Ranch Pasta Salad Recipe
Kids love Ranch dressing – it’s the only salad dressing my nephew will eat. Men love bacon: its culinary catnip. What we cooks love are easy, one pot meals, especially those that won’t turn our kitchens into steam baths on hot summer days. This kid friendly cold pasta salad will make everyone in the family happy! This recipe can be made in a few minutes with leftover chicken, turkey or ham and pantry and freezer staples. And you heat less than 4 cups of water, so virtually no water is wasted, and very little hot steamy water gets released into your kitchen. This recipe is designed for a picnic / barbecue / pot luck size bowl of pasta salad (great for Memorial Day, July 4th or Labor Day events), or to give you leftovers for later in the week, but you can easily halve it for a smaller batch.
Ingredient Substitutions. Ranch Dressing: You can substitute plain non-fat yogurt for the sour cream or the mayonnaise, or both. You can also use commercial ranch dressing. Bacon: You can also substitute turkey bacon for regular bacon, but check the back of the package carefully: some brands of turkey bacon actually have more fat than real bacon. Pasta: You can use any kind of dried pasta except long thin pasta noodles (spaghetti or angel hair) which don’t work well in a low water cooking environment like this (you’ll end up with a starchy, sticky pasta ball). Fresh or refrigerated pastas have too soft a texture. You can also use vegetable pastas or whole wheat pasta, though you’ll need to add additional water if you use whole wheat noodles (whole wheat pasta absorbs more water than conventional pasta). Chicken: You can use fresh, uncooked chicken instead of leftovers. Cut the raw chicken into small, bite size pieces, cook it in the pressure cooker along with the pasta, and reduce the amount of added water by ½ – 1 cup (the chicken will release liquid into the pot as it cooks). Onions: You can use any color of sweet onion, I use red sweet onions to add extra color and visual appeal, but I don’t recommend substituting regular storage onions. Raw sweet onions have a much sweeter, milder taste than standard onions.
Can I Make a Gluten Free or Non-GMO Version of This Pasta Salad? To avoid GMOs, buy organic ingredients. Organic chicken, pasta, peas, celery, etc. are readily available. I particularly recommend organic celery, since celery routinely shows up on EWG’s List of the Most Pesticide Ridden Crops. Creating a gluten free version of this salad is more complicated: purchase gluten free pasta (consider either organic GF pasta or corn-free pasta, since corn always top lists of the worst genetically modified crops), avoid commercial ranch dressing, which can contain gluten, and check the ingredient list on the sour cream and mayonnaise for gluten. Here are two handy lists I use to check ingredients: Gluten Free (Safe) Ingredients and Unsafe (Gluten) Ingredient List. If you are cooking for someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities, many who are gluten intolerant also have problems with milk products, specifically those containing casein. So ask about dairy tolerance in advance. As long as its gluten free, and they don’t have egg allergies, mayonnaise is not a problem, but I don’t have enough experience with non-dairy substitutes for the buttermilk and sour cream to make any suggestions. (If any of my readers do, please share your experience and recommendations in the comments below.)
Can I Halve This Recipe? Yes, absolutely! This recipe is designed to make a picnic / pot luck size portion of pasta salad. If you don’t want quite so much, you can halve the recipe and it won’t change the pressure cooking time.
Can I Freeze This Recipe? No, I wouldn’t recommend it – the pasta salad wouldn’t fare well in the freezer. However, there’s really no need to freeze the whole salad. You can make the dressing several days in advance and refrigerate it, your chicken and bacon can be diced, the meat and peas measured and frozen, leave your dried pasta in your pantry until you cook it, and you can dice the celery, onion and cucumber while the pasta cooks.
BACON TIP: While using your pressure cooker to make the pasta will help keep your kitchen much cooler on hot summer days, frying up bacon obviously won’t. If you want to cook the bacon yourself, I recommend you pan fry a few extra slices along with your breakfast, or that you prepare the bacon on a cooler day and store the crumbled bacon in the freezer. If you want to forego the heat and grease altogether, buy commercially cooked “bacon bits” – but NEVER buy those little jars in the salad dressing section of your grocery store – they’re very salty, and they’re very overpriced – you’re paying the equivalent of $15 a pound or more for those bacon bits. Instead, buy in the bulk, 20 ounce bags to save money per pound. Hormel’s Real Crumbled Bacon claims their 20 ounce bag not only has less fat than pan fried bacon, but that it is equivalent to 5 pounds of uncooked bacon, and if so, it’s a better price per pound than I pay for uncooked bacon. (But I actually like the Kirkland Bacon Crumbles better, even though they’re just a little more, because they’re less salty. Either way, you don’t have to refrigerate the bag until you open it, and you can keep most of the bag in the freezer, and just keep a small Ziploc bag fresh in the refrigerator. I routinely use bacon crumbles in this pasta, in my beanless chili, in my bean with bacon soup recipe I’ll publish soon, beef bourguignon, sprinkled over baked potatoes, on top of salads, to add a little bacon flavor to breakfast hash. I have no problem using up these large bags, and it is SO convenient to have ready made bacon in my freezer to add to my recipes.
16 ounces of rotelle or penne pasta
½ cup mayonnaise
- Place the dry pasta in a colander or large bowl and repeatedly rinse with cold water until the water is no longer cloudy. This removes surface starch which can cause the pasta to stick together. Drain the pasta. (The starchy water can be given to your garden or houseplants.)
- Optional: Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil, or melt 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine in your pressure cooker pot. Add the pasta, and stir gently to get a thin coat of oil all over the pasta (the oil both helps reduce foaming and will help keep the pasta from sticking together).
- Add 3 ½ cups of water, 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt and 2 tablespoons of white wine to the pasta (the latter helps in two ways: the acidity will help reduce the stickiness of the pasta, and some flavor compounds are soluble in alcohol, which improves flavor). If you are using uncooked chicken, add the diced chicken at this point. The water should just barely cover the pasta. (If your pressure cooker has a jiggle top valve, also known as a weighted valve, you probably should add another half cup of water, they use more water than machines with floating pressure valves.) Close and lock your machine lid. Pressure cook at HIGH PRESSURE (10 PSI) for 2 minutes using QUICK RELEASE. (Those with Instant Pots or other electric pressure cookers that tend to get starch in the pressure release valve, see the Foaming Tip immediately below, and adjust your pressure cooking accordingly.)
- While your pasta is cooking, dice the celery, onion and pasta into ¼” pieces. If you don’t have to hide the celery from the kids, you can cut it into larger pieces for more crunch. Optional: If you want to increase the proportion of vegetables, peel a cucumber and dice it into ¼” pieces.
- Mince two large cloves of garlic with a Garlic Press or see my Garlic Tip for instructions how to mince garlic with your kosher salt and a chef’s knife. Measure the herbs and spices and combine with the minced garlic.
- Combine a half cup each of mayonnaise, sour cream and buttermilk. Stir or whisk to thoroughly combine. Add the herb and spice mixture and stir well to incorporate. Refrigerate immediately.
- When the timer goes off, turn off the “Keep Warm” function and manually release the pressure (Instant Pot owners, see the Foaming Tip above for alternate instructions). When pressure has released, unlock and remove the lid, holding it at an angle over the pot to allow any hot water to fall back inside (there should be very little water left). Give the pasta a quick stir and test for doneness. The pasta should be fully cooked, but slightly al dente, that is, it should resist slightly when you bite into it with your front teeth, and it should hold its shape well (it should not have absorbed too much water). If the pasta is slightly undone, let it sit a few minutes (uncovered) and the residual heat should finish it nicely.
- Pour off any extra water, or stir the pasta and allow it to absorb any excess. If you are using frozen peas, stir them into the hot pasta: the hot pasta will defrost the peas, the peas will help cool the pasta. This will only take a few minutes. Remove the cooking insert from the machine to help the pasta cool faster. Once the peas have defrosted, put the pasta and peas back in your colander and rinse with cold water, stirring gently with your soup spoon until the pasta is thoroughly cooled.
- Add the diced celery, onion, chicken and cucumber (if included) and stir to thoroughly incorporate.
- Add half the Ranch dressing to the pasta, and stir to coat. Continue to add and mix in dressing until the pasta is evenly coated with the desired amount of dressing. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
- Either mix the crumbled bacon into the pasta salad, or sprinkle it on top to add more color and appeal – might as well show off that culinary catnip! ;D
PRESSURE COOKING TIP: I just read some useful information in On Food and Cooking: “Hard water – water that is alkaline and contains calcium and magnesium ions – increase both cooking losses and stickiness in noodles (it probably weakens the protein-starch film at the noodle surface, and the ions act as a glue to bond noodle surfaces to each other). Most city tap water has been made alkaline to reduce pipe corrosion, so pasta cooking water can often be improved by adding some form of acid (lemon juice, cream of tartar, citric acid) to adjust the pH to a slightly acidic 6.” So there are two additional ways to reduce the stickiness of your pasta: first, use either filtered or bottled water to cook pasta (DO NOT use distilled water) and second, add a small amount of acid to the cooking water (which I have already built into the next step).
FOAMING TIP: I recently purchased an InstantPot IP-DUO60 Electric Pressure Cooker. It has a different lid design than my Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker, and unlike the Cuisinart, when you use quick pressure release, a lot more of the foaming starch will reach and come up through the pressure release valve. If you have an electric pressure cooker where this tends to happen (released water will be opaque instead of clear), reduce the cooking time to 1 minute under pressure, and wait five minutes before releasing pressure (the pasta will continue to cook while the machine depressurizes). After five minutes, quick release the remaining pressure: that should decrease your chances of drawing starchy water inside your pressure release valve. And if your valve does get clogged, clean it promptly – I use these very small Nylon Microbrushes to clean my pressure release valves.
- 16 ounces of rotelle or penne pasta
- 2 tablespoons butter / margarine / oil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons white wine
- 1 cup fresh or frozen peas
- 1 cup of diced sweet onion (1/4" dice)
- 1 cup of diced celery
- 1 cup of diced cucumber (1/4" dice) (optional)
- 2 – 3 cups diced leftover chicken, turkey or ham
- ¼ cup precooked Crumbled Bacon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ½ cup sour cream
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ¾ teaspoon dried chives
- ¾ teaspoon dried parsley
- ½ teaspoon dried dill
- ½ teaspoon Toasted Onion Flakes
- ½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
- ¼ teaspoon celery seed (NOT celery salt)
- Rinse the rotelle in cold water until the water no longer turns a cloudy white. Drain the water.
- Add 2 tablespoons of oil, or melt 2 tablespoons of butter or margarine in the pressure cooker pot. Gently stir in the rinsed pasta to lightly coat each piece.
- Add 3 ½ cups of filtered or bottled water, 1 teaspoon of coarse kosher salt, and 2 tablespoons of white wine to the pot. If you are using raw chicken, bone and remove the skin, dice it into bite size pieces and add it to the pot (and decrease the added water by ½ cup – 1 cup). Lock the pressure cooker lid. Pressure cook at HIGH PRESSURE for 2 minutes using QUICK PRESSURE RELEASE. (If your machine tends to get starchy foam in the pressure release valve, see the Alternate Instructions / Foaming Tip above).
- Dice and measure the celery, onion, and chicken. Optional: Peel and dice the cucumber, if desired.
- Mince the garlic. Measure and mix the chives, parsley, dill, onion flakes, coarse kosher salt, coarsely ground pepper and celery seed with the minced garlic.
- Stir the buttermilk, sour cream and mayonnaise thoroughly. Mix in the herb and spice mixture. Refrigerate immediately.
- When the pressure cooker timer goes off, turn off the "Keep Warm" function and release the pressure manually (unless following the Instant Pot Instructions). When pressure has released, remove the lid, holding it over the pot to allow any hot water to fall back inside. Stir the pasta and test for doneness: it should be al dente. If its slightly underdone, leave the pot inside the machine for a few minutes and allow the residual heat to continue cooking the pasta.
- Pour off any remaining water, or allow the rotelle to absorb it. If you are using frozen peas, add them to the hot pasta, remove the pot from the machine, and allow a few minutes for the residual heat to defrost the peas. Once the peas have defrosted, rinse the pasta and peas under cold water, stirring gently, until the pasta has cooled completely.
- Add the onion, celery and (optional) cucumber to the pasta and gently mix in.
- Add half the Ranch dressing to the pasta, and stir to thoroughly incorporate. Keep adding more dressing until the pasta has the desired amount of dressing coating it. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Either mix the crumbled bacon into the pasta, or crumble it on top.