A classic macaroni salad is a must-have side dish when feeding a crowd. Tender elbow noodles soak up the sweet and tangy ingredients while colorful chopped vegetables add a delightful crunch to each serving.
Stop buying the drab and heavy store-bought macaroni salad, make your own! This homemade version has a punch of sweet and tangy flavors infused in the noodles and tossed in a luscious mayonnaise dressing. I like to cook the pasta just past al dente, but not mushy so the noodles absorb the pungent and savory flavors better.
Freshly chopped vegetables add tiny bursts of flavor and dimension. It’s the perfect contrast to the soft noodles. Don’t worry, this recipe makes plenty of servings, as it’s hard to have just one scoop. This cold pasta salad pairs perfectly with barbecued meats, grilled vegetables, and sandwiches.
Elbow macaroni is the most common noodle used for macaroni salad. This short cut pasta with a hollow center allows more dressing to coat the surface area while capturing the dressing inside. This yields more flavorful spoonfuls. Other types of pasta like ditalini, small shells (conchiglie), or orecchiette work well too. Cook the noodles in a generous amount of salted water for a more savory taste.
Cooking the noodles
Aim for just past al dente which is a few extra minutes more than the manufacturer’s recommended time. The texture should be soft throughout, but not mushy. The more sticky starches that release during cooking, means the more of the sweet and tangy dressing can be absorbed. Don’t worry, the pasta will firm up a bit as it cools down in the refrigerator.
How to make macaroni salad
Apple cider vinegar, pickle juice, honey, and Dijon mustard add a sweet and pungent taste. Garlic powder, salt, and pepper add a savory dimension. Mix these together plus the chopped vegetables with the cold pasta, and let it sit for 5 minutes. This allows the starches in the pasta to absorb the liquid mixture, effectively seasoning the noodles. Then add in the mayonnaise and sour cream and mix to coat.
Add crunch with chopped vegetables
To break up the richness of the macaroni salad, I like to add a colorful variety of vegetables. Red bell pepper, red onion, celery, carrots, and dill pickle are chopped into very small pieces and are added in equal amounts. This gives just the right amount of crispness without overpowering the recipe. Plus, fresh parsley and chives (or green onion) add a nice herbaceous note to balance the creamy dressing.
Wait to add in the mayonnaise dressing
If the vinegar and seasoning are mixed first with the mayonnaise and sour cream, this can dull the taste of the dressing. The fat in mayonnaise makes it difficult for your tastebuds to detect the flavors of the vinegar and seasonings. To avoid this, mix-in the mayonnaise and tangy cream last. The dressing will lightly coat each noodle, but shouldn’t dry it out as it sits. The dressing will thicken up a little more over time as the fats chill in the refrigerator.
Serving and making ahead
Macaroni salad should be served right away, although I notice that the taste gets even better after a day as the dressing has more time to marinate and infuse into the pasta. This dish is great to prepare up to 5 days in advance which is great if you want to meal prep or make it for a party. The fat in the dressing keeps the noodles evenly coated and prevents it from drying out.
Ways to customize this side dish
- Chop up and mix in a hard-boiled egg for a richer taste.
- Add boiled and diced russet potato for a potato salad-style pasta.
- Dice up some smoked turkey, ham, or salami for extra protein.
Quickly cool down the pasta
Do not mix hot pasta with the mayonnaise as this could cause the emulsion to break and create a greasy texture. To immediately stop the cooking process, drain and rinse the boiled noodles with cold water for at least 1 minute. Shake off the excess water, but keep the noodles damp so that they don’t stick together before mixing with the dressing.
Classic Macaroni Salad
- 4 quarts (946 ml) water
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) kosher salt, for boiling the pasta
- 1 pound (454 g) elbow macaroni
- ⅓ cup (45 g) red bell pepper, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup (50 g) celery, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup (50 g) red onion, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup (35 g) carrots, finely chopped
- ⅓ cup (71 g) dill pickle, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) dill pickle juice
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) honey
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon (5 g) chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon (3 g) chopped chives
- ¾ teaspoon (3 g) kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ⅓ cup (79 ml) sour cream
- 1 ½ cups (355 ml) mayonnaise
- In a large pot bring water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil. Cook pasta until slightly softer than al dente, about 6 to 7 minutes.
- Drain pasta, rinse with cold water until cool, about 1 minute. Briefly drain excess water as the noodles should be slightly wet. Then add pasta to a large bowl.
- Add and stir in the bell pepper, celery, onion, carrots, dill pickles, dill pickle juice, apple cider vinegar, honey, mustard, parsley, chives, salt, garlic powder, and black pepper. Allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes.
- Stir in the sour cream and mayonnaise until combined. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as desired. The salad will become thicker as it sits for about 10 minutes. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
- Recipe Yield: 9 cups
- Serving Size: 3/4 cup
- Storing: Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 5 days.