This is the best Creamy Crab Pasta Salad recipe! Imitation crab meat is tossed with your favorite noodles and a creamy seasoned sauce for a delicious, cool summer pasta salad. This is a perfect make-ahead meal for a Sunday afternoon lunch or late supper when we have evening activities!
Originally published January 2012, updated June 2023
Crab Pasta Salad
This is normally a dish reserved for summertime, but if the truth be told, we eat it year-round at my house. It's so easy to put together that my kids make it most of the time these days.
We love to make it Saturday night for Sunday lunch after church. Or if we have a busy day, I'll make it in the morning and let it chill until supper time. For our big family, we always double it and leftovers (if there are any) are fought over on day two.
If you don't know this already, I'm a huge pasta lover. I love hot dishes, cold dishes, salads, side dishes, main dishes... you get the idea.
And this Crab Pasta Salad recipe?
It's one of my favorites! It's so creamy and delicious!
Why you'll love Pasta Crab Salad
This imitation crab pasta recipe is so easy to put together, can be made ahead of time, and is a perfect, cool, and creamy salad for summertime! I love to make this for lunch or dinner, for potlucks at church, or for parties!
Also, the ingredients are simple and inexpensive for a frugal meal.
Pasta - we are pasta-aholics around my house so I always have half a dozen different shapes in the pantry. For crab pasta salad, we always end up choosing rotini or bowtie pasta shells. But any medium size pasta will work great!
Crab Meat - Crab Pasta Salads are almost exclusively made with imitation crab meat. I have tried a couple of brands of imitation crab meat that I did not care for, so now I stick to either Transaction Crab Classic or Surimi Imitation Crab for a Sirimi Salad with pasta! Having said all that, if you want to use real crab meat, go for it! It'll make a fantastic recipe even better!
Mayonnaise - any brand will work here. I prefer full-fat but you could go with a low-fat version or light mayo if you like.
Buttermilk - I much prefer real buttermilk for this recipe but in a pinch, I've used this buttermilk substitution and it works great!
Lemon - Confession: I rarely remember to buy a fresh lemon, so I often use 2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice as a substitute. But if you have a fresh lemon - fresh is best! 🍋
Garlic - as with the lemon (see above), I almost never remember to buy fresh garlic so I use 1-2 teaspoons of the minced garlic in a jar. I keep it in my fridge at all times for this very reason! If you're not a huge fan of garlic, limit this to 1 teaspoon!
Seasoned Salt - we are very brand loyal to Lawry's Seasoned Salt! It's the BEST!
Parsley - fresh is best, but dried parsley will also add color to this dish!
Sugar - this ingredient can be omitted if you like, but regular granulated sugar really adds a special touch of flavor!
Salt & Pepper, to taste + salt for the pasta water
Green Onions - this ingredient is optional but if you like fresh green onions, slice them then and add them as a garnish to the finished dish!
Substitutions & Variations
- Buttermilk: as previously mentioned, you can use a buttermilk substitution if you don't have any on hand. Simply take 1 cup of milk, remove 1 tablespoon of the milk, and add one tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar. Let it sit for a few minutes to curdle. See more details about buttermilk substitutions here.
- Seafood: For a seafood pasta salad recipe, you could can add cooked chopped shrimp or baby shrimp along with the imitation crabmeat or in place of it.
- Veggies: As for veggies, the original recipe doesn't have any, but you could easily add green peas, chopped celery, green or red bell peppers, black olives, shredded carrots, etc. The sky is the limit!
- Seasonings: I keep them very simple in this recipe, but you could also use Old Bay Seasoning or fresh dill.
How to Make Crab Pasta Salad
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1-2 tablespoons of salt.
- Add the dry pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions (usually 10-12 minutes).
- Rinse with cold water, drain and set aside to completely cool.
- While the pasta is cooking, tear or cut the imitation crab meat into bite-size pieces.
- In a very large bowl, combine the crab meat, mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic, lemon juice, and seasonings.
- Mix or whisk together until well combined.
- Add the cooled pasta and toss/mix with the creamy dressing until well-coated. See the tips below if your pasta is not cooled.
- Garnish with green onions (optional).
- Chill for at least an hour, up to overnight. Toss again before serving.
Note: This Imitation Crab Pasta Salad can be eaten immediately but it's really better if you cover and chill it for a few hours or overnight.
Pro Tips for Imitation Crab Pasta Salad Recipe
- First, this is a big batch. Be sure to grab a very large bowl to mix it up! It's usually enough for my family of 8 to have lunch (we usually add fruit or bread or both as side dishes).
- If you plan to eat this pasta immediately, I recommend draining the hot pasta, then immediately placing it in an ice bath for 2-3 minutes, then draining again to completely cool it down before adding it to the crab mixture.
- If you don't have buttermilk on hand, use this substitution. I've done it many, many times and nobody ever comments about the pasta salad tasting different.
- I don't eat raw onions. Ever. And I mean never EVER. Green or otherwise. Therefore, I never use them in this recipe. But if you like them,
go ahead and ruin your pasta salad...I mean,add them to your pasta salad and enjoy. I was just kidding. About ruining it. Maybe. The bottom line is, the original recipe given to me did include them if that's something you like. But I assure you it's 1000% delicious sans onion.
Because we most often eat this cold pasta salad in the summertime, we love to eat it with other fresh and cool/cold foods. Sometimes we'll have a green salad. Or freshly sliced cucumbers and/or tomatoes. Another option is a side of fresh fruit.
You might also add fresh sliced bread or crackers. My favorite bread is a croissant. I've also served it with saltine crackers but that's not something most of my family enjoys.
Many times, we eat this pasta as a standalone meal. Sometimes for lunch, sometimes for supper. It's filling and delicious! It's also perfect for a holiday side dish, a potluck, or a picnic!
Store crab salad with pasta in the refrigerator in an airtight container for 3-5 days. This recipe cannot be frozen.
This totally a matter of opinion, but we've made this recipe with penne, rotini, bowtie (farfalle), shells, pipette, cellentani... and more! Our favorite is rotini!! Why? Because my tractor-loving child calls it "plows" instead of rotini and he requests it so often that it's become a family favorite.
That aside, I really feel like bowtie, medium shells, or rotini work best in this recipe.
My recipe does not include boiled eggs but I'm a big believer in doing what works for you. If you love boiled eggs in a cold pasta salad, add them!
Yes, of course! I actually recommend it wholly for this crab salad pasta recipe. It's inexpensive, easily found in most grocery stores and is what's most common. However, if you have real crab meat and want to use it, go for it!
No, this is not a recipe that you can freeze. You can, however, make it up to 3 days ahead of time if you'd like to prep it and have it ready to go!