Recipe Review

We Tried the 4 Most Popular Macaroni Salads and Found a Clear Winner

published Jul 14, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Debbie Wee

Is it even a summer cookout without a big bowl of macaroni salad on the table? If you answered no, then you’re going to want to stick around while I attempt to answer this next question: what’s the best macaroni salad recipe on the internet? The perfect foil for rich barbecue ribs and smoky veggie kebabs alike, I was determined to find a macaroni salad with a variety of flavors and textures delicious enough to shine on a plate that’s already full of really great food.

Quick Overview

So, What’s the Best Macaroni Salad on the Internet?

Millie Peartree’s macaroni salad, published on NYT Cooking, was the clear winner.  With a not-too-thick coating of creamy, perfectly balanced dressing, bouncy noodles, and a fresh array of crunchy diced veggies, this macaroni salad is a clear winner.

A good macaroni salad should have a creamy dressing, crunchy mix-ins, a good balance of sweet and savory flavors, and perfectly cooked pasta that doesn’t turn to mush after spending the night chilling in the refrigerator. After trying 4 very different salads with an array of mix-ins and varying levels of sweet and savoriness, I’m happy to report I’ve found my perfect recipe. Read on for the full breakdown.

Meet Our 4 Macaroni Salad Contenders

A classic macaroni salad is typically composed of a few crucial elements: a mayo-based dressing, finely chopped raw vegetables, and macaroni noodles. These were my non-negotiables, but everything else was up for debate. I was interested in trying some of the most-reviewed macaroni salad recipes on the internet, as well as some with unique add-ins or interesting techniques.

  • Allrecipes’ macaroni salad has garnered close to 3,000 reviews, and includes 2/3 cup sugar — by far the most amount of sugar in any recipe on this list. It also features a unique, optional mix-in: chopped pimento peppers.
  • NY Times Cooking’s macaroni salad is perhaps the most classic recipe of the bunch, and contains the least amount of ingredients. I’ve been a fan of chef Millie Peartree for a while, and I wondered if she was onto something with her essentials-only take on macaroni salad.
  • Serious Eats’ macaroni salad includes a unique blend of raw mix-ins and an interesting technique for the noodles that requires overcooking them, then tossing them with vinegar as soon as they’re drained.
  • Sugar Spun Run’s macaroni salad is the very first result on Google, and features a vast array of unique mix-ins including hard-boiled eggs and sweet gherkins. The ratio of fresh chopped ingredients to noodles was also highest in this recipe.

How I Tested the Macaroni Salad Recipes

  • Cooking: I made all four of these salads, from start to finish, on the same day. 
  • Ingredients: For any ingredient that appeared in more than one recipe, I used the same brand across the board. As such, each recipe used Nature’s Promise Macaroni and Hellman’s Classic Mayonnaise. 
  • Tasting: I tasted each salad right after it was made, after one hour in the fridge, and after one night in the fridge. (Every recipe suggested letting their salad set for at least an hour, except for AllRecipes which required at least 4 hours.) 
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Debbie Wee

1. The Sweetest and Sauciest: Allrecipes’ Classic Macaroni Salad

With the creamiest, most velvety sauce of the bunch, plus a generous amount of fresh, crunchy mix-ins, this recipe certainly had plenty of pros. Unfortunately, the aforementioned 2/3 cup of granulated sugar catapulted this macaroni salad into decidedly sweet territory. Though some sweetness is nice, there weren’t nearly enough salty and bright elements to balance it out. Combining this sweetness with a hearty scoop of yellow mustard gave the salad a strong honey-mustard flavor that overpowered the fresh ingredients.

I did include the two optional ingredients, grated carrot and chopped pimento peppers, but their flavors didn’t add much to the party since the flavor of the dressing was so strong. I think with a lot less sugar (like, a tenth of what’s called for), I would be a big fan of this macaroni salad. And if you’re a fan of sweeter mayo-based salads, give this one a shot!

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Debbie Wee

2. The Most Savory: Serious Eats’ Tangy and Creamy Macaroni Salad

If AllRecipes’ macaroni salad lands on the sweetest end of the spectrum, Serious Eats’ macaroni salad lands squarely on the opposite, intensely savory end. With the help of Dijon mustard, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and a punchy selection of fresh veggies including scallions, shallots, and celery, there’s really nothing sweet about this salad. This time, I craved some sugar. Just a little, say a tablespoon or two, to balance out the tangy and salty flavors.

Though the noodle technique for this recipe intrigued me, I wasn’t crazy about the results. In theory, over boiling the noodles was supposed to aid in the absorption of dressing, but seeing that the dressings melded just fine with the more al dente noodles in other recipes, I didn’t really see the point in sacrificing the toothsomeness of the noodles. As for tossing the freshly boiled noodles in vinegar, I did find that it gave them a pleasant zing, but it wasn’t needed in this already overly tangy salad. I think using that technique in the Allrecipes recipe would have yielded better results.

On the bright side, the dressing had a lovely rich texture that stayed relatively creamy, even after an overnight stay in the fridge. If you love a lot of dressing on your macaroni salad, and prefer a solely savory flavor profile, this recipe might be right up your alley.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Debbie Wee

3. The Most Mix-Ins: Sugar Spun Run’s Macaroni Salad

A fairly classic rendition, Sugar Spun Run’s macaroni salad features a generous amount of chopped vegetables, sweet gherkins, and hard-boiled eggs, along with a creamy dressing sweetened with granulated sugar and a splash of sweet pickle juice. I loved the ratio of pasta to fresh ingredients, and the inclusion of chopped eggs added a pleasant creaminess to the salad that, when paired with mayo, pickles, and Dijon mustard, reminded me a lot of deviled eggs

I found this salad just slightly too sweet, and would likely replace the sweet gherkins and sweet pickle juice with dill pickles and pickle juice if I were to make it again. Overall though, the salad was well-balanced and full of texture — if sweet gherkins are your thing, this might be your ideal macaroni salad.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Debbie Wee

4. The Perfect Balance: New York Times Macaroni Salad

Salty, sweet, rich, and bright elements all met in perfect equilibrium for a salad that hits all the flavor notes without relying on any one too heavily. This salad, inspired by Kentucky Fried Chicken!,  kept me coming back bite after bite and lasted for a good week in the fridge without becoming too goopy or soft. 

This recipe also convinced me that assertive red onion, sweet bell pepper and carrot, and vegetal celery are the true macaroni salad MVPs, and no other mix-ins are necessary when they are present. Because I tend to prefer an almost 1:1 ratio of noodles to mix-ins, I’d probably up the veggie content next go-around, but that’s more of a personal preference. Next time I’m on macaroni salad duty, you can rest assured I’ll be showing up with this one.