shake to combine.
  2. Slowly whisk 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil into the mustard-shallot mixture. Add ⅓ cup cider vinegar and 1 tbsp real maple syrup and whisk until the texture thins. 
  3. Season with salt and pour into a clean Mason jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Udon Salad With Chicken And Toasted Sesame-Miso Dressing

Udon Salad With Chicken And Toasted Sesame-Miso Dressing
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(By Justine Kelly, executive chef and co-founder, Sun Basket)

This is definitely a twist on your typical pasta salad, full of bright flavors and crunchy texture. This savory, herby salad that can be made well in advance and is best to be served room, or “picnic blanket,” temp. I have added chicken to this, using a steaming technique that I do at home for “poaching” chicken, but the salad is just as good without and can be enjoyed as a vegetarian side salad,” chef Justine Kelly insists of her pasta salad of choice, a flavorful rendition including Japanese udon and a bright dressing with nutty notes of toasted sesame and miso.


  • 14 oz fresh udon noodles (10 oz dry)
  • 2 5-oz boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 tbsp finely grated ginger
  • 3 tbsp sake or mirin
  • 2 cups thinly sliced red cabbage
  • 1.5 cups julienned snap peas
  • Toasted sesame-miso dressing*
  • .5 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (stems included)
  • .5 cup coarsely chopped mint leaves
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
  • 2 to 3 tbsp Sambal Oelek (optional)


  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add fresh udon and cook, stirring frequently until tender, about 3-5 minutes (if using dry, follow instructions on the package). Drain and run the noodles under cold water to stop the cooking. Set aside.
  2. While the water is boiling and noodles are cooking, prepare the chicken by brushing each side of the chicken breasts with the sake or mirin. Split the grated ginger between the two chicken breasts and rub to coat. Wrap each piece in aluminum foil, forming a packet that will hold the juices of the chicken as it steams.
  3. Using a pot that will fit a steamer and has a lid, add 3 inches of water. Bring to a boil. Add the foil packets of chicken, cover and steam until cooked through, about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the packets from the steamer and allot to rest, still wrapped in foil, for 5 minutes. Open the packets, reserving any “broth” in the packets, and allow the chicken to cool. Shred, using your hands or fork and place the chicken back into the broth to keep it moist.
  4. To serve, combine noodles, shredded chicken, cabbage, snap peas, cilantro, mint, and dressing in a large mixing bowl. Toss well to coat, season to taste with salt. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with toasted sesame seeds, and serve with the Sambal Oelek on the side.

Toasted Sesame-Miso Dressing:

  1. Add 1 tbsp red miso, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsps toasted sesame seeds, 2 tbsps lemon juice, 2 tbsps rice vinegar, 4 tbsps neutral oil (like grapeseed or canola), and 2 tsp toasted sesame oil to a bowl and whisk to combine. Season to taste with salt.

Super Green Pesto Pasta Salad

Image used with permission by copyright holder

(By Anthony Spino, chef/caterer, HUNGRY)

Dairy-free pasta salads have the advantage of staying fully edible and enjoyable even if they’re not refrigerated, and this vegan rendition owes its smooth texture and refreshing flavor to a pesto sauce packed with super greens. “This reminds me of an old school pasta salad updated with a zingy pesto to replace mayo. This recipe is light, but yet full of flavor and super foods. It is easy to prepare and only takes boiling water for the cooking of the pasta,” chef Anthony Spino tells us of his recipe.  


  • 8 oz dry whole-grain pasta
  • 1.5 cups basil
  • 4.5 cups spinach
  • 1.5 cups walnuts (can use toasted pumpkin seeds for nut-free option)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • .75 cup olive oil
  • 3 tbsp white miso
  • 3 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1.5 tsp black pepper
  • 1.5 tbsps salt
  • 1.25 cups kale chopped
  • .5 cup sun dried tomatoes cut in quarters
  • 1 avocado, chopped
  • .5 red onion, chopped
  • .5 cucumber, chopped
  • .25 cup black olives, sliced


  1. Cook pasta according to the package and save .75 cup of pasta water.
  2. Add basil, spinach, walnuts, garlic, miso, nutritional yeast, black pepper, salt, and water from pasta into a powerful blender (Spino uses a Vitamix) or food processor. Pulse a few times to break down the spinach and basil. Continue to pulse, while slowly adding olive oil into mixture, until it becomes a smooth paste.
  3. Add pasta, pesto and all other ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use extra basil for garnish.

Italian Tomato Pasta Salad

Italian Tomato Pasta Salad
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(By Luigi Cetrulo, pasta chef, Pasta Eater, NYC)

Using homemade pasta for a pasta salad might sound like more work than it’s worth, but chef Luigi Cetrulo believes that the fresh stuff adds an extra level of excellence to this dish, especially if you choose to flavor your pasta dough in a way that suits the overall taste profile of your salad ingredients. Cetrulo makes a pasta flavored with tomato sauce to include in his pasta salad recipe, explaining that “nobody does this kind of pasta with the scent of tomato. It’s a very healthy and light pasta, handmade with whole-wheat flour mixed with tomato sauce and water. Completely vegan, very fresh, and perfect for the summer season.” That said, if you don’t have a pasta maker and need a store-bought recommendation for this recipe, Cetrulo suggests “any whole-wheat dry pasta, preferably a short cut [version]. The cherry tomatoes mixed in the salad will give the flavor that is missing.”


  • 1 lb Italian “00” flour
  • 1 lb whole-wheat flour 
  • 7 oz  warm water
  • 8 oz tomato sauce
  • 1 fennel (bulb and stalks), cut in brunoise
  • 1 cucumber, julienned
  • 15 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 15 parsley leaves
  • 2 green lemons, cut into slices
  • A handful of Pantelleria capers
  • A handful of Taggiasca olives
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
  • Pink pepper, to taste
  • Salt, to taste
  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • A bunch of basil leaves


  1. To make the pasta dough, add the 00 flour and the whole-wheat flour to a bowl along with tomato sauce and pour the hot water in the center slowly and gradually. 
  2. Begin the kneading process with a fork. Once all the water is in, start kneading with your hands. Knead for at least 5 minutes, folding the dough several times on itself.
  3. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.
  4. Return the dough to your work area and soften it quickly if necessary. Divide the dough into 2 (or more) parts and start spreading it with the pasta machine.
  5. Once you have obtained the various sheets, choose your pasta shape attachment and turn the dough into pasta.
  6. Cook the fresh pasta in salted boiling water for 3-4 minutes.
  7. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and put it in a large mixing bowl. Add fennel, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, parsley, lemon slices, capers, olives, lemon juice, basil leaves, olive oil, salt and pepper and stir to combine. 
  8. For best results, rest in the fridge for 15 minutes before serving. 

Mexican Corn And Orzo Salad

Mexican Corn And Orzo Salad
Image used with permission by copyright holder

(By Darnell Ferguson, chef/owner, SuperChefs, Louisville, Kentucky)

Mexican “street corn,” also known as elote (when it’s served on the cob) or esquites (served off the cob), is a natural addition to a spread of grilled dishes … which is why chef Darnell Ferguson’s choice to adapt esquites into a pasta salad feels like such a genius idea. Ferguson tells us that “it’s a unique twist to a classic dish. Mexican street corn is a very summery dish, so I wanted to take this popular food and combine it with a classic pasta salad. Using orzo provides a look and texture that works great with the corn.” Esquites traditionally include grilled or boiled corn, but Ferguson prefers to deep-fry his kernels before adding them to this salad, explaining that  “with this dish, I really like the texture and sweetness of the corn from frying it. I  literally drop the entire corn cob in the fryer.” However, if you don’t have access to a fryer or to a deep, heavy-bottomed pot, then grilled corn makes a solid substitution for the fried version. 


  • 1 cup cooked orzo, cooled and mixed with olive oil to prevent sticking
  • 4 strips of bacon, cooked and diced
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 3 jalapeños, finely diced
  • 2 ears of corn, raw or fire-roasted
  • .25 cup cotija cheese
  • .5 cup garlic aioli, store bought or homemade
  • Kosher/coarse salt, to taste
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tbsp smoked paprika
  • Fresh cilantro, for garnish
  • Frying oil of choice


  1. Place cooled orzo pasta in a bowl and add bacon, red onion, and jalapeños. Stir to combine.
  2.  Place both ears of corn entirely into a deep fryer and fry in oil for approximately 5 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Remove corn from fryer and place on tray with paper towels to absorb excess oil. Once cooled, shave the kernels off the cob and add to orzo mixture, along with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika.
  4. Add cotija cheese and garlic aioli to the bowl and thoroughly mix, tasting as you go and adding more cheese or aioli as desired. Garnish with cilantro before serving.
Taylor Tobin
Taylor Tobin is a freelance food, drink, and lifestyle writer based in Brooklyn. She's contributed content to publications…
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