How To Make Better Classic Tuna Macaroni Salad

updated Jan 29, 2020
4th of july
How To Make Better Classic Tuna Macaroni Salad

This pasta salad has it all: tender macaroni, genereous pieces of tuna, crisp celery, peppers, and red onions, finished with a tangy, peppery, creamy yogurt dressing.

Serves8 to 10

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(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

What we’ve got here is an updated take on a classic macaroni salad that still leaves you eating something that feels familiar. There are no random peas, no cloying mayonnaise dressing. In this take, tuna and macaroni still make up the base but they pal around with celery, peppers, and red onions, and the whole thing gets a tangy, peppery yogurt dressing.

There are a few secrets to making a tuna macaroni salad this good: a trick for flavoring the vegetables, a quick tip for rapidly cooling the pasta, and a perfect ratio for a mayo-yogurt dressing that is anything but gloppy.

We’re updating things a bit, but as far were concerned this is still pretty classic — old-fashioned, even! And it’s still a tuna macaroni salad that your grandma would be proud of.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Making Old-Fashioned Tuna Macaroni Salad Modern

Tuna macaroni salad seems like it’s been around forever. Maybe that’s why it feels old-fashioned. Or maybe because there’s a simplicity to it that makes it feel like the old times. After all, it has been served at picnic lunches and cookouts for as along as we can remember.

But when you think of tuna macaroni salad you probably picture a very thick dressing over macaroni with some peas. Maybe it includes some pickle relish and a hard-boiled egg. The problem with that style of tuna macaroni salad is that it doesn’t get better with age — the dressing clings to the pasta and doesn’t absorb, the peas wilt and lose their punch, and the relish is too sweet.

We’ve taken the things we love most about tuna macaroni salad and switched up the ingredients to make a salad that is longer-lasting and more flavorful. We start with elbow macaroni (the only pasta for tuna macaroni salad, in my opinion), and add crisp vegetables flavored with lemon and salt, then we’ll dress the whole thing in a peppery salad dressing made with mayo, yogurt, and Dijon mustard.

(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Key Steps to Awesome Tuna Macaroni Salad

  • Prep order is important. A truly great tuna macaroni salad is the coming together of several different elements — hard-boiled eggs, seasoned chopped vegetables, perfectly cooked pasta, and a vibrant dressing — and you should prepare each of those in that order. Boil the eggs while you chop the dressing. Marinate the vegetables while you cook the pasta. Make the dressing while the pasta chills. You goal is to have everything is ready and close to the same temperature at the same time.
  • Season the vegetables. There are a couple of reasons to season or marinate the vegetables. First and foremost is flavor: the celery and peppers will be sweeter and the red onion mellows just a tad with the help of some salt and lemon juice. That salt and acid also help these vegetables keep their snappy texture in the creamy dressing.
  • Shock the pasta. Shocking the pasta means rapidly dunking it into an ice bath after draining. The result is perfectly cooked pasta that won’t overcook as it cools and won’t absorb so much dressing that the salad will be dry or gluey.
  • Use a mayo-yogurt dressing. Mayo’s richness is actually its downfall when it comes to pasta salad — it makes what could be a delightful balanced salad heavy and gloppy. A mixture of mayo and whole-milk yogurt (not Greek yogurt) makes this salad sing. The tang of the yogurt matches the richness of the mayo, bringing the right degree of balance.
(Image credit: Joe Lingeman)

Storing and Serving Tuna Macaroni Salad

I find pasta salad a little tastier when it isn’t cold from the fridge; room temperature is ideal. That being said, you can make this pasta salad a whole day in advance and pull it out 30 minutes before serving — it might even be tastier the next day. Be sure to taste and season it again once chilled, as cold temps dull the seasoning of the dish. A little salt and a few cracks of pepper are just the thing.

How To Make Better Classic Tuna Macaroni Salad

This pasta salad has it all: tender macaroni, genereous pieces of tuna, crisp celery, peppers, and red onions, finished with a tangy, peppery, creamy yogurt dressing.

Serves 8 to 10

Nutritional Info


  • 3 large

    hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped

For the vegetables:

  • 1

    medium red bell pepper, seeded and finely chopped

  • 1/2

    small red onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)

  • 2 stalks

    celery, finely chopped

  • 2 tablespoons

    freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    kosher salt

For the pasta:

  • 8 ounces

    dry elbow macaroni

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

For the dressing:

  • 1/2 cup


  • 1/4 cup

    whole-milk yogurt (not Greek)

  • 1 tablespoon

    Dijon mustard

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 (5-ounce) can

    solid tuna in oil or water, drained


  • Measuring cups and spoons

  • Saucepan

  • Colander

  • Chef’s knife and cutting board

  • Mixing bowls

  • Large spoon or spatula


  1. Hard-boil the eggs if needed. There are plenty of methods for hard-boiling eggs and you can use whatever recipe is tried and true for you. Hard-boil 3 eggs, cool, peel, and chop the eggs before starting the rest of the salad.

  2. Marinate the vegetables for 15 minutes. Place the bell pepper, red onion, celery, lemon juice, and salt in a large bowl, stir to combine, and set aside for 15 minutes to marinate. Meanwhile, cook the pasta.

  3. Boil the pasta. Bring about 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and salt, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the pasta until tender but not mushy, about 8 minutes or according to package directions. While the pasta is cooking, fill a large bowl with ice and water.

  4. Shock the pasta. Immediately drain the pasta into a colander and rinse under cool running water. Drain, then 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.

  5. Make the dressing. Place the mayo, yogurt, mustard, and black pepper in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.

  6. Add the egg and tuna to the dressing. Add the chopped egg and the drained tuna into the dressing. Use a spatula to gently fold them into the dressing.

  7. Fold the pasta, dressing, and vegetables together. Transfer the dressing to the bowl of pasta and use the spatula to fold the dressing into the pasta and vegetables.

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

Recipe Notes

Storage:  Leftover macaroni salad lasts well in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Let sit at room temperature 30 minutes before serving. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.