How to nail a pasta salad - Twisted founder Tom Jackson's 'Cool Pasta' tips

saved! saved!
editable template (84).jpg

Let’s face it, pasta salads don’t have the sexiest rap. You’d be forgiven for thinking they’re little more than a claggy addition your aunt might bring to a picnic. 

But you might be aware that Twisted founder, Tom Jackson, has been on a lifelong mission to change all that, and it has culminated in his (rather epic) new book, Cool Pasta. 

Yep, one thing about Tom… he loves a pasta salad, and he has done ever since he scooped an M&S pesto pasta pot into his mouth as a kid – pine kernels and all. 

“Ironically, the thing I loved about that salad was the texture,” he says. “It’s quite cloying and gummy, but when I was younger, I must have appreciated that!” 

As he got older, Tom’s palate cried out for a little more, though. 

20230927_Cool_Pasta_Hardie_Grant_Tom_portrait_pond_052_Patricia_Niven.jpgTom Jackson has always been a pasta salad advocate (Credit: Patricia Niven)

“Growing up, I was always making these alternative, bombastic pastas… reaching into my mum’s spice cupboard and chucking things in,” he recalls. “Pasta is just a brilliant canvas for experimenting with flavours, and despite what some Italians might say, one thing that people don't talk about enough is that it is cooked all around the world, in countless different ways.”

Tom’s first attempt at his own pasta salad was hungover on a Saturday morning. 

“I don’t want a leafy salad in the park - it doesn’t travel well. What does travel well - and actually improves in this format - is pasta salad,” he says. 

From there, the obsession grew. His fond memories of that M&S salad went on to loosely inspire a plethora of elevated equivalents - from Spanakopasta to Sichuan-Style Pici Salad. 

Screenshot 2024-03-27 at 17.03.02.pngTom's Greek inspired Spanakopasta (Credit: Patricia Niven)

“It can be a divisive topic, but I’ve learned that if you do it well, people will really take notice,” Tom says of his pasta salad crusade. “There's something unglamorous about them, which I think is really cool.”

Like the famous Twisted pizza-dilla (also Tom’s brainchild), a good plate of ‘cool pasta’ can raise eyebrows in the very best of ways. 

“Pasta salad doesn’t care what you think! Pasta salad is standoffish. It’s just kicking back, not really giving a sh*t about the other pastas, doing its own thing, and I like to back the underdog,” he laughs. 

Want to discover the joys of pasta salads once more? To rid yourself of the tired perception of a mayo drenched tupperware? Well, we’ve quizzed Tom on all things Cool Pasta, so we too can jump on board for pasta salad’s almighty redemption arc. 

Screenshot 2024-03-28 at 08.41.25.pngTom's book, Cool Pasta, is out now (Credit: Hardie Grant)

Can you break down why people hate on pasta salads so much? 

“Because not enough people make them at home. Many people's version of a pasta salad is the one that you find on the quick service shelf. They have been through a horrible amount of processing in order to get into that little plastic box, and that means that texture is the first thing to deteriorate. 

“The other reason is mayonnaise. I genuinely think, and especially in the UK, that mayo is the root cause of the bad rap. Whenever somebody says ‘pasta salad is gross’, the first thing they're thinking is the translucent film of mayonnaise on a pasta salad that has been left out in the sun. 

“There’s no denying that that’s really disgusting. Who’s buying it?”

What’s the history of pasta salads? 

“There's very little history about the pasta salads and one of my theories is that’s because nobody wants to claim them! [My research on pasta salads as we know them today] went back to German migrants settling in America and bringing over the potato salad – great with mayonnaise. 

“Then, one day there was a potato shortage so they switched it with pasta. Somebody thought, ‘Hey, these are both carbohydrates, we’ll just use this dressing on the pasta instead of the potatoes!’

“And it’s huge in America. People love it, it’s a taste of their childhood… but not mine. Each culture has their own opinion on pasta salads, and one thing I wanted to do in the book is try and shine light on the diversity of styles out there – there are many.”

Talk to us about some more of the Cool Pastas consumed globally

“One of my favourite recipes, and one I've made lots and lots of times in various forms is vermicelli upma, which is a South Indian breakfast dish.

“It uses broken vermicelli, which is basically angel hair pasta, snapped up, steamed and cooked with onion and spices and lentils. That recipe blew my mind during testing because as it cooled down, the texture became immeasurably better.

“There’s a Korean recipe called Bibim-guksu which means mixed noodles, too. For this recipe there’s a raw gochujang [Korean chilli] sauce, but oftentimes, it’s also made with angel hair pasta, or even just spaghetti, and is often eaten chilled.

“There are countless other examples. Dried durum wheat pasta might be produced en masse in Italy but it has travelled all around the world.”

Screenshot 2024-03-27 at 17.05.48.pngVermicelli upma is a traditional 'Cool Pasta' (Credit: Patricia Niven)

If you had to boil down the perfect pasta salad to three components, what would they be?


“Texture is the first one. You have to make sure you cook the pasta correctly. Go for al dente pasta as a rule of thumb.

“You want a diversity of sizes [of each ingredient], just to keep it really fun. So, you might want smaller pasta shapes and then chunkier vegetables through it, it’s up to you, but keep it varied.

“Make the most of last-minute toppings or fold-throughs, too – crispy breadcrumbs and the like. With these, you can build your pasta salad from the ground up - a castle of textures.”


“There are a few ingredients that will always take a pasta salad from good to great. 

“You need plenty of good olive oil, well-seasoned pasta, an acid of some sort (any acid, but probably lemon), and definitely fresh herbs. 

“I use fresh herbs in pretty much every single recipe, except of course when I specify that dried herbs are better, which does happen on a few occasions.”

No mayo 

“Just don’t put any mayo in it!”

Now, let's break down a couple of the most popular pasta salads, and how to elevate them…

How to make tuna pasta salad better than anyone else

“Tuna is an assertive flavour. It adds an umami warmth to a recipe, but I think it should be the backbone of the pasta salad, rather than [the ingredient] driving it. 

“Use loads of sharp-tasting, spiky items like chopped cornichons, capers, pickled chillies, and lots of lemon zest. A good tuna pasta salad should really amplify those other ingredients.

As I've already mayo or those flavours will just get lost!

“I actually don't like tuna that much, but one of the recipes in my book is called tuna melt, and it’s one of my favourites. There’s loads of black pepper in that recipe - so much so that you really feel you’re using it as intended – as a spice – and lots of other saline, bright, acidic pops of flavour.”

How to make pesto pasta salad better than anyone else

“If you mix hot pasta with fresh pesto, or put pesto in a frying pan – god forbid – then what you'll do immediately is dull the flavours that are present in the pesto. 

“This means the basil would change the flavour, the pine nuts change flavour and even the cheese will take on a different dimension, and the texture will also change. 

“It’s going to taste like you haven’t cared, and it will definitely dampen your spirits. So, controversially, I would recommend that, if you're doing pesto pasta salad, you should rinse your pasta. 

“I'm not saying you have to hose it down until it’s freezing cold, but give it a quick rinse to get rid of some excess starch. 

“Dropping the temperature slightly will be complementary to the flavour of the pesto, and result in a better pasta salad. I’ve also got a pistachio pesto recipe in my book that you should try!” 

What are the biggest mistakes people make with pasta salad?

"There are a few pasta salad sins that people always make".

These are:

Overcooking it

“You should not overcook pasta for pasta salads, because that means after half an hour it's going to be way more overcooked than it already was, and there’s nothing worse!

“How long you need to cook pasta all depends on the dressing, the sauce, and the other ingredients you're serving it with. If you’ve got a wet dressing, then you need to cook your pasta less, because as the pasta rests, it’ll absorb the surrounding moisture.”

Screenshot 2024-03-28 at 08.53.21.pngTom's sichuan-style pici salad (Credit: Patricia Niven)

Combining all the ingredients at once

“Never assemble all the ingredients of a pasta salad before you’re ready to eat it. If you’re taking it to a potluck, or to a mate’s house, don't assemble everything before you go. 

“Think about all of the different components of the dish and make sure that you're keeping any that should be separate, separate – things like nuts, crispy breadcrumbs… anything that doesn’t like moisture.

“It’s not just about texture. If you mix everything before, the flavour will also be diluted.” 

Under seasoning

“Of course, people will cook enough pasta salad to have some for lunch the next day, so remember that if you eat something cold, it needs to taste of more.

“The same goes for when something is really hot, it tends to taste of less. Warm is really the best temperature to taste stuff!

“That means you need to compensate for a Cool Pasta with salt and acid, seasoning the pasta sufficiently, but also the other ingredients that are in it.”

What are a few great pasta salad toppings to have on hand?

Tomato Raisins

“Sun-dried tomatoes are, generally speaking, not very nice at all, but oven-dried tomatoes or tomato raisins are really amazing and incredible, especially if you use nice cherry tomatoes, or, if you're happy to splurge, Datterini tomatoes.

“To make them, you put some sugar on them, just to bring out the flavour of the tomato, and you dry them quite slowly in the oven, and honestly they taste like… tropical fruit gummies.

“Add them as they are or chop them up; grind them into a pesto once they're dried. It has a bite and a texture like fruit leather, and they’re the most exciting pop of flavour, and they keep for ages with oil in the fridge, or in a sterilised jar.”

Screenshot 2024-03-27 at 17.07.28.pngTom's iconic pasta salad wrap - you need the book for this one (Credit: Patricia Niven)


“Pine nuts do just make almost all pasta salads so much better, and they’re in loads of my recipes. 

“But I would say that more broadly, nuts are always an exciting addition, because they're, fatty; and if you've roasted them, they're toasty.

“And when you bite into something crunchy, you taste things in a different way. So yeah, I say chucking some nuts – any nuts – onto a pasta salad will improve it in many ways.”


“It’s carbs on carbs… but that’s great! And they’re super cheap. 

“Eating pasta with breadcrumbs is textural overload. It's just so nice.”

How long does pasta salad last in the fridge? 

“I wouldn't recommend leaving a pasta salad for more than 24 hours in the fridge. I mean, technically you can leave most pasta salads for up to three or four days in the fridge… and sometimes I have.

“When I was testing recipes for my book, there were always leftovers! Flavour deteriorates in the fridge over time, but as far as a work lunch goes, a Cool Pasta salad will still be the best lunch ever.”

What’s the best advice you could give someone to make their own pasta salad? 

“I want people to go down to their general store (or corner shop), which will look completely different to mine, run to their favourite shelves and grab some new ingredients. Make a pasta salad of your own design!

“I'm most happy when I'm drawing on influences that I've had when eating, whether that’s a very good sandwich I’ve had recently or a smell or taste or feeling.

“Be creative! Experiment! You could have a sandwich tomorrow and you could look at the ingredients and apply those to a pasta salad format. It's just immeasurably fun and completely endless.”

You can order Tom’s book Cool Pasta: Reinventing The Pasta Salad from all bookstores now. Here’s a link to snap it up!

Featured image: Patricia Niven/ Hardie Grant