Ditch the mayo and serve this Tuna Pasta Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette at your next backyard barbecue or picnic. A lightened-up classic is always a surefire winner!
Tuna pasta salad without mayo is a classic potluck option for summer backyard barbecues. And I never lose my love for it!
When I was a kid, I was a sucker for my mum's pasta salad, made with salmon, capers and a mayo dressing. Salmon or tuna still fit the bill, but these days I'm partial to an easy vinaigrette dressing, such as the lemon one in this recipe. If you've tried my Primavera Pasta Salad with Shrimp, you know that the dressing is simple to make and has just the right amount of tang.
Thanks to my mum’s influence I’ve always added capers to salmon or tuna salad, as well as tuna pasta salad recipes. There’s something about that briny flavor that makes all of the other flavors pop. If you’re not a caper fan, try roasted peppers and pepperoncini, like in my Healthy Tuna Salad recipe.
Put this salad together up to a day in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve it. I recommend adding in the basil at the last minute to stop it from browning.
These are the main components for this cold tuna pasta salad:
See recipe card below for full ingredients list & recipe directions.
- PASTA: Rotini (corkscrew shape) works well for tuna pasta salad because the ridges capture the tuna, dressing and cheese, making it more likely that you’ll get a taste of each in every bite. Farfalle (bowtie shape) is another good option. If you prefer a tuna macaroni salad, then use elbow macaroni instead. I typically use whole wheat pasta for extra fiber, but regular semolina pasta works well, too.
- TUNA: Use your favorite canned tuna. I opt for tuna packed in water because the calorie and fat gram counts are lower. However, if you are a die-hard lover of oil-packed tuna (there are some great ones from Italy), then feel free to use that.
- VEGGIES: I used a combination of celery (love the crunch!), grape tomatoes (or cherry tomatoes) and green onions. Red, yellow or orange bell pepper, red onion, frozen peas or cucumber would good, too.
- CHEESE: Feta cheese adds the perfect amount of salt and tang, and pairs well with the lemon vinaigrette. If opting for a dairy-free pasta salad, leave out the cheese, but be sure to taste the salad and add additional salt if needed.
- HERBS: Fresh basil and parsley add summertime freshness. Fresh dill is another good option.
- CAPERS: Not everyone loves the briny taste of capers, but I can’t get enough of it! Feel free to adjust the amount of capers to suit your taste buds.
- DRESSING: No need for mayonnaise! An easy lemon vinaigrette keeps this pasta salad light. All you need is fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, agave nectar or honey, oregano and salt. Add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard if you'd like.
PASTA: Try penne, orzo or farfalle in place of rotini.
PROTEIN: For a vegetarian pasta salad, chickpeas, white beans or black beans work well. For meat and seafood lovers, the opt for chicken, shrimp, tuna or salmon.
VEGETABLES: The sky's the limit! Add bell peppers, corn, spinach, cucumber, greens beans, snap peas, avocado...and so on, and so on. If it would be good in a green salad, it would be even better in pasta salad!
DRESSING: While I grew up on mayo-based pasta salads, I now prefer vinaigrette dressings. Lemon juice or white wine vinegar work well for Mediterranean-inspired salads, while lime juice punches up the flavor of a southwestern salad.
CHEESE: Swap out the feta with queso fresco, bocconcini (mini mozzarella balls) or chevre (soft goat cheese). Instead of capers, add kalamata olives or black olives.
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🔪 How to make tuna pasta salad
Pasta salad is a breeze to put together and there are so many options to switch up the flavor profile.
FOR THE PASTA: Cook according to the package instructions in well-salted water in a large pot. Once al dente (tender, but still firm), drain, then rinse with cold water until cool. Transfer the cooked pasta to a serving dish.
ADD THE MIX-INS: To the pasta, add the tuna, celery, tomatoes, green onions, feta cheese, parsley, capers and basil. Give it a good stir combine.
MAKE THE DRESSING: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, agave nectar and salt.
DRESS THE SALAD: Pour the dressing into the pasta salad and toss to coat.
SERVE OR STORE: Serve the pasta salad right away. Or cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If storing for more than a day, store the salad in an airtight container.
🍋 How to make a lemon vinaigrette
- All vinaigrettes have a balance of acid and oil (see my post on How to Make a Vinaigrette for more tips).
- For the acid, fresh lemon juice fills that role in a lemon vinaigrette. I beg of you to use fresh lemon juice rather than the bottled stuff. Since the lemon juice is a main ingredient of the vinaigrette, using the fresh stuff makes all the difference in the world.
- Oil: While a light olive oil can be used for sautéing, a good, fruity extra virgin olive oil is the way to go for a vinaigrette. A little goes a long way.
- Sweet: To balance the acidity of the lemon juice, just a drizzle of agave nectar or honey balances the flavor.
- Don't forget to add salt! The amount in the recipe is a recommendation. Feel free to adjust according to your taste buds.
❓ Frequently Asked Questions
Absolutely! In fact, I love a good cold tuna pasta pasta, served straight from the fridge. But room temperature works, too. Cover the dish with plastic wrap or transfer the salad to an airtight container, then store in the refrigerator. This salad can be made up to 2 days in advance, with a couple of caveats.
The longer pasta salad rests, the more the pasta will absorb dressing. If making tuna pasta salad ahead of time, make extra dressing to toss with the salad right before dressing.
Basil leaves start to brown after being sliced. I suggest slicing and adding the basil right before serving the salad.
I don't recommend it. Pasta salad is best when served within a couple of days of being made.
Other picnic salad recipes
Tuna Pasta Salad (without mayo)
- Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Salt well. Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water until cooled down.
- Transfer the cooled pasta to a large bowl. Add the tuna, celery, tomatoes, green onions, feta cheese, parsley, capers and basil. Stir to combine.
- Pour in the dressing. Stir again until completely combined. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired. Serve or refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, agave nectar, oregano and salt.
This post was originally published on May 20, 2019 and updated on February 26, 2023.
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