14 Best Mix-Ins To Upgrade Your Pasta Salad

There are a lot of great things about summer, and one of those things is the fact that it's time for all those warm-weather favorites. Put aside the soups, stews, and chilis for a few months, and instead, start whipping up some cold sides to go along with all your grilling favorites.

One side that's sure to always be a crowd-pleaser is pasta salad. There are almost infinite ways to customize this one to everyone's tastes, and it's so versatile it can be served alongside literally anything. Whether you're making giant burgers, steaks grilled perfectly, or even kabobs, there's nothing that pasta salad won't be an ideal accompaniment for.

That said, it's also possible that you're starting to feel like you're in a rut. Pasta salad isn't immune to becoming the same old thing, and it's entirely possible that you're still making that recipe your family loved a few summers ago. If that's the case, we have some good news: Not only are there a handful of ingredients that will definitely take your pasta salad to the next level, there are plenty that are easy to add in. Some ideas will work with tried-and-true favorites, while others will inspire you to make something completely new. Either way, you're not going to go wrong.

Don't waste that pickle juice

Creamy pasta salads can get a little heavy and a bit stodgy, and that's the last thing you want to have to happen when you're whipping up something for a hot summer day. Fortunately, there's a super easy way to upgrade your pasta salad, make it not-so-heavy, and extra flavorful, and there's a bonus here, too. If you're looking for more ways to make sure you're cutting down on food waste, this is definitely for you.

Once you take that last pickle from the jar, it might seem like it's done and dusted — but you absolutely shouldn't dump that pickle juice down the drain. Just a dash of pickle juice is actually a brilliant additive to thin out a creamy pasta salad dressing, and it'll also add all those delicious vinegary notes... along with all the spices that made those pickles so amazing in the first place. Add some fresh dill to your salad to kick up the pickle flavor even more, and if you're planning on fine-dicing some actual pickles to add, even better. Who doesn't love pickles, after all?

Tomatoes are great, but cherry tomatoes are even better

Tomatoes are a staple in pasta salads, especially cherry tomatoes. The idea of adding them is certainly nothing new, but Samin Nosrat came up with an absolutely brilliant idea that's just as delicious as it is easy. It's some secret-ingredient-level stuff, and it involves making something that she calls "tomato candy."

And, what is that? It basically involves bathing cherry tomatoes in olive oil, salt, and sugar, then caramelizing them in the oven. Sounds delicious, right? It is, and there is one pretty important footnote to this one. We did promise some easy mix-ins for your pasta salad, and this one is easy — but it's also the sort of thing you need to plan ahead for. Getting those cherry tomatoes to the right amount of sweet, roasted goodness is going to take about five hours, but given that it's hands-off hours, it still counts as easy. What's easier than popping something in the oven, setting a timer, and forgetting about it for hours? It's time to stir those sweet, sweet tomatoes into what's bound to be your new favorite pasta salad recipe.

Canned, leftover, or fresh, chicken is a go-to

If there's anything we love more than an easy add-in, it's one that's both easy and versatile — and chicken is definitely that. Whether you take a shortcut and open that can of chicken you keep around for those nights when you're just too busy, take those leftover chicken breasts and slice them up, cut open that store-bought rotisserie chicken, or marinate something to make it fresh, adding chicken could even take your pasta salad from a side to an entire meal that's perfect for those hot summer evenings when you're hungry... but not too hungry.

The other brilliant thing about chicken is that it works with a creamy pasta salad — like in this chicken macaroni salad recipe — or with an oil-and-vinegar-based pasta salad, like in a balsamic chicken pasta salad. This can also be a great option for those chicken breasts that came out just a little too dry to stand on their own. Shred them, coat them with a healthy helping of mayo or an oil-and-vinegar dressing, and no one will ever know you weren't entirely thrilled with your initial final product.

Use all the fresh flavors of tomato, mozzarella, and basil

Some side dishes are just iconic, and when we talk about the combination of mozzarella, tomato, and basil, we are of course talking about a Caprese salad. It's a dish that's classy enough to find on a restaurant menu, yet simple enough to make at home. If you've never thought about turning it into a Caprese pasta salad, we're happy to tell you that it's even easier than it sounds.

The ingredients are much the same as a regular Caprese salad. Tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and balsamic vinegar stand out against the background of whatever pasta you decide to use, and our only recommendation is to skip the macaroni — it's too small to easily spear alongside the heftier ingredients that this one calls for. You are, after all, going to want to get a bite of pasta, tomatoes, and mozzarella all at the same time, so reach for the penne or the fusilli, and serve this one up on the nights you want something light, summertime fresh, and a little classy.

Do something sweet with canned fruit

It almost goes without saying that pasta salad is typically a savory dish, but the next time you're tasked with bringing a side dish to a party or something fun to a potluck, why not go with something that's going to completely turn heads: a sweet pasta salad? And, no, this isn't some weird new TikTok trend, it's actually a thing — and anyone who's from or has spent time in the American West might be familiar with frog eye salad.

As if the idea of a sweet pasta salad wasn't odd enough, what's with the name? Since it traditionally uses acini de pepe pasta, it does actually sort of look like a pile of frog eyes... or eggs, honestly. But it doesn't have to, and even if you opt for a different shape of pasta, the addition of canned fruit — including oranges and pineapples — along with a pineapple-based custard might just have you swearing by sweet sides. Don't knock it until you've tried it — a whole region of the U.S. can't be wrong.

Add some summer zing with zucchini and mint

The great thing about pasta salads is that they're a summertime staple, so there's no shortage of fresh ingredients that can be used in them. And zucchini? Well, anyone who's ever planted a few zucchini plants in their garden knows just how out-of-control they can get, and if you've already given enough away that your neighbors are sick of seeing you coming, and you're already burned out on zucchini bread and fried zucchini, then try throwing together a zucchini and mint pasta salad.

It's so good that you might just want to share the recipe with those neighbors you've been bombarding — they'll appreciate it. Along with the zucchini and the mint are other fresh herbs like thyme (or basil), spicy heavy-hitters like red chili flakes, and you can even add some lovely texture with some sliced almonds and crunchy bell peppers. Bathe it all in a simple, straightforward coating of olive oil, and it's safe to say you'll actually be looking forward to the next zucchini that's ready to pick.

There's no way to go wrong with lemon

We all know those hot, steamy summer nights when everything seems like just too much work. You have no appetite, but you know you really need to eat something. It's so unbearable that just the thought of setting foot in the kitchen is somehow making you sweat more. But, have no fear — that's precisely the kind of night that calls for turning a cold pasta salad into an entire meal, especially when it's light, fresh, and pretty incredible.

That's exactly what you can dish up when you take a page from the playbook of Mashed and recipe developer Miriam Hahn. She came up with a pretty incredible cold lemon capellini salad that is so fresh that it's just what you're going to want when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise. It's also got a ton of popping flavors, from tomatoes and fresh basil to a dash of lemon that really brings the whole thing together. Add the wonderful tanginess of capers, and it'll fill you up, get you a helping of veg and greens, and it won't weigh you down.

All the fixin's of a BLT

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Everything is better with bacon. That goes for pasta salad, too, and it turns out that everyone's favorite sandwich — a BLT — perfectly lends itself to transforming a cold pasta salad... with just a little help.

Add bacon, tomatoes, and lettuce — like arugula — to your pasta salad, and while it would be perfectly acceptable to use a creamy mayo sauce in the spirit of your standard BLT, you could also opt for a Dijon and mayo dressing that's got just a little more kick. Looking for a lunch that's going to make everyone else in the office more than a little jealous? Look no further than a BLT pasta salad, and this one does come with a bit of a caveat. Since it's best served cold — like, really cold, right from the fridge cold — that means you're going to have to risk putting it in the office fridge for the morning before cracking into it for lunch. Make sure it's very clearly labeled, because if sticky fingers are going to lift anyone's lunch, it'll be this one.

Skip mayo and olive oil and reach for pesto instead

Is it possible to get tired of pasta salad? Maybe, somewhere around the end of August. It doesn't have to be that way, though, and if you're sick of the standard variety of oil-based dressings, and you're just not feeling mayo anymore, there's another option that just might be better than both of those: pesto.

Don't get us wrong, this does involve olive oil — but with a completely fresh take. Opt for EVOO and a high-quality, incredibly fresh pesto to mix and coat not only your pasta salad but whatever else you feel like adding (greens, tomatoes, and mozzarella are all going to be delicious, and that chicken we mentioned adding? It's great here, too.). Make sure everything is coated evenly, and here are a few tips to make sure you're getting the most out of your pesto pasta salad. For starters, save some of the water you cooked the pasta in, just in case you feel like your dressing is too thick or too clumpy. Secondly, that pasta? Make it fusilli: The dressing will cling to the spirals better than it'll adhere to a straight, flat pasta, and you're not going to want to miss a drop.

Seafood pasta salad? Yes, please!

Pasta salad doesn't have to be just a side dish, and with the addition of protein, it can be an entire meal. One of the tastiest and easiest ways to turn pasta salad from side to star is to add seafood, and the sky's the limit.

Do you love shrimp but wonder why you don't have it more often? Use it — fresh or frozen — for a shrimp-filled pasta salad with fresh veg and a dressing that's part mayo and part Greek yogurt. Why? The tang of the yogurt will be off the charts. Another great option is crab: Crab meat is delicate and delicious, and those who love crab know that mayonnaise is pretty much made for it. Add a little red wine vinegar and some of your favorite herbs and spices, and you'll have an incredibly fresh take on crab pasta salad. And what about salmon? Fresh or canned, salmon is another great option for serving with a creamy, yogurt-based sauce and your favorite pasta.

And finally, you're not going to go wrong with a simple tuna, either. Drain well, add flavorful pasta salad standards like red onions and capers, and put together a salad that's not just a side, but a quick meal.

Chunks or crumbles of this salty cheese will go a long way

While we're talking about a lot of easy ways to upgrade a pasta salad, here's one that's not just easy, it's ridiculously easy. Adding chunks or crumbles of feta is a great way to add some serious flavor. This rich, salty cheese is widely popular for a reason, after all, and if you're already planning on using some fresh herbs and tomatoes in your pasta salad, then feta is just one more logical next step.

And here's the thing: Feta can definitely be salty — even a little too salty for some tastes. There's actually a way to reduce the saltiness that doesn't make using feta really any more complicated, and that's simply to rinse the cheese before adding it to your dish. See? We told you this was going to be by far the easiest addition you could make to take your pasta salad up a notch.

Change up the texture with this crunchy veg

A truly good pasta salad isn't just about flavor, it's about texture, too. Cook your pasta too long, and it doesn't matter what you add to it — those mushy noodles just aren't going to be very appetizing. That said, adding some crunch to your al dente pasta is going to go a long way to make a pasta salad that's got a bite and snap as well as a kick, and an easy way to do that is to add some cucumber.

And what goes really well with cucumber? Dill, of course. Whipping up a cucumber and dill pasta salad is bound to be a win, no matter what you're serving it with. With this as the basis, it's easy enough to add other ingredients. Tomatoes are always a win, add some celery for more crunch, and red onions for a bright burst of flavor. Have a few bell peppers left over from the previous night? Add them. Some chives? Throw them in. Pasta salad doesn't have to be heavy, especially if you opt for this fresh idea with a dressing that's made with Greek yogurt or cottage cheese. Carbs with a serving of veg? Yes, please.

Try an Asian-inspired pasta salad with peanut butter

Peanut butter? In pasta salad? We know, the grimace and the expression of doubt only lasted for a second, and then, it makes sense. If you're completely and totally sick of the same old mayo- and oil-based dressings, whip up a peanut butter-based sauce with the help of some wasabi powder, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sesame oil, then use it to coat your pasta noodles just like you would any other creamy sauce. Add some fresh, cooked-but-not-overcooked veg like cauliflower and broccoli, and serve up a pretty amazing peanut butter pasta salad that will have everyone changing their minds about whether or not peanut butter and pasta go together.

While you might think of pasta salad as being the kind of side that gets served alongside hamburgers, hot dogs, or chicken right off the grill, this option might just be even more versatile. Serve with egg rolls or spring rolls, or take the time to make some from-scratch wontons. It'll absolutely be worth it.

Build a spice mix that includes everything but the kitchen sink

So here's the thing: We love shortcuts, especially when they make dinners delicious and encourage the family to eat something nutritious. The key to getting the pickiest eaters to clean their plates is seasoning, and that's why simply adding a spice blend to pasta salad can go a long, long way.

While you can definitely opt for something like McCormick's Salad Supreme, it also might just be worth customizing your own spice blend and filling a container with it. It's also great on things from bagels to pizza, so there's that, too. Plus, there's the added bonus of adjusting things to your family's tastes. Want something spicy? Add extra cayenne, chili flakes, or chili powder. Trying to cut back on the salt? Leave that out. Go heavy on the dried herbs, or add some smokiness with paprika. Part of the fun of cooking is experimenting, so experiment away and when you find your family's favorite spice blend, be sure to mix up a big batch. And maybe write it down for the next time you run out.

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table, Mashed, and The Daily Meal.