Macaroni Salad Recipe (Easy!)

This Macaroni Salad is heads above any recipe and will have everyone coming back for seconds and thirds!  It’s delightfully creamy without being heavy (thanks to the half yogurt or sour cream dressing), infused with fresh herbs and spices (no flat salad here!) with the craveable balance of sweet tanginess.  Best of all, this Macaroni Salad recipe can be made 24 hours ahead of time for stress free entertaining while still remaining amazingly creamy thanks to my tips! 

top view of macaroni salad in a serving bowl showing how creamy it is


 

Watch How to Make Macaroni Salad Recipe

EASY Macaroni Salad

  • MORE HERBS AND SPICES! No flat, boring Macaroni Salad recipe here! The dressing is laced with dill, parsley, garlic powder, paprika, and red pepper flakes.
  • HALF YOGURT DRESSING: The dressing isn’t overly heavy, but still luxuriously creamy thanks to using half sour cream or yogurt and half mayo.
  • A LITTLE SWEET, A LITTLE TANGY: Sweet pickle juice and sugar add subtle sweetness balanced by red wine vinegar and a kiss of Dijon.
  • CUSTOMIZABLE: Make the dressing as sweet or tangy as you like and add your favorite veggies to make it YOUR Best Macaroni Salad.
  • MAKE AHEAD FRIENDLY: The easy Macaroni Salad recipe can be made ahead of the time without losing creaminess by reserving some of the dressing.
top view showing ingredients of macaroni salad recipe in a bowl:  macaroni, celery, red onions, pickles, shredded carrots
ingredient icon

Macaroni Salad Ingredients

This Macaroni Salad recipe is made with easy-to-find ingredients. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need (full recipe in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post):

FOR THE Macaroni Salad: 

  • Macaroni: The namesake of the salad! This pasta is often referred to as elbow macaroni.
  • Bell peppers:  Choose between a red, yellow or orange bell pepper for their crunchy sweetness.
  • Sweet pickles: Please use SWEET pickles and not dill. The recipe also uses some of the pickle juice in the dressing.
  • Celery: Slice each celery stalk in half lengthwise, and then chop.
  • Carrots: Shred the carrots on the small holes of a grater (see video).

For the Macaroni Salad Dressing: 

  • Mayonnaise: This is the creamy base of the dressing and binds all of the ingredients together. Please use real mayonnaise and not Miracle Whip. 
  • Sour cream or Greek yogurt: This adds a delightful tanginess to the dressing and makes it much lighter than using all mayonnaise. 
  • Pickle juice: Use ¼ cup juice from sweet pickle jar used above.
  • Red wine vinegar: The tanginess cuts through the creaminess and balances the sweet pickles, bell peppers and sugar.
  • Dijon mustard Just one tablespoon adds a subtle tanginess without making the dressing taste remotely like mustard. 
  • Fresh herbs: The most important part!  A combination of parsley and dill creates a subtle likeness to ranch. You may substitute with one third the amount of dried herbs.
  • Seasonings: Garlic powder, paprika, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper round out the depth of flavor.
serving easy macaroni salad recipe in a bowl garnished by dill

Macaroni Salad recipe Substitutions and variations

There is no right or wrong way to make this easy Macaroni Salad as long as it’s right for YOU! Try using a different pasta, mixing up the vegetables, adding olives, etc.

  • Use a different pasta: Any medium pasta shape can work such as rotini, cavatappi, farfalle, and even tortellini.
  • Mayonnaise: Use avocado-based mayo or vegan mayo for a healthier spin.  
  • Vinegar: I prefer red wine vinegar but apple cider vinegar may be used.
  • Swap mustard: If you don’t have Dijon mustard, swap it for any mustard such as yellow deli mustard, spicy brown mustard, French, whole grain, etc.
  • Add cheese: Add cubes of cheddar, Gouda, Colby, Pepper Jack, White cheddar, Havarti, feta, or even blue cheese.
  • Add bacon: Thick cut bacon, turkey bacon, vegan bacon or even salami may be used. Reduce the salt called for in the recipe, then salt to taste.
  • Add ham: Any type of cubed ham may be used. Reduce the salt called for in the recipe, then salt to taste.
  • Add chicken: Add cooked cubed chicken, shredded chicken or rotisserie chicken.
  • Add olives: Add a handful of black olives for a salty, delectable tanginess.
  • Add pickled jalapenos:  For a spicy, tangy kick.  Start with just a little and stir in more to taste – you don’t want to ruin your Macaroni Salad by making it too spicy!
  • Load up on veggies: Add any veggies you have lying around or swap in your favorites.
  • Omit the mayo: If you really can’t stomach mayonnaise, use a vegan mayo, all sour cream, or full-fat plain Greek yogurt instead.
  • Make it dairy-free: Swap the sour cream for your favorite dairy-free/vegan sour cream or Greek yogurt substitute. Mayonnaise is dairy-free but not vegan as it is made with egg yolks, vinegar, and seasonings
  • Make it vegan: Use vegan mayo like Vegainase, vegan sour cream or yogurt.

How to MAke Macaroni Salad

This Best Macaroni Salad recipe is easy to make in just a few steps. Let’s take a closer look below (full recipe in the printable recipe card at the bottom of the post):

  • Step 1: Cook macaroni. Cook macaroni noodles in heavily salted water according to package directions. Drain, rinse with cold water, then drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking together. 
  • Step 2: Make dressing. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a medium bowl.  
showing how to make macaroni salad by whisking the dressing ingredients together in a bowl
  • Step 3: Chop salad ingredients. Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl.
showing how to make Macaroni Salad by adding celery, bell peppers, pickles, shredded carrots and red onions to a bowl
  • Step 4: Combine. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir until well combined.  Best if chilled at least one hour.
showing how to make macaroni salad by pouring the dressing over the salad ingredients in a bowl
  • Step 5: Adjust to taste. Add vinegar for tangier or sugar for sweeter.
showing how to make macaroni salad recipe by tossing the salad dressing with the salad ingredients until creamy

TIPS FOR making the best Macaroni Salad

  • Don’t overcook the pasta: No one wants a mushy Macaroni Salad! Cook the macaroni just until al dente (i.e., is soft with a bit of a bite to it). After the pasta is cooked, rinse it with cold water to prevent it from continuing to cook and soften.
  • Toss macaroni with olive oil: After the pasta is drained, immediately toss it with some olive oil. If you skip this step, it can dry together and tear when tossed.
  • Let the macaroni cool: For pasta salads with creamy dressings, you must let the pasta cool completely before adding the dressing or it will separate.
  • Customize ingredients: The Macaroni Salad ingredients and measurements are simply suggestions.  Add/swap any ingredients for your favorite veggies or add protein to make it a complete meal. See variation ideas above.
  • Use only half of the dressing if serving later: Gently toss the easy Macaroni Salad together with HALF of the dressing if not serving immediately. If you use all of the dressing initially, the macaroni will soak up the dressing and it will taste dry.
  • Season to taste:  Always adjust the finished Macaroni Salad recipe to taste AFTER it has chilled as the some of the flavors meld, build or mellow upon chilling.

How to serve this Macaroni Salad Recipe

This Macaroni Salad is a show stopping side dish perfect for any summer gathering! Here are some dishes it pairs well with:

up close of scooping up best macaroni salad recipe showing how creamy it is

How to store Easy Macaroni Salad

Cover leftover Macaroni Salad with plastic wrap or transfer it to an airtight container.

How long is macaroni salad good for?

Store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the drier it can become. If your leftovers taste dry, toss with a drizzle of olive oil, mayo or yogurt. 

Can you freeze macaroni salad?

No, I don’t recommend freezing this Macaroni Salad recipe. The fresh veggies will release water once frozen and thawed and become mushy and the dressing can split. Macaroni Salad is a dish you want to consume within a few days of making. 

Best Macaroni Salad Faqs

Why is my macaroni salad watery?

Macaroni Salad can separate and become watery if the dressing is added when the pasta is still warm or wet. If the pasta is warm, the mayonnaise can break and separate. If the pasta is wet, the water will separate from the dressing. Both of these problems can be avoided by only adding the dressing to the pasta once completely chilled.

Should you rinse macaroni after boiling it when making macaroni salad?

Yes, rinse the macaroni under cold tap water to prevent it from cooking further and to cool it down quickly. Let the macaroni drain well before tossing with olive oil and proceeding with the recipe. 

Do I Have to Toss the macaroni in Olive Oil before adding to the salad? 

I highly recommend doing so; the olive oil keeps the pasta from sticking to itself and tearing when added to the pasta salad. You’ll need to use about 1 tablespoon of olive oil. 

Why isn’t my macaroni salad creamy?

If you add all the dressing to the Macaroni Salad, then chill it in the refrigerator, the pasta will soak it right up and the pasta salad will be dry. Instead, reserve half of the dressing and toss it with the pasta right before serving. If your Macaroni Salad still seems dry, add a drizzle of olive oil, toss to combine then add additional oil as needed.

Is Macaroni Salad better warm or cold?

Macaroni Salad is best served at room temperature, but don’t let it sit out more than two hours. If pasta salad is served straight from the refrigerator, you will taste the chill of subdued flavors and a congealed dressing. Instead, pasta salad served at room temperature allows the flavors and dressing for a more appealing texture and shining flavors.

Should I salt the water for Macaroni Salad?


Yes, you should always salt your pasta water, whether making Macaroni Salad or a warmed pasta dish. Salting the water is the one chance you have to penetrate the pasta and enhance the subtle pasta flavor – you can taste the difference.  Use 1 tablespoon salt for 6 quarts of water when cooking one pound of pasta.

How do you keep pasta from sticking together for Macaroni Salad?

First, use enough pasta water when cooking the pasta. Fill a large pot with a very generous amount of water, typically 6 quarts of water for 1 pound of pasta; this is typically three-quarters full.  Pasta needs enough water to cook evenly and to move around so it doesn’t clump. Second, toss the cooked, drained pasta in a tablespoon of oil before adding the dressing.

serving macaroni salad recipe on a plate garnished with dill

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showing how to make macaroni salad recipe by tossing the salad dressing with the salad ingredients until creamy

Easy Macaroni Salad

This Macaroni Salad is heads above any recipe and will have everyone coming back for seconds and thirds!  It’s delightfully creamy without being heavy (thanks to the half yogurt or sour cream dressing), infused with fresh herbs and spices (no flat salad here!) with the craveable balance of sweet tanginess.  Best of all, this Macaroni Salad recipe can be made 24 hours ahead of time for stress free entertaining while still remaining amazingly creamy thanks to my tips! 
Servings: 10 -12 servings
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Prep Time: 30 minutes

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Ingredients

Macaroni Salad

  • 16 ounces elbow macaroni
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 3/4 cup diced sweet pickles
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1/4 cup grated carrot
  • 1/2 cup finely diced red onion

Macaroni Salad Dressing

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup sweet pickle juice
  • 3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh dill (or 2 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 tsp EACH pepper, garlic powder, paprika
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Instructions

  • Macaroni: Cook macaroni noodles in heavily salted water according to package directions just until al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water, then drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Let cool completely before adding the dressing.
  • Dressing: Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a medium bowl.
  • Salad: Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl.

Combine

  • If serving within 1-2 hours: Pour all the dressing over the salad and stir until well combined. Best if chilled at least one hour.
  • If not serving within 2 hours: Pour HALF the dressing over the macaroni salad ingredients and toss until well-combined. Cover and refrigerate the salad and remaining dressing separately. When ready to serve, stir in remaining dressing.

Video

Notes

Storage:  Cover and store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. The longer the pasta salad is refrigerated, the drier/less creamy it will become. If your leftovers taste dry, toss with a drizzle of olive oil, mayo or sour cream/yogurt. 

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14 Comments

  1. Vutisani says

    Recipe looks delicious

    • Jen says

      Thanks, I hope you can try it soon!

  2. Jennifer Fulk says

    Looks great! I usually add hard boiled eggs., Do you think that would be a good addition to this one?

    • Jen says

      Thank you and absolutely!

      • Jennifer Fulk says

        I never did use the eggs. It was perfect the way it was! Best macaroni salad ever. I used Famous Dave’s Sweet and Spicy Pickles for the pickles and juice. Delicious! I could eat it every day in the summer. I will be using this recipe from now on. Stayed creamy too, even a few days later. I used Duke’s mayo and full fat Greek yogurt. Thank you!

        • Jen says

          Yay! I am so glad it turned out to be a keeper!

  3. SLC says

    This was a hit! Made as directed. The dressing is amazing.

    • Jen says

      Yay! Thank you so much, Stacy, I’m so happy this was a hit!

  4. Kathy says

    I made this salad several times this past summer and had to borrow pickle juice from my neighbor the first time I made it. I gave her a bowl of the salad to try, and as a thank you for the juice, and she loved it and asked for the recipe. It is a hit.

    • Jen says

      I’m so pleased to hear that it was a winning recipe for you both!

  5. Lydia Martha says

    This Mac salad is so tasty! We always enjoy a change from the ordinary and this was it! It not only tastes delicious, it looks good. The sweet pickles and carrots give it a crunch! I recommend this recipe as is!

    • Jen says

      Thank you so much! I’m so glad this was a happy change!

  6. Whitney M says

    I made a couple of batches of this to serve at a homeless shelter tonight and it was a HIT. Many came back for 2nds and 3rd. The compliments were so endless that the other volunteers had to try it and then they started raving about it too!! I ended up sharing the recipe with a ton of people and had no leftovers after tripling the recipe! Thank you for this incredible dish that brought joy to a lot of people who really needed it 🙂

    • Jen says

      I’m so happy to hear it! Thank you for your goodness and for sharing your experience with me!