The Sheet Pan Hack To Quickly Cool Pasta Salad

Perfect for a simple yet satisfying lunch, or for making a big batch for a barbecue or a cookout, a good pasta salad recipe is a handy thing to have in any home cook's repertoire. Whether packed with vegetables, fish, or meat, it's always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. And it's quick to make, too. But there's a handy hack that can help make it even quicker.

When making a pasta salad, it's of course necessary to cook the pasta first. But since the dish is usually served cold, it takes time for the hot-cooked pasta to cool down. One way to cool the pasta faster is to rinse it under cold water once drained. But one problem with this method is that it rinses away the starch, which helps dressings to cling better to the pasta. 

A better method, which doesn't involve adding more water (and then leaving it to drain again) is to use a sheet pan to cool down the pasta. Spreading the cooked, drained pasta out on a sheet pan means it drops in temperature more quickly, and it also stops it from overcooking and becoming too soft.

A sheet pan helps the pasta cool faster

The sheet pan hack works well to cool pasta because it involves spreading the cooked pasta shapes out flat, rather than them being all on top of each other in a bowl or pot (which takes much longer since the hot pasta in the middle is surrounded by more hot pasta). The single layer means that the pasta shapes cool more quickly, and also more evenly. You can then pop the sheet pan of pasta in the refrigerator to help it cool down further.

To speed things up even more, and reduce the waiting time before you get to assemble the pasta salad, try putting an empty sheet pan in the refrigerator before you start, so it's nice and cold by the time you lay the pasta on it. This means the pasta cools down much faster since the temperature of the tray is already cold. If you're especially short of time or forgot to put the sheet in the fridge, then a quick blast in the freezer can help cool the tray quickly.

To stop the pasta clumping together, try drizzling it in a little olive oil once it's on the sheet pan. This helps to keep the shapes separate, rather than sticking, so that they're ready to be mixed with the dressing and other ingredients.

More simple ways to elevate a basic pasta salad

While it's important to choose the right pasta shape for your sauce when making pasta dishes, pasta salad isn't served with a sauce as such — more of a dressing. But it's still important to use the right shape. Shorter pasta shapes, such as macaroni, farfalle, rotini, or fusilli all work well when it comes to holding the dressing. They're also good bite-sized shapes to match the size of other chopped ingredients such as vegetables in the salad, making it easier and more pleasant to eat.

Whether you prefer a creamy, mayo-based dressing, or a lighter, sharper vinaigrette, the dressing matters when it comes to pasta salad. Try adding extra ingredients such as fresh herbs, Dijon mustard, hot sauce, pesto, or even bacon jam to mayonnaise dressings to really ramp up the flavor. You can add a little sweetness to a vinaigrette with a touch of maple syrup or honey, or brighten up the flavor with a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Or if you really want to add some zing, try adding something briny — such as pickle juice – to your creamy pasta salad dressing. It may sound unusual, but it balances out the richness of mayo-based dressings, and the little bits of spice at the bottom of the jar add even more flavor. If you're a real dill pickle fan, you could also chop some through the salad for extra crunch, too.