How to Make Refreshing Cold Noodle Salads
They’re virtually a requirement at potlucks and picnics, but too often, they miss the mark. We've got 5 tips and 15 recipes for cold noodle salad that will have everybody asking for seconds.
When I was a kid, mayo-drowned macaroni salad from the deli was pretty much the only noodle salad my family ever ate. How things have changed! These days, I make salads using noodles of all shapes, sizes, and nations, usually with plenty of fresh vegetables and herbs, often with a little extra textural boost, and always with a flavor-packed dressing to make the ingredients sing.
Jump ahead to:
Note: The Yummly Meal Planner is available to paid subscribers.
5 tips for an amazing noodle salad
Sometimes I think I could toss together a killer noodle salad in my sleep. That’s because I’ve found a few guidelines that pretty much guarantee success.
1. Choose your noodles
In my experience, dried noodles almost always work better than fresh, since they cook up sturdier. And if you don’t match your noodle to your other ingredients, you may be bound for disappointment. Delicate options like rice vermicelli won’t hold up to the heavier items in a traditional pasta salad, and substantial Italian pasta like penne will throw off the balance in an Asian recipe.
Most cold noodle salads will use one of these:
Rice noodles are common throughout Asia. They’re naturally gluten-free, and they have a pleasant springiness. I prefer them with thinner dressings — think soy-based mixtures or simple oil and vinegar.
Wheat noodles include Italian pasta, of course, and also ramen noodles. They pair well with dressings made from creamy ingredients like mayo, Greek yogurt, and peanut butter, as well as traditional vinaigrettes.
Soba noodles are Japanese buckwheat noodles. They have a mild, earthy taste and can stand up to powerful flavors.
Cellophane noodles (aka glass noodles or bean threads) are among my favorites. They don’t have much flavor on their own — it’s all about texture. I love how slippery they are, and how chewy.
Spiralized vegetables may not be noodles technically, but if you’re watching your carbs they make an excellent substitute.
2. Cook them right
When it comes to cook time, follow the package directions and add a minute or two. Think about how cold pasta becomes firm, almost hard — to avoid that happening in your salad, you want the noodles to be fully cooked. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking and keep them from sticking together. Stop before they’re fully cold, though, since they’ll absorb the dressing more effectively while they’re still a little warm.
3. Add crunchy vegetables
A successful noodle salad has plenty of textural contrast. To play off the tender noodles, you’ll want to include at least one chopped vegetable with plenty of crunch. I’ll usually add carrots, but I never stop there. Cucumber, cabbage, bell pepper, radishes, jicama, snap peas or snow peas… The options are limited only by your imagination.
4. Dress it right
Put your noodles and vegetables in a large bowl along with any protein (like cooked chicken, canned tuna, cheese, beans, or tofu) and give everything a good toss. If you’re serving right away, add the full amount of dressing. But — this is important — if you won’t be eating the noodle salad for a few hours or you’re making a big batch to eat all week, only add half the dressing, and add more at serving time. The noodles will soak up whatever liquid they find, so if you add all the dressing and let it sit, you’ll wind up with a strangely dry salad.
5. Don’t forget the garnish
Things like chopped fresh herbs, lemon zest, chopped scallions, and sesame seeds can turn a simple noodle salad into something special. And while this isn’t strictly necessary, in my opinion the best pasta salads include some non-vegetable crunch, like toasted nuts. Sliced almonds work beautifully in Asian noodle salads, and I’m fond of pine nuts in Mediterranean ones.
Easy recipes for irresistible noodle salads
Ready to get started? Try any of these recipes to master the concept, then take the leap into making your own versions.
Asian noodle salad recipes
If sesame noodles are all you know of cold Asian noodle dishes, your world is about to expand.
Gotta love a noodle salad that doesn’t require you to cook the noodles. Soak either rice vermicelli or cellophane noodles in boiling water for a few minutes, drain, and they’re ready to go. Then you toss them with shredded veggies, bean sprouts, fresh cilantro, and a tangy dressing made with rice vinegar, fish sauce, and sugar. Add a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a garnish of chopped scallions just before serving.
I appreciate a recipe that lets me use what I have on-hand. Here, you can use rice noodles, soba noodles, or even linguini. And for veggies, anything that can hold up to a peanut butter-based dressing will work, like carrots, red bell pepper, and radishes. And that dressing couldn’t be easier: PB, fresh ginger, garlic, orange juice and lime juice, soy sauce, honey, and toasted sesame oil just get whirred in the blender.
Soba noodles lend a tender, subtly nutty sophistication to this salad. Tons of fresh vegetables, including sugar snap peas, red cabbage, carrots, and green onions, provide the crunch, while frozen edamame add protein. The citrus-soy-rice wine vinegar-sriracha dressing adds the perfect amount of zing — and a shower of sesame seeds gives each noodle a little textural boost.
If you’ve been looking for a go-to recipe, here’s how to make ramen noodle salad. I’m pretty sure it isn’t authentic at all, but it’s so delicious, and so ridiculously fast, you won’t care. It cuts down on prep by using a bag of coleslaw mix, canned mandarin oranges, and frozen edamame for the salad part of the equation. And this recipe really doesn’t have any cooking, since you’re crumbling instant ramen noodles directly into the bowl. They stay crispy for hours, even as they soak up the sesame-soy dressing.
Sweet, sour, salty, and spicy all at once, the dressing for this simple salad hits all the flavor notes. You'll use half the dressing to marinate jumbo shrimp. Once they’re grilled, you only have to toss them with cooked soba noodles and the rest of the dressing, add some chopped fresh herbs, and serve.
Mediterranean pasta salad recipes
Long before I ever slurped up a cellophane noodle, I enjoyed good ol’ pasta salad. These recipes take the classic in new directions with sunny Mediterranean influences.
It’s hard to beat the simplicity of this recipe: You just toss cooked pasta (the recipe lists orecchiette, but I’d make this with any small shape), grape tomatoes, and tiny balls of fresh mozzarella with a quick, pesto-based dressing. The combo makes a great side dish or light lunch.
Farfalle meets a whole bunch of my favorite nibbles in this recipe, including marinated artichoke hearts, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and fresh vegetables like cucumbers and baby spinach. The tangy lemon-oregano dressing pulls it all together.
Take the elements of a classic Greek salad — feta, of course, as well as cucumber, juicy tomatoes, bell peppers, kalamata olives, red onion, and red wine vinaigrette. Add cooked and cooled penne, toss with more of that fantastic dressing, and you’re good to go.
The summery, south-of-France stew gets an intriguing, make-ahead twist here. You roast seasoned eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and tomatoes instead of simmering, then mix the vegetables with cooked pasta and an umami-packed dressing. Serve at room temp or chilled. Using roasted vegetables means this’ll stay good in the fridge for up to a week — no soggy cucumbers to drag things down.
When I’m in a hurry, I’ll often turn to traditional antipasto items to make a meal. Here, you’re adding cubes of soppressata or pepperoni, olives, artichoke hearts, and fresh mozz to rotini pasta and tossing it with a good-quality, prepared Italian dressing. It’s ready in minutes, and it’s hearty enough for a main course.
Even more cold noodle salad recipes
Of course, making a salad out of cold noodles and other ingredients can take inspiration from anywhere, and suit almost any diet.
When I’m looking for a make-ahead lunch salad, I often turn to tuna. With just a handful of vegetables, pasta, and a simple balsamic-and-oil dressing, this one comes together in a flash. And this healthy cold noodle salad stays good in the fridge for up to five days — enough to get me through the workweek.
Marrying Asian and Italian flavors, this elegant steak salad feels fancy enough for company. And it’s so simple to make, you can throw a weeknight dinner party and still have time to put up your feet.
You don’t have to give up noodle salads if you’re counting carboyhdrates. Here you’ll swap spiralized zucchini, carrot, and cabbage for the starchy stuff, add leftover cooked chicken for a protein boost, and toss it with a blender peanut sauce.
Normally I wouldn’t think to combine Mexican flavors with pasta, but this salad is just so gorgeous, so filled with flavor, I couldn’t resist. The creamy dressing combines plain Greek yogurt, lime juice, hot sauce, and spices — you’ll want to use it on all kinds of Mexican-ish foods.
It really is as simple as adding the main ingredients of a BLT (that would be bacon, lettuce, and tomato) to cooled-off pasta. What takes it over the top, though, is tossing everything with both ranch dressing and barbecue sauce. I’m pretty sure I could eat this entire recipe myself.
Explore more salads and pasta
From Mediterranean grilled chicken salad to ramen pad Thai, we have so many more ways to enjoy your favorite foods.