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.
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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.
- Dried Pasta: Elbow macaroni is typically used to make this Hawaiian macaroni salad recipe.
- Vegetables: Shredded carrots, sweet grated onions, and sweet pickle relish adds crunch, color, and flavor.
- Creamy Dressing: Full-fat mayonnaise, rice vinegar, honey, salt, and pepper.
Dried elbow macaroni is the traditional pasta used to make the dish. This version has ridges on the surface, making it easier for the sauce to stick. However, different types of pasta, like the classic, smooth elbows, or larger size, work well. I’ve had this dish served in different ways at various Hawaiian restaurants.
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!
Cook the pasta
Typically pasta is cooked al dente or with some slight resistance. Not for Hawaiian macaroni salad! It’s traditionally cooked until the noodles absorb the seasoned water and become “fat” or soft but not mushy.
The released starches help allow the vinegar dressing to infuse into the noodles, making each bite much more flavorful. Chilling the macaroni will firm up the pasta a bit before serving. Transfer to a large bowl for mixing.
Add vegetables for crunch
The mayonnaise dressing is heavy, so some crisp vegetables add a little texture for contrast. Grate small pieces of carrot and chop celery. They should be fine not to overpower the macaroni. Grated sweet onion is the trick to add a mild spice without having intense, raw, and sulfurous bites.
I decided to add some sweet pickle relish to the recipe. The sweet and tangy marinade that the cucumbers soak in adds dimension. I also do this for my classic macaroni salad. It’s a small amount but 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.
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.
You can substitute some mayonnaise with sour cream or Greek yogurt for a lighter version, but the flavor will be tangier. Just adjust the sweetener level to balance the taste.
How to make Hawaiian macaroni salad
Once the macaroni is cooked and cooled down, it’s time to layer the flavor. Unseasoned rice wine vinegar provides a tangy taste. You can use other types of vinegar that are softer in acidities, such as apple cider vinegar or even dill pickle juice. Honey is added to balance the spice. However, granulated sugar, maple syrup, or light brown sugar can also be used. You can easily adjust the levels of the sweet and sour ingredients to your taste.
To make those ingredients pop, stir them in with the noodles and vegetables, then let them marinate for 5 minutes. The pasta acts like a sponge, flavoring the macaroni throughout. 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—season with salt and black pepper to taste. The good news is it can be made five days in advance for easy meal prep on those busy entertaining days.
There are endless tasty and exciting ways to customize your next batch of macaroni Hawaiian salad. Try some of these delicious ideas:
- Chopped hard-boiled egg for creaminess and protein.
- Sliced green onion or chives for a delicate fresh allium flavor.
- Cooked peas, chopped ham, or tuna for more protein.
- Chunks of cooked potato for a potato salad and mac salad combination.
- Add diced pineapple or some pineapple juice for extra sweetness.
- Use a different short-cut type of pasta like ditalini, rotelle, cavatappi, or shells.
- Hawaiian rolls
- Tropical fruit salad
- Steamed white rice
- Huli Huli chicken
- Teriyaki chicken
- Hawaiian chicken skewers
- Ahi tuna poke bowls or spicy salmon poke bowls
- Pineapple chicken
Frequently asked questions
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.
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.
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 for 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 will be tangier in taste.
Rinse the pasta with cold water
Cook the macaroni, drain it into a colander, then rinse it with cold water. 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.
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Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus ¾ teaspoon
- 1 pound elbow pasta
- ½ cup shredded carrot
- ⅓ 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
- 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 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.
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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