My Goals

  • Pasta with just the right texture and firmness

  • Bright mix of flavors and textures that complement the pasta

  • Flavorful dressing that makes the pasta tasty, too

Mention pasta salad and most folks think of a hodgepodge of overly firm noodles, raw broccoli florets, and spongy canned black olives, all drenched in bottled Italian dressing. That’s why my colleagues looked gleeful when I—not one of them—got the assignment of trying to rehab this sorry dish. But then I thought, I spend a lot of time perfecting hot pastas (often for this magazine), so why not give some attention to a cold one?

Before I started cooking, I settled on fusilli. Its corkscrew shape would trap dressing, and it’s easy to spear with a fork. And right off the bat, I addressed the rubbery pasta problem. Instead of boiling the noodles until they were al dente, I cooked them longer until they were a little soft. Here’s why: As pasta cools (whether in the refrigerator or under cold water), it goes through a process called retrogradation, in which the water in the pasta becomes bound up in starch crystals, making the pasta firm and dry. I made retrogradation work to my advantage by boiling the fusilli about 3 minutes past al dente and then running it under lots of cold water. As the pasta cooled, it went from almost mushy to just right.

Science: Al Dente Pasta Is So Retro(grade)

Just as leftover rice hardens when it is refrigerated, al dente pasta tastes overly firm once it cools. Retrogradation is to blame: As pasta cooks, its starch granules absorb water and swell. The chain-like starch molecules that formerly stuck together separate, allowing water to seep in among them. Then, as the pasta cools, the starch chains creep back together, forming tight microscopic crystals. The water that was keeping the molecules separate becomes bound up inside the crystals, and the pasta becomes overly firm because the starch is more rigidly compacted and the water is trapped.

Our solution: When serving pasta cool, cook it until it is a little too soft. This way, when it retrogrades, it will firm up to just the right texture.

Next up: mix-ins. Crunchy raw vegetables overshadow tender pasta and don’t contribute much flavor. But I didn’t want to take the time to grill or roast vegetables. Instead, I reached for pantry picks with less intrusive textures: chewy, sweet sun-dried tomatoes; briny kalamata olives and capers; and a whole jar of vinegary, spicy, slightly crunchy pepperoncini. For heartiness, I also included diced salami, and to balance its salty tang, bits of creamy fresh mozzarella. Finally, I mixed in arugula and basil for freshness and dressed everything with oil and vinegar.

Carefully chosen mix-ins—briny capers, pepperoncini, and olives; chewy, tangy sun-dried tomatoes; milky, creamy fresh mozzarella; and savory salami—contribute layered textures, heartiness, and big flavor.

The salad was punctuated with bold bites, but the pasta was bland since the oil and vinegar weren’t clinging. I needed a potent mixture that was thick enough to coat the pasta, so I decided to puree some of the mix-ins into the dressing. I pulsed the capers and half the pepperoncini in a food processor. In place of vinegar, I drizzled in some of the piquant pepperoncini brine. Then, I gave the oil a flavor boost by microwaving it with garlic, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. As the oil bubbled, the garlic’s raw edge disappeared and the oil took on the deep savoriness of the anchovies. I processed the infused oil into the other ingredients, creating a vibrant dressing with lots of body. Giving pasta salad my full attention paid off: The thick, bold dressing settled into the grooves of the fusilli, and the mix-ins were ideal complements to the perfectly tender pasta. Now it was my turn to be gleeful.

To create a thick, flavorful dressing that would cling to the pasta’s nooks and crannies, we blended some of the capers and pepperoncini into olive oil laced with garlic, anchovy, and red pepper flakes.

Keys to Success

  • Pasta with just the right texture and firmness

    Cooking the pasta past al dente, until tender, means that it will have a pleasing, just-tender texture once cool.
  • Bright mix of flavors and textures that complement the pasta

    Choosing bold mix-ins (including a few jarred ingredients) brings a nice mix of textures that complement the pasta better than hard raw vegetables would.
  • Flavorful dressing that makes the pasta tasty, too

    To make sure the pasta itself tastes good, we make a thick, flavorful dressing that incorporates some of the mix-ins themselves—capers and pepperoncini—along with olive oil infused with garlic, red pepper flakes, and anchovies. The thick dressing thoroughly coats the crevices of the pasta.