Nothing says summertime eating like a serving of classic, old-fashioned macaroni salad with crisp vegetables dressed in a simple, creamy but light mayonnaise dressing for any picnic, potluck, or barbecue.
Sometimes you just don’t mess around with the classics. While some might look at this recipe and think it’s too basic (where’s the twist? what makes it special? shouldn’t it be harder than this?) that’s exactly why it’s a time-proven favorite.
While I’ve always been a fan of potato salad (my mom’s potato salad recipe is THE BEST!) it’s taken me years to come around to macaroni salad. The reason being is that every time I tried one, it was never a good one. They were either too dry, too plain, or too heavily loaded with a goopy, flavorless mayo dressing that coated the macaroni like oil on a dipstick and likely came from a pre-packaged box from the deli counter—yes! That stuff usually comes from a box!
There’s nothing worse than that acrid taste of fake mayo macaroni salad. You know. You’ve been there.
But, this old-fashioned macaroni salad is everything those others were not. First off, it’s homemade—toss the box! It’s simple but well-seasoned. It’s dressed just right with a tangy but light mayo dressing. And the pasta is neither clumpy nor starchy, but smooth and satisfying with every bite.
I really do love this salad but I’m going to defer to my husband on this one, who as a self-proclaimed macaroni salad connoisseur did attest, “Honey, this is still the best mac salad I’ve had. Ever.”
About the Recipe
Like many of my favorite classics, I found the base of this recipe in a recipe collection of one of my grandmother’s. Hers had the same basics but I added more pickles—because I could eat pickles on dirt if I had to—and hard boiled egg—because in my humble opinion, mayo based salads always taste better with a touch of a hard boiled egg.
Cooking the macaroni correctly is essential to a good mac salad. Overcook it and you’ll end up with mushy bites that won’t stand up to the mixing with the vegetables. Cook it al denté as you would your favorite Italian pasta, and the macaroni will become stiff when it chills. Watching your cooking time and cooking to the package directions should ensure the perfect bite. And to be sure, taste test every minute or so when coming to the end of your cooking time.
The macaroni salad trick I learned from my mom is to rinse the pasta after cooking and drain it really well so there’s no residual water lurking in the pasta nook and crannies. Rinsing the pasta under cold water stops the cooking time and removes some of the starches created from cooking. As the pasta cools, toss it a bit with your hands or a spoon so it stays loose and doesn’t clump together.
The dressing for this salad is a mayonnaise base that’s been thinned out with pickle juice reserved from the sweet pickles added to the salad. I always use sweet pickles, so if you use another style, taste test it to your liking. If you’re not a fan of pickles, you could substitute vinegar or lemon juice but taste as you go to get the right balance. But for me, it’s sweet pickle juice all the way.
This salad tastes best when it’s had some time in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld and the mayo sauce to permeate the noodles. Allow for at least an hour before serving, or make it the night before for the best, flavorful taste. And always remember to taste again before serving to decide if more salt and pepper seasoning needs to be added.
And really it’s as simple as that, and way better than mac salad served from a box.
Recipe Ideas to Serve with Classic Macaroni Salad
Think barbecues, picnics, and of course, fried chicken! Here are a few mains to serve along with this classic side.
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How to Make Classic Macaroni Salad
I use the classic short macaroni noodles in this macaroni salad, but a shell or elbow noodle will work equally as well. Be sure to rinse the noodles under cold water and drain well to remove any excess water so your salad doesn't become soupy.
- 1 pound ditalini pasta, or other short pasta or shell
- 3 hard boiled eggs, diced
- 2 celery ribs, minced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and minced
- 1/4 red onion, minced
- 1/4 cup sweet pickles, chopped
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon pickle juice
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Chopped parsley if desired.
- Cook the pasta in salted water according to the package directions, Drain in a colander and rinse under cold water until cooled. Shake the colander to toss the pasta, and drain for about 5 minutes, tossing occasionally.
- Transfer the drained pasta to a large bowl and add the eggs, celery, red bell pepper, red onion and sweet pickles. Mix the mayonnaise, pickle juice, sugar, and Dijon mustard in a small bowl and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add to the macaroni mix and toss until evenly coated. Season with more salt and pepper to taste and refrigerate for 1 hour before serving. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to add a little color if desired.
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