My classic macaroni salad is a crowd-pleaser at summer BBQs, picnics, and potlucks! I have been making it for years! It’s got the perfect level of crunch, with tender macaroni, and the most addicting sweet and tangy dressing!

bowl of macaroni salad surrounded by sweet relish and prepared salad dressing

Macaroni salad is quite possibly the most difficult food to picture!

But I’ll tell you this much, what macaroni salad lacks in eye appeal, it makes up for in flavor. I have been making this recipe for years!  It’s a staple for me in the summertime. We’ve taken it bbq parties in the past and have had people request I bring this next time too. 😂 I’ve even had people tell me that they’d rather eat a bowlful of my macaroni salad and skip the main dish altogether! Luckily – I wasn’t the one who made the main entree 😉 

The most delicious kind of macaroni salad is creamy, tangy, sweet, and crunchy. It has it all! There are only a handful of ingredients called for in this recipe, and it’s ideal for bringing to a bbq, potluck, or picnic in the summertime. It’s perfect alongside grilled chicken, or meats, crispy chicken sandwiches, coleslaw, southern baked beans, and my Hawaiian garlic shrimp scampi.

side shot of dressed and prepared pasta salad showcasing elbow macaroni

What is macaroni salad?

Macaroni salad is a cold pasta salad made with a mayonnaise-based dressing. Usually, elbow macaroni is used and a variety of different chopped vegetables are tossed with it. It is similar to potato salad and coleslaw and is often served during the summertime for barbecues and potlucks.

all the ingredients macaroni salad in a glass bowl ready to be dressed

What do I need to make macaroni salad?

  • Pasta: though you can use any small shape of pasta you like, it is usually made with elbow macaroni. Some other pasta shapes that would work: ditalini, cavatappi, cavatelli, shells, and farfalle.
  • Pimientos: are cherry peppers that are sweet and almost like a more flavorful red bell pepper. They’re usually found in the condiment or pickled pepper aisle; sold either diced finely or in strips. If you cannot find them, you can replace them with a fresh red bell pepper that’s been finely chopped. Or even better, replace with fire-roasted peppers that come in a jar!
  • Shredded carrots: I use a box grater and finely shred the carrots myself for this recipe but you could also use store-bought matchstick carrots.
  • Chopped celery: Use fresh finely chopped celery so the flavors carry all the way through.
  • Chopped onions: I like to use sweet onions for this recipe. They are usually sold where all the other onions are kept at the store but marked as ‘sweet.’ You could use red onions if you prefer a stronger, more pungent flavor.
two images showing before and after mixing for macaroni salad dressing

Ingredients for the dressing:

  • Mayonnaise: This is my all-time favorite mayonnaise and I would never make a mayo-based salad without it! I highly recommend using full-fat mayonnaise for this recipe as it’s really the heart and soul of this.
  • Relish: This is my favorite, macaroni salad secret! I use a few heaping tablespoons in the dressing and I promise you, your guests are going to flip over how good it tastes! I prefer to use sweet relish for this recipe, however, you could also use a spicy relish if you prefer spicer food. 
  • Sugar: Sugar is used to help balance out the flavor from the vinegar.
  • White vinegar: I prefer to use white vinegar for this recipe, however, you can swap this for apple cider vinegar if you don’t happen to have white vinegar on hand!
  • Yellow mustard: this adds both color and flavor to our dressing. If you want the mustard flavor to be a bit milder, swap it for dijon in this recipe. We like it with yellow mustard – it just screams summer!
  • Seasonings: I use a dash of garlic powder and celery salt in my pasta salad recipe. If you prefer a light kick to your salad, you can add a dash of cayenne as well. I usually do as a smidge!
hands tossing cold pasta salad with vegetables

Do I need to rinse the pasta after it is cooked?

Yes. Rinsing pasta, I suggested when you’re going to turn it into a cold pasta salad or some sort. It helps to keep the pasta from overcooking as it cools off the pasta quickly. It also washes away excess starch, which causes the macaroni to stick together shortly after cooking.

hand pouring prepared dressing from jar into bowl with pasta and vegetables for salad

How to make the best macaroni salad:

  1. Pasta: Prepare the pasta according to the directions written on the package. Usually, you need to boil the pasta for 6-9 minutes based on the size. Drain and rinse the pasta thoroughly, then add it to a large bowl and allow the pasta to cool in the refrigerator. Chop the vegetables and make the dressing while the pasta cools.
  2. Dressing: Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl using a whisk until smooth. You want to be sure to whisk thoroughly as the sugar does take a few seconds to dissolve. Taste and adjust with additional salt, pepper, or sugar as desired. 
  3. Toss: Add the chopped veggies to the same bowl as the cooled pasta. Stir in the dressing. You can use all or as much of it as you like. I use all of it and find it’s perfect for our taste.
  4. Refrigerate for as long as you can, ideally, at least 1 hour. The macaroni salad does taste better as it sits! So a few hours is even better! 
hands tossing prepared cold pasta salad with spoon and fork

How far in advance can I make this cold pasta salad?

You can make macaroni salad up to 1 day in ahead of serving. I do find that any longer than that and the vegetables start to lose their crunch – still delicious but not ideal if you’re serving this to a crowd! Leftovers will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator though. 

hand tossing dressing into macaroni salad in glass bowl on white marble

Tips for making a creamy macaroni salad:

  1. Salt the water for the pasta generously. This is your chance to add flavor to the pasta. Keep in mind that we’ll be rinsing the pasta later so you’ll need to salt it a bit more than what you usually do!
  2. Use good quality mayo! I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it! It makes all the difference! This is my favorite brand to use in homemade slaws and pasta salads. 
  3. I suggest avoiding low-calorie mayo for this recipe, especially if you’re serving this for a potluck or a bbq party. The full-fat stuff does give it the best flavor. If you swap the mayo for something like Miracle Whip, keep in mind that it is a much sweeter product, and you may find the amount of sugar added to this recipe to be too much. To balance the flavors, you will have to play around with how much sugar you add.
  4. Once you prepare the pasta salad, allow at least 1 hour to rest, covered in the refrigerator. This allows the flavors to blend together better and the sugar, and vinegar helps marinate and flavor the ingredients.
  5. Add a dash of cayenne if you like a little kick!
  6. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container for 3-5 days.
rimmed deep plate holding prepared macaroni salad
Yield: serves 6

Most Amazing Macaroni Salad

Prep Time 13 minutes
Cook Time 7 minutes
Additional Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 50 minutes

My classic macaroni salad is a crowd-pleaser at summer BBQs, picnics, and potlucks! I have been making it for years! It’s got the perfect level of crunch, with tender macaroni, and the most addicting sweet and tangy dressing!

Most Amazing Macaroni Salad

Ingredients

Salad:

  • 8 ounces dry elbow macaroni
  • 1 (4-ounce) jar of diced pimientos, drained
  • ¼ cup finely shredded carrot
  • ½ cup EACH: finely chopped sweet onions AND celery

Dressing:

  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons sweet relish
  • 2 tablespoons EACH: sugar (or less) AND white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • ½ teaspoon EACH: garlic powder AND celery salt
  • dash of cayenne pepper, optional

Instructions

    1. Pasta: Heat a large pot of water to boil. Generously salt the water. Prepare the pasta according to package directions. Drain and rinse the pasta under cold running water. Then add it to a large bowl and allow the pasta to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes (or half the time in the freezer.) Chop the vegetables and make the dressing while the pasta cools.
    2. Dressing: Combine the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl using a whisk until the sugar dissolves and the dressing is smooth. Taste and adjust with additional salt, pepper, or sugar as desired.
    3. Toss: Add the chopped veggies to the same bowl as the cooled pasta. Stir in the dressing until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. The macaroni salad does taste better as it sits! So a few hours is even better!

Notes

  • the dressing is just enough for this salad, imo. If you usually prefer a more dressed macaroni salad, I suggest multiplying the dressing ingredients by 1.5 to make a bit extra!

Have you made this recipe?

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If you like this recipe, you might also like these summer salads:

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