Classic Macaroni Salad
Classic macaroni salad is an easy dish made with elbow macaroni, veggies, and a tangy mayo dressing. It’s the perfect cold pasta salad for feeding a crowd at potlucks, summer parties, or Easter dinner.
Classic Macaroni Salad is one of those Southern side dishes you find at every potluck, picnic, and summer party. It also makes a great addition to your Easter dinner menu.
Classic American macaroni salad recipes are made with elbow macaroni noodles, red onions, red bell peppers, and celery. Some people also add hard-boiled eggs, ham, tuna, or cheese. There is no wrong way to make it!
The pasta and all of the add-ins are tossed together in a creamy, tangy sauce made with mayo, vinegar, sugar, mustard, and sweet pickle. The flavors all combine and soak into the elbow macaroni and the other ingredients turning it into the perfect pasta salad.
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Ingredients You’ll Need
Here’s what you’ll need for this homemade macaroni salad:
- Elbow Macaroni – You really shouldn’t, but you could use another small noodle if you prefer.
- Mayonnaise – This makes the base of the sauce.
- White vinegar – This adds some additional tang to the salad.
- Sugar – For a bit of sweetness, you’ll need granulated sugar.
- Mustard – The traditional recipe calls for yellow mustard but you can substitute with Dijon mustard for a bit of a change.
- Sweet pickle relish – A southern tradition, this adds extra sweetness to the salad.
- Red Onion – You could use another onion, but red onion works best.
- Red Bell Pepper – You could use a different color or a mix of colors if you prefer.
- Celery – This adds a nice little crunch to your salad
- Salt and pepper
Step 1 – Cook the macaroni. Follow the package directions for cooking the pasta. Make sure to use salted water to get the best flavor! Once cooked, drain the water and rinse the pasta under cold water.
Step 2 – Make the dressing. In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, white vinegar, sugar, mustard, and sweet relish and whisk together.
Step 3 – Bring the salad together. Add the cooked macaroni, red onion, red bell pepper, and celery to a large bowl and then pour the dressing over everything. Gently stir together until well coated. Finally, add the salt and black pepper to taste.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to let it chill before serving.
Yes! For the best macaroni salad, always drain your cooked pasta into a colander and then run under cool water for a few minutes to both stop the cooking process and rinse away all of the extra starch.
Unlike pasta for Italian dishes, like spaghetti, pasta carbonara, or shrimp alfredo where you don’t rinse the pasta because you want the extra starch to help the sauces stick, you DO want to rinse your macaroni salad pasta.
Rinsing the pasta ensures that your macaroni pasta won’t stick together in the bowl. It also ensures that the excess starch doesn’t make the macaroni salad gumy by thickening up the dressing. That would be unpleasant and something you want to avoid!
Did you salt the water before cooking your pasta? Adding salt to the pot of water before boiling your pasta allows the pasta to absorb that salt which enhances the flavor of the entire dish.
If you did this and still feel it’s bland, feel free to sprinkle a little extra salt and pepper until you reach the desired flavor. Go slow though, too much salt can ruin the dish easily.
You can also add sweet pickle juice for added flavor. Sub out ½ of the white vinegar with sweet pickle juice. Make sure to sub, not add extra, since it will make the dressing too runny!
You can keep Macaroni Salad in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days. When you store it, make sure it is tightly sealed and remains below 40 degrees F. If it sits out at room temperature for more than 2 hours you should get rid of it.
To help keep the macaroni from soaking up all of that delicious creamy dressing as it sits in the refrigerator or on the table, toss your pasta in a little olive oil. The oil acts as a barrier that prevents soaking in moisture and helps keep them from sticking together. This is especially useful if you make it ahead of time.
The Perfect Party Food
This easy macaroni salad is awesome for parties because it’s served cold! Make it ahead of time and store it in the refrigerator. Then when you’re ready to serve it grab the bowl and head to your potluck, party, or just serve it as a side for a summer weeknight dinner!
Some similar sides that are also great for parties include: Crunchy Asian Ramen Noodle Salad, Classic Three Bean Salad Recipe, Vegan Pasta Salad, Italian Pasta Salad, Tuna Pasta Salad
What to Serve With It
Macaroni salad makes a great side for holidays, pot lucks, and summer BBQs. Some of our favorite pairings include:
- Honey Glazed Ham, Instant Pot Ham
- Pressure Cooker Pulled Pork
- Slow Cooker BBQ Ribs
- Instant Pot Pulled Pork
- Chesapeake Crab Burger
- Grilled Teriyaki Chicken and Pineapple
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Classic Macaroni Salad
- 1 pound Elbow Macaroni
- 1 cup Mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup White vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Sugar
- 2 tablespoons Mustard
- 2 tablespoons Sweet pickle relish
- 1 cup Red Onion
- 1 cup Red Bell Pepper
- 1 cup Celery
- ½ teaspoon Salt
- ¼ teaspoon Pepper
- Cook elbow macaroni according to package instructions. Make sure to salt your water for added flavor.
- Once the pasta is al dente, drain the water and rinse pasta under cold water. Let the pasta drain thoroughly before proceeding to the next step.
- While the elbow macaroni is draining combine the mayonnaise, white vinegar, sugar, mustard, and sweet relish in a small bowl and whisk together.
- Add the cooked macaroni, red onion, red bell pepper, and celery to a large bowl.
- Pour the mayonnaise mixture over everything and gently toss together until well coated.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour to let it chill.
Can I use penne pasta instead of elbow macaroni?
Yes, just follow the cooking time on the box.
I made this with a few adjustments. I added seeded romantic tomatoes (3)…also in lieu of celery, I added a teaspoon of celery seed. This is our favorite now. Sara
This has become a family favorite. Used 2/3 greek yogurt when I ran out of mayo, and white wine vinegar, throw in all kinds of veges along with pepper/onion/celery – cucumbers, halved olives, small diced jicama, fresh dill or parsley — endless combos.. very flexible. Doesn’t last long.
This is just a question for now, I’ll comment later, after I have made and tried it.
How long do you think this will keep in the refrigerator after it is made? I do know how to be flexible and adjust ingredients according to how much of something I’m going to try. I live alone and is very necessary most of the time just trying not to be wasteful. Thank you in advance for any additional advise.
The salad will last a week in the fridge as long as it’s sealed. It does make a lot so you may want to half. 1/2 pound of pasta any kind (bow tie, elbow, penne, orzo but just cook which ever pasta you choose by the box directions. 1/2 cup mayo, 2 tablespoon white vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon mustard, 1 tablespoon sweet relish, 1/2 small onion or less, pinch salt & pepper to taste (literally pinch some salt in your fingers from a bowl, same with pepper). A salad like this is how you’d like it. You can add any veggies you like tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, shredded cheese, black or green olives. I mean the possibilities are endless! Hope this helps.
I would add hard boiled eggs probably 6 to 8 eggs, green onions rather than red and I like tuna in my macaroni salad and a little less mustard.
Delicious! The vinegar adds a very nice tang… but the quantity does make the dressing a bit soupy. IMHO needed more relish in order for it to add flavor.
Update to previous comment:
Altho the white vinegar made the dressing a bit soupy, the dressing absorbed nicely into the macaroni and the amount of moisture was perfect.
I did double the amount of relish but I also cut the sugar in half.
It was perfect.
I can’t stop eating it!
Made this today. Perfect. Didn’t have the red pepper but didn’t miss it. Did add shaved carrot to the mix and liked that as well. Next time I’ll do it right.