Last Updated on July 8, 2022 by Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD
This Classic Macaroni Salad is simple and easy with a creamy dressing, my essential tip to ensure it never gets dry, plus the 4 keys to ensuring it is flavourful and never bland. Sure to be your new fav homemade recipe!
The best macaroni salad recipe, in my opinion, is simple but well-seasoned (never bland) with a perfectly creamy dressing and just the right ratio of crunchy ingredients to soft macaroni noodles. It shouldn’t be dry, but shouldn’t make you feel like you’ve got a mouthful of mayo. I’ve given this a lot of thought (and have given this easy recipe a lot of testing!) to ensure you have a perfect macaroni salad at your next BBQ (or whenever you need a quick side dish).
Classic Macaroni Salad Ingredients:
This recipe has only four main ingredients, and they are all staples:
Elbow macaroni noodles: We aren’t making a choose-any-shape pasta salad here. Something about the macaroni shape is just non-negotiable for a classic macaroni salad. It holds the dressing perfectly and has such a satisfying squish.
Mayonnaise: good ol’ mayo makes up 95% of macaroni salad dressing.
Onion: grating it and whisking it into the sauce makes for perfect onion flavour distribution.
Vinegar: a little tang is needed to cut through the richness. I love rice vinegar for this because it is flavourful but not as acidic as other vinegars. Feel free to substitute, though. See notes in recipe.
Beyond these main components, the add-ins come down to personal preference. I love some grated carrot, as a Hawaiian macaroni salad (a.k.a. “Mac Salad”) includes, but also some celery, like the one from my childhood.
Feel free to add finely-chopped sweet pickles, dill pickles, red bell peppers, red onion, cheddar cheese, garlic powder or minced garlic, minced fresh parsley or other fresh herbs, boiled eggs, bacon or whatever you fancy, just keep the proportions about the same as the add-ins mentioned in the ingredient list.
To make a lighter version with more protein, you could substitute up to half of the mayo with greek yogurt.
How Do I Make a Macaroni Salad That Doesn’t Dry?
The key is to adjust the amount of mayo depending on when you will be serving it. A range for mayonnaise is given in the recipe because the macaroni continues to absorb moisture as it sits. 1 cup of mayo is perfect if serving right away. More needs to be added if you’re making it ahead, even by an hour. Just before serving, stir in another 1/4 cup of mayonnaise. If it still looks drier than you like, go ahead and add another 1/4 cup.
Don’t Make these 4 Macaroni Salad Mistakes
The reason sometimes homemade macaroni salads are sometimes bland is because of one of things:
1. Not enough salt was used in the boiling water. The salt in the water should be treated as an actual ingredient in this recipe. Making sure the water is salty enough ensures the macaroni is seasoned through (even after rinsing in cold water) and the salad will not be bland.
2. The noodles weren’t sufficiently drained. Let the macaroni drain completely in a colander to ensure the sauce isn’t diluted with water.
3. Finally, maybe it goes without saying but in case you’re a freestyle cook like so many are: don’t use too much macaroni. It’s tempting to throw in the whole 1-lb box, but it expands significantly and for the right ratio of sauce to noodles, use the 8 oz indicated.
4. The salad was not served right away and dried out. See above tip for making a macaroni salad that doesn’t dry!
If you want to fix a macaroni salad after making one of these mistakes, add pinches of salt to taste. For more flavor beyond the classic, you could add a spoonful or couple teaspoons of dijon mustard to the dressing or swap pickle juice for the vinegar.
How Far in Advance Can You Make This Recipe?
Macaroni salad can be made then covered and chilled in the fridge for 3 days before serving. Don’t leave it unrefrigerated for more than 4 hours for food safety.
MORE FAVOURITE SUMMER SALAD RECIPES:
World’s Best Macaroni Salad – A Perfectly Creamy and Delicious Classic Recipe
- 8 oz uncooked macaroni noodles
- Salt see notes
- 1 to 1½ cups mayonnaise divided use – see notes
- ¼ cup grated onion
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar see notes on substitutions
- ½ cup celery finely chopped
- ½ cup carrot peeled and grated
- ground black pepper
- Fill a large pot with 3 litres/quarts water plus 2 tbsp kosher salt and bring to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until al dente, 8-10 minutes or according to package directions. Strain into a colander and run cold water overtop until cool. Let drain a few minutes to get rid of any water.
- Stir together 1 cup of the mayonnaise, grated onion and vinegar to make the dressing.
- Add fully-drained macaroni to a large bowl. Pour dressing over macaroni. Add carrot and celery; stir to fully combine. Taste and add more salt if needed. Sprinkle black pepper on top.
- Serve immediately or chill for up to 3 days. If making it ahead, add more mayo just before serving, ¼ cup at a time, to return the macaroni salad to the perfect creaminess.