Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

4.96 from 25 votes
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This Hawaiian macaroni salad is the perfect side dish for your next barbecue or luau. It’s a simple mixture of tender elbow pasta tossed with a creamy sauce and colorful vegetables for a hint of crunch.

Hawaiian macaroni salad in a large bowl.

Recipe Science

  • Hawaiian macaroni salad noodles are cooked until they absorb the seasoned water and become soft and “fat” but not mushy.
  • Rinse the macaroni with cold water to stop cooking and prevent the mayonnaise from separating into a greasy dressing.
  • Marinate the macaroni and vegetables with rice vinegar and honey for 5 minutes to let the pasta absorb and enhance the flavors.

Why It Works

A big spoonful of creamy Hawaiian mac salad pairs nicely with teriyaki chicken, loco moco, kalua pork, and steamed rice! This simple pasta dish is a must-have for any festive gathering or enjoying a simple plate lunch at the beach. The good news is that it’s easy to make at home!

This quick-to-prepare pasta salad is simple, affordable, and customizable. Nothing too fancy. Just a handful of pantry staples mixed with little bites of fresh and pickled vegetables. To soak up the flavor, cook the noodles until soft, then briefly with the vegetables and vinegar. Mix in the mayonnaise and serve with your favorite Hawaiian food.

Ingredients You’ll Need

Pre-portioned ingredients to make a Hawaiian-inspired mac salad.
  • Dried Pasta: Dried elbow macaroni is the traditional pasta used to make authentic Hawaiian macaroni salad. I use a version with ridges on the surface, which makes it easier for the sauce to stick. Grab a 1-pound box (about 4 cups of dried elbows). This amount will triple in size to make 12 cups of macaroni salad. Perfect for a big feast!
  • Vegetables: Shredded carrots and chopped celery add crunch. They should be fine, not overpowering the macaroni. Grated sweet onion is the trick to adding a mild spice without intense, raw, and sulfurous bites. Sweet pickle relish adds a tangy flavor.
  • Vinegar: Unseasoned rice wine vinegar provides a tangy taste. You can easily adjust the levels of the sweet and sour ingredients to your taste. 
  • Seasoning: Honey is added to balance the spice. Salt and black pepper enhance the taste.
  • Mayonnaise: For the most creamy macaroni salad, use full-fat mayonnaise. Traditionally, Best Foods or Hellman’s brand for the most decadent consistency. The emulsified egg and oil mixture is pre-seasoned with distilled vinegar, sugar, salt, and lemon juice. When mixed with the marinated macaroni, it creates a delicious sauce that clings to the noodles. 

See the recipe card below for all ingredients and measurements (US and metric).

Ingredient Substitutions

This classic Hawaiian macaroni salad recipe is customizable! Give these tasty variations a try:

  • Pasta Options: Different types of pasta, like the classic, smooth elbows, or larger size, work well. Ditalini, shells, or spiral cavatappi are good choices. I’ve had this dish served in different ways at various Hawaiian restaurants on a lunch plate. 
  • Mayonnaise Swap: For a lower-calorie option, use plain Greek yogurt or sour cream. It will have a tangier flavor and should be balanced with a sweetener, like sugar or honey. I’ve found that adding about 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil adds a little more richness to the yogurt version. Add some water if it is very thick in consistency.
  • Vinegar: Use other types of vinegar that are softer in acidities, such as apple cider vinegar or even dill pickle juice.
  • Sweetener: Granulated sugar, maple syrup, or light brown sugar can be used.
  • Vegetables: Add cooked peas, diced cucumber, corn, tomatoes, or sliced green onions. Chunks of cooked potato for a potato salad and mac salad combination.
  • Add Protein: Diced spam or ham, tuna, grilled chicken, or bacon makes for a heartier pasta salad. Chopped hard-boiled egg for creaminess and protein.
  • Fruit: Add diced pineapple or some pineapple juice for extra sweetness.

How to Make Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

Pouring elbow pasta noodles into a pot of water.

Step 1: Cook the Pasta

A typical pasta salad involves cooking pasta until al dente with some slight resistance. But not for Hawaiian macaroni salad!

Elbow noodles cooking in a large pot.

For this recipe, you want to cook the noodles until they absorb the seasoned water and become “fat,” or soft but not mushy.

Ingredient Science: The released starches help the vinegar dressing infuse into the noodles, making each bite more flavorful.

Rinsing pasta in a colander with cold running water.

Step 2: Drain and Cool

Drain the pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process immediately. Transfer to a large bowl for mixing.

Elbow pasta, carrots, celery, and relish in a bowl.

Step 3: Add the Mix-ins

Once the macaroni is cooked and cooled, it’s time to layer the flavor. Crisp vegetables like carrots, onions, and celery add a little texture for contrast. I decided to add sweet pickle relish. The sweet and tangy marinade that the cucumbers soak in adds dimension. I also do this for my classic macaroni salad.

To make those ingredients pop, stir the rice vinegar and honey into the noodles and vegetables and let them marinate for 5 minutes. The pasta acts like a sponge, flavoring the macaroni throughout.

Experimentation Encouraged: The small amount of relish makes a significant flavor impact. It can easily be omitted if desired. However, I recommend doubling the amount of honey to balance the added vinegar.

Big dollop of mayonnaise on top of a bowl of pasta.

Step 4: Add the Mayonnaise

The fat in the mayonnaise subdues the taste of the ingredients, so it’s better to wait to add it last. Just stir it until evenly coated. It should look very creamy. Refrigerate to thicken up the dressing and firm up the pasta before serving.

Make-Ahead Tip: The good news is the pasta salad can be made five days in advance for easy meal prep on those busy entertaining days.

Close up of creamy Hawaiian mac salad in a blue bowl.

Step 5: Serve the Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

After chilling, give the pasta a stir. Add more salt and pepper to taste.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Hawaiian macaroni salad made of?

The base is elbow macaroni mixed with mayonnaise, vinegar, and a sweetener like sugar or honey. You can add mix-ins like small pieces of grated carrots, celery, or sweet pickle relish for crunch and flavor. The recipe can be easily customized with proteins like a hard-boiled egg, ham, peas, or tuna.

Can I use other types of pasta?

It’s best to use short-cut pasta for the salad. Tubular pasta with a hole in the center traps flavor inside. Ditalini, rotelle, or cavatappi works well. Small conchiglie or “shells” would be an excellent complement to the dish.

Why is it important to rinse the pasta with cold water for macaroni salad?

This technique will help stop the cooking process since the noodles are already soft. Doing so will also prevent the mayonnaise from separating. The heat will cause the emulsion to break into a greasy dressing. The process only takes about 1 minute.

Can the dressing be made lighter?

Full-fat mayonnaise is the preferred ingredient for making a creamy macaroni salad. Light mayonnaise can be used for about half the amount of fat and calories and minimal saturated fat in the recipe. However, the texture may be slightly different because thickening agents like cornstarch have been added. Alternatively, nonfat plain Greek yogurt can be swapped in, but it will be tangier in taste.

Serve This With

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Hawaiian Macaroni Salad

This tasty Hawaiian macaroni salad is the perfect summer side dish for your next family barbecue or backyard luau.
4.96 from 25 votes
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time12 minutes
Total Time42 minutes
Servings 12 servings
Course Side
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

  • 4 quarts water
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus ¾ teaspoon
  • 1 pound elbow pasta
  • ½ cup shredded carrot
  • cup finely chopped celery
  • ¼ cup grated sweet yellow onion
  • ¼ cup sweet relish
  • ¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey, or sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups mayonnaise, Best Foods or Hellman’s recommended

Instructions 

  • Cook the Pasta – In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Stir in 1 tablespoon of salt until dissolved. Cook until soft but not mushy, about 12 to 14 minutes.
  • Drain and Cool – Drain pasta into a colander and rinse with cold water until cool, about 1 minute. Shake to drain excess water, then add pasta to a large bowl.
  • Add the Mix-ins – Stir in the carrots, celery, onion, relish, rice vinegar, sugar, ¾ teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes.
  • Add the Mayonnaise – Stir in mayonnaise until combined. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The salad dressing will become thicker when chilled.
  • To Serve – Stir and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe Video

YouTube video

Notes

  • Recipe Yield: About 12 cups
  • Serving Size: About 1 cup
  • For a Creamier Salad: Stir in an additional ¼ to ½ cup of mayonnaise before serving.
  • For a Less Creamy Salad: Stir in whole milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the desired sauce consistency is reached.
  • Rice Vinegar Substitutes: Apple cider vinegar or dill pickle juice.
  • Make it Gluten-Free: Use gluten-free pasta. 
  • Storing: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 12 servings
Calories 413kcal (21%)Carbohydrates 33g (11%)Protein 5g (10%)Fat 29g (45%)Saturated Fat 4g (20%)Polyunsaturated Fat 17gMonounsaturated Fat 6gTrans Fat 1gCholesterol 16mg (5%)Sodium 317mg (13%)Potassium 123mg (4%)Fiber 2g (8%)Sugar 5g (6%)Vitamin A 1011IU (20%)Vitamin C 1mg (1%)Calcium 25mg (3%)Iron 1mg (6%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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