This macaroni salad is a classic side dish for good reason.

Elbow macaroni and a handful of add-ins are tossed in a super easy (and extra creamy) tangy dressing.

I love it for potlucks, picnics, or bbqs since it’s fast to make and best made ahead of time.

serving macaroni salad with a spoon

An Easy Make Ahead Side

Macaroni noodles hold a special place in my heart. I’m in love with mac and cheese and my Mom always served elbows with rouladen gravy and of course this classic macaroni salad.  I think the best macaroni salad recipe is a simple side that’s tasty, filling, and budget-friendly. It goes with everything from burgers to fried chicken.

  • You can (and should) make macaroni salad ahead of time for the best flavor.
  • It’s budget friendly and you likely have the ingredients on hand.
  • It’s super fast to put together and versatile (see notes below).
  • The dressing uses simple ingredients but it’s extra creamy with lots of tang (and it only takes about 2 minutes).
  • Use any short pasta or add-ins to make it your own.
Ingredients for Creamy Macaroni Salad on a pan

The basic ratio for macaroni salad: (full recipe below)

  • ½ lb elbow macaroni (or any short pasta)
  • about 2 cups add-ins
  • 1 cup dressing

Of course, you can add more or less of any of these ingredients to your liking. Keep in mind that some of the dressing will soak into the pasta as it chills in the fridge so be generous when adding dressing.

Mix & Match Macaroni Salad Ingredients

Ingredients in macaroni salad include elbows (or ditalini), a creamy dressing, and some add-ins for flavor and texture. For the best macaroni salad, use a variety of add-ins with different textures and colors.

Here are a few things I like to add to Macaroni Salad:

  • Fresh & Crisp – celery, shredded carrots, red bell peppers, fresh parsley, or fresh dill
  • Salty – Try adding cheese, bacon, ham, sliced olives, or even capers.
  • Savory – Green or red onions, dill pickles, garlic powder, boiled eggs, chopped or shredded cheddar.
  • Sweet – Baby peas, pineapple, sweet bell peppers, sweet pickles, or extra pickle relish.
macaroni salad ingredients in a glass bowl

Macaroni Salad Dressing

This macaroni salad dressing is a very simple mayonnaise-based dressing and takes just a couple of minutes to prepare.

  • Mayonnaise (or dressing) is the base of this dressing recipe. To lighten up the dressing you can substitute half of the mayonnaise for Greek yogurt.
  • White vinegar or cider vinegar add tang. Swap for dill pickle juice if you’d like.
  • Sweet pickle relish and a pinch of sugar add sweetness to balance the vinegar. Sugar substitutes work well in this recipe or swap sugar for a splash of sweet pickle juice.
  • Seasonings are kept simple with a touch of prepared or dijon mustard, salt & pepper to taste.

It’s sweet, tangy, and zesty; similar to a dressing similar found in potato salad or coleslaw. You can swap out your favorite creamy dressing in this recipe, bottled coleslaw dressing is a great option too.

macaroni salad ingredients in a bowl

How to Make Macaroni Salad

As easy as 1,2,3…

  1. Cook Pasta: Boil, drain, and cool the macaroni per the recipe below.
  2. Prepare Add-Ins: While the macaroni is boiling, chop the veggies or add-ins.
  3. Mix & Chill: Mix the dressing ingredients and toss with the macaroni and add ins.

Make Macaroni Salad Ahead of Time!

This recipe is best left to chill for an hour or two before serving to allow the flavors to blend and the dressing to soak into the pasta. It can be made up to 24 hours before serving. 

Keep in mind that the pasta will soak in the dressing so dress generously. Before serving, give it a stir and then garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and fresh herbs if you’d like.

a bowl of macaroni salad

Tips for Perfection

  • Elbows can be swapped for any short pasta. Try ditalini, small shells, or wagon wheels.
  • Ensure add-ins are diced about the size of the macaroni.
  • Rinsing the pasta after draining stops it from cooking and ensures it isn’t mushy or sticky.
  • Mix the dressing directly in the salad bowl and then add the other ingredients, one less dish to wash!
  • Dress the salad generously as the pasta will soak up some of the sauce as it sits.

Make-Ahead & Leftovers

Macaroni salad is best made ahead of time which makes it party perfect. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for up to four days.  Sadly, it does not freeze well.

More Favorites Sides

What are your favorite add-ins? Leave a comment and rating below!

serving macaroni salad with a spoon
5 from 122 votes↑ Click stars to rate now!
Or to leave a comment, click here!

Classic Creamy Macaroni Salad

This classic macaroni salad is creamy & flavorful. Elbow macaroni and a handful of add-ins in a simple homemade dressing.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Chill Time 1 hour
Total Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Servings 6 servings

Ingredients  

  • ½ pound elbow macaroni uncooked (approx. 2 cups dry), or any short pasta

Add Ins* (see note)

  • 1 cup celery diced
  • ½ cup carrots shredded
  • ½ cup red pepper diced
  • ¼ cup red onion diced, or green onion

Dressing

  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or white vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet relish
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon salt & pepper

Instructions 

  • Cook elbow macaroni according to package instructions. Drain and rinse under cold water.
  • Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl.
  • Add macaroni, dressing, and remaining ingredients to a large bowl.
  • Mix well to combine and refrigerate at least 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Notes

*You will need 2 to 2 ½ cups of add-ins. Use the list above for a basic macaroni salad or change them to your liking. Other favorite add-ins include pickles, olives, ham, sweet peas, and cheddar cheese.
  • Elbows can be swapped for any short pasta. Try ditalini, small shells, or wagon wheels.
  • Rinsing the pasta after draining stops it from cooking so it doesn’t get mushy and keeps it from being sticky.
  • The dressing can be swapped for a bottled dressing of your choice or even coleslaw dressing.
  • Dress the salad generously as the pasta will soak up some of the dressing as it sits.
  • Ensure add-ins are diced about the size of the macaroni.
5 from 122 votes↑ Click stars to rate now!
Or to leave a comment, click here!

Nutrition Information

Calories: 432 | Carbohydrates: 37g | Protein: 6g | Fat: 29g | Saturated Fat: 4g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 17g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 16mg | Sodium: 408mg | Potassium: 214mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 9g | Vitamin A: 2332IU | Vitamin C: 18mg | Calcium: 25mg | Iron: 1mg

Nutrition information provided is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and brands of ingredients used.

Course Pasta, Salad, Side Dish
Cuisine American

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About the author

Holly is a wine and cheese lover, recipe creator, shopping enthusiast and self appointed foodie. Her greatest passion is creating in the kitchen and making deliciously comforting recipes for the everyday home cook!
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Comments

  1. This is a very tasty and easy salad to make. I used large macaroni and added red onion, sliced carrots and celery. For the dressing I made as directed except I used 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup mayonnaise. I also reduced apple cider vinegar to 2 Tablespoons.

  2. Wow! Made this yesterday, it was wonderful. The dressing has a nice little tang. Will definitely use this recipe again. Thanks!5 stars

  3. I add a package of tuna fish. I also use halved cherry tomatoes. No relish but def apple cider vinegar.4 stars

  4. Fantastic recipe!! This reminds me of my childhood bbq’s. I use this recipe all the time. Thank you Holly for sharing. All of your recipe’s I have used are always delicious

  5. This is not a classic recipe. I was hoping to find a good macaroni salad recipe here. Why the ham, carrots and especially the peas?

    1. We love this Classic Macaroni Salad Glenn. Feel free to leave out those ingredients if you prefer!

  6. My wife doesn’t like macaroni (no, I don’t understand it either) and I try to avoid too much gluten – so made this with 500g / 1lb waxy baby potatoes, unpeeled, diced quite finely and steamed. Had a few green beans to use up as well so they were chopped small and went in to the steamer with the frozen peas two minutes before taking it all off the heat. All else as the recipe content (except Dijon mustard rather than yellow). Served with fried pork steaks, the results were absolutely excellent; big hit, requests for repeat some time. Leftover salad went with her to work as lunch the following day and her co-trainer is asking for the recipe now.

    Lots of brownie points earned – thanks!5 stars

  7. No sugar, vinegar, carrots, or relish in mine. I use diced spam, diced boiled eggs, diced tomatoes, and cheese. It’s a complete meal serve with saltine carackers yum yum.

  8. I used this Macaroni Salad recipe. It tastes very good I did add extras. I used 2 boiled eggs,I also used shredded mild Cheddar Cheese, it taste Great next I’m gonna put some thinly cut Red Onion in it. That’s gonna make it taste Perfect and I’m not a Big Onion Person. I can’t wait to eat it. It will be Chilling in the Fridge All Day TODAY♥️♥️

  9. Very tasty! I think that Macaroni Salad is a ‘regional’ dish, since the protein in it seems to differ as to the preference of most folks in any certain area. I was brought up on the east coast in New England by the ocean (CT), so our Macaroni Salad always had some sort of a seafood in it….Tuna, Shrimp, Crab, Lobster. Nevertheless, Macaroni Salad is ALWAYS a huge hit with everyone\ at every gathering. I made yours a while ago for a cookout, and it was gobbled up in no time, even though I doubled the recipe! :-)5 stars