The biggest mistake you're making with your pasta salad

Ah, the classic, hit-or-miss side dish at the summer cookout. We commend you for trying: when it comes to pasta salad, there's ample room for mistakes. At its worst, pasta salad is a mayonnaise-soaked mess that isn't worth tasting. It's not quite healthy, but it's not as deliciously-sinful as a grilled hot dog. So you might as well eat three more hot dogs. Right?

Then again, pasta salad has the potential for greatness. Over the years, recipe-makers have added sophisticated twists: mint leaves, scallions, sweet basil, goat cheese, and dried apricots (via New York Times). So how does one elevate a pasta salad from a greasy bowl of elbow mac to something, dare we suggest, exciting? 

Experts agree that there's one key component that will make or break your pasta salad: proper seasoning. It may sound like a small detail, but it's the base of a dynamic, flavorful dish, according to Spoon University. 

It's all about the seasoning

So let's talk about seasoning. When food is cold or chilled, it's easier to detect a lack of flavor. It's not your imagination: your taste buds react differently to different temperatures (via Beverage Daily). Rule of thumb? Season your pasta salad more vigorously than you would season a hot pasta dish (via Bon Appétit).

The seasoning starts before the pasta even hits the boiling water.  This may seem like too much salt, but it will keep your pasta flavorful, even when it's chilled, and tossed with veggies and herbs. And don't stop there. Salt is your friend. It will bring out the sweetness in the salad's tomatoes, corn, peppers, or whatever else you decide to add. So, salt as you go (via The Kitchn). Salt your vegetables. Salt your dressing. Bottom line: If the first time you salt your pasta salad is toward the end, when everything's assembled, you're doing it wrong.

Dress the salad immediately

Once you've cooked your pasta at a firm al dente — please, no flimsy farfalle, according to Bon Appétit — you've got to hustle. Dress the salad immediately. Don't wait for the pasta to cool. Not to be dramatic, but time is of the essence. 

Dressing the pasta while it's still warm will allow the pasta to absorb the dressing, creating even more flavor within the final product. Using a nicely shaped, short pasta, like orecchiette or fusilli, will allow the dressing to slide into the cute little pasta crevices, creating more room for flavor (via Inspired Taste).

You can always add a remainder of the dressing before serving, to keep the pasta salad from getting too dry or sticky. But we promise: immediately dressing the pasta is a game-changer. It will allow those lovely, acidic red wine vinegars, or dijon mustards, or fresh lemon juices (um, maybe skip the mayo) to shine through.