How To Make Classic, Flavor-Packed Macaroni Salad

updated Oct 13, 2022
4th of july
How To Make Classic, Flavor-Packed Macaroni Salad

This classic macaroni salad is perfect for picnics and potlucks.

Serves6 to 8

Prep30 minutes

Cook8 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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A large bowl of macaroni salad sits on kitchen table next to glasses of wine, bowls, and forks.
Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

After months spent indoors, an outdoor picnic sounds more appealing than ever — and the increasingly gorgeous weather doesn’t hurt, either. Find a quiet, socially distant spot to set out a summer spread, and make sure to pack this fresh macaroni salad. It’s an all-in-one side dish made of cool and creamy noodles tossed with punchy quick-pickled veggies, fresh herbs, and gems of sharp cheddar cheese. Here’s how to make the very best one.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

3 Tips for the Most Flavorful Macaroni Salad

Here are three ways to avoid the pitfalls of bland macaroni salad and to make one that bursts with flavor.

  1. Season the pasta water. A flavor-packed pasta salad starts with well-seasoned noodles, so season the pasta water generously before adding the pasta.
  2. Quick-pickle the veggies. Soaking the vegetables — a vibrant, crunchy mix of bell peppers, red onion, and celery — in a mixture of salt and white wine vinegar adds a sharp tang to the creamy salad.
  3. Don’t rely strictly on mayonnaise for creaminess. Even good-quality mayonnaise or homemade mayonnaise needs a few sidekicks to make the most flavorful dressing. Here, we’re using mayo, sour cream, Dijon mustard, pepper, and parsley, which mingle with the pickling liquid when you add the dressing to the salad.
Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

How to Prep Macaroni Salad in Advance

Macaroni is guaranteed to soak up dressing as it sits, which adds flavor to the noodles but also makes for a dry pasta salad. If you want to prep ahead, the key is to keep the ingredients separate until you’re ready to serve.

As you cook the noodles, whisk together the creamy dressing. Shock the cooked noodles in an ice bath to cool them off, then toss them with just a few tablespoons of the dressing and refrigerate until ready to serve. The oil from the mayonnaise will prevent the noodles from sticking, but keeping most of the dressing separate ensures the noodles won’t soak it all up. You can also cut the vegetables, herbs, and cheese in advance and store them separately in the fridge.

When it’s time to serve, toss the noodles with the remaining dressing and stir in the veggies, cheese, and herbs.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Serving Macaroni Salad

Like all pasta salads, this macaroni salad is best served at room temperature. Pull the salad out of the fridge about 30 minutes before serving. Remember, this is a mayonnaise-based salad, so don’t leave it out for more than two hours.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot
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Here's how to make a classic, flavor-packed macaroni salad.

How To Make Classic, Flavor-Packed Macaroni Salad

This classic macaroni salad is perfect for picnics and potlucks.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 8 minutes

Serves 6 to 8

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1

    medium red bell pepper

  • 1/2

    small red onion

  • 2

    medium stalks celery

  • 2 tablespoons

    white wine vinegar

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided

  • 4 ounces

    extra-sharp cheddar cheese

  • 1/4 cup

    fresh parsley leaves

  • 8 ounces

    dry elbow macaroni

  • 1/2 cup

    mayonnaise

  • 1/4 cup

    sour cream

  • 1 tablespoon

    Dijon mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

Equipment

  • Chef's knife and cutting board

  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Large saucepan

  • Colander

  • Mixing bowls

  • Silicone spatula

  • Whisk

Instructions

  1. Prep the vegetables. Finely chop 1 medium red bell pepper, 1/2 small red onion (about 1/2 cup), and 2 stalks celery (1/2 cup), and place in a large bowl.

  2. Marinate the vegetables. Add 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 1/4 teaspoon of the kosher salt, toss to combine, and set aside while you cook the macaroni.

  3. Boil the water and prepare the cheese and herbs. Bring a large saucepan over water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, cut 4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese into small dice (1 cup). Finely chop 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves.

  4. Cook the pasta. Add 8 ounces dry elbow macaroni and the remaining 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 8 minutes or according to package directions. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water.

  5. Shock the pasta. Drain the pasta into a colander and rinse under cool running water. Drain again, place the colander with the pasta in it directly into the bowl of ice water, and cool for 3 minutes. Remove the colander from the ice bath and drain well. Transfer the drained pasta to the bowl of marinated vegetables.

  6. Make the dressing. Whisk 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and the parsley together in a small bowl until combined.

  7. Fold the pasta, dressing, and vegetables together. Pour the dressing over the cooled pasta and vegetables. Add the cheese and use a spatula to fold the dressing into the pasta salad.

  8. Season and serve. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The dressing can be made up to 1 day in advance and refrigerated.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before serving.