Unveil the Ultimate Macaroni Salad Recipe!

Macaroni salad is one of the greatest parts of barbecues and picnic season, but it can easily be enjoyed any time of year with the right ingredients.

Typically, this classic dish tends to be a lot of the same—elbow noodles, a creamy mayo-based dressing, and some combination of celery, onion, and carrots. Sometimes eggs, sometimes a little spice or mustard, but there aren’t a lot of innovative shake-ups in the mac salad game. Until now!

I actually didn’t think I liked macaroni salad for many years, because my family bought the gloppy, often soggy, underseasoned version from the grocery store. It wasn’t until I started making it myself in college that I realized mac salad’s potential for greatness. I became famous for my Tuna Mac Salad with shredded cheddar for a twist on a tuna melt, perfect for hot weather. I also got creative, changing up the fixins’ inside.

Now I’m here to share a macaroni salad matrix that will help you achieve super salads all year long (because mac salad shouldn’t just be for warm, sunny days).

How to Make the Best Macaroni Salad

Dotdash Meredith Food Studios

All About That Base

The first thing you need to know, if you aren’t already familiar, is the joy of Hawaiian macaroni salad. In Hawaii, mac salad is served by the scoop on mixed plates (lunch plates) alongside rice and entrées like tender Kahlua pork, Korean kalbi short ribs, teriyaki chicken, and crispy katsu. The dressing is a little sweet and tart (which can be achieved by adding a little sugar and vinegar) and has a thinner consistency that clings to the cooked macaroni, especially as it sits overnight. It makes it more refreshing to eat even though it’s creamy!

I highly recommend using Japanese-style Kewpie mayonnaise that has inherent sweetness and eggy richness from more yolks used in its base. I like to use 1 1/2 cups mayonnaise, 2 teaspoons white sugar, 2 tablespoons vinegar (rice or apple cider), and 2 tablespoons milk for 1 pound of cooked pasta as a ratio, but you can add another 1/2 cup or more if you want it extra creamy.

Use Your Noodle

Even if I’m not making mac salad for a big group, I use a whole pound of pasta. It gets better as it sits, so it’s a lovely way to meal prep. I try to get bigger elbows for more surface area for sauce to cling onto, especially with ridges, but some other go-to pasta shapes are medium shells, cavatappi, rotini, fusilli, or a new pasta shape Cascatelli (invented by Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast) that is full of ridges, nooks, and crannies to hold all the mac salad ingredients in one glorious bite.

The Crunch Factor

Some crunchy, or crispy (or both!) add-ins are what make mac salad sing. To keep onion breath to a minimum, soak chopped onion (I like sweet onions or red onions) in cold water for 5 minutes to remove the bite or grate it in to evenly disperse the oniony flavor. Sometimes I just use whole scallions, sliced thinly on the bias (aka diagonally), including the more potent white bulbs, light green parts, and dark green tops for a lighter bite and pop of color. 

Shredded, grated, or julienned (I use a julienne peeler) carrot has a nice hint of sweetness and crunch—just make sure to peel your carrots first. Pre-shredded carrots can have a strange aftertaste and are more tough than tender, so I recommend shredding them yourself.

Celery sliced very thinly on the diagonal also adds a nice texture variance or even fresh zucchini for a tender-crisp addition.

Radishes, sweet bell peppers, broccoli, or even grilled asparagus can also level up your mac salad. The only thing I don’t recommend is fried onions or shallots, which will work great if eaten immediately and look nice as a garnish, but they will get soggy as the salad sits.

Turn a Side Into a Meal

If you aren’t feeding vegetarians, adding meat to macaroni salad is a great way to incorporate protein that can turn a side into a main meal. Cubed ham, broccoli, and Cheddar cheese was part of my favorite pasta salad at chain restaurant Ruby Tuesday’s salad buffet when I was a kid, and I made a twist on that by adding cubed caramelized and teriyaki-glazed SPAM to Hawaiian-style macaroni salad recently (for SPAM Musubi Mac Salad).

Don’t turn your nose up at hot dogs, which make a great addition to the macaroni, or go for surf with canned tuna or other tinned fish. Salmon pasta salad is another easy and flavorful route.

I’ve also added bacon and tomatoes for a BLT vibe but found lettuce wilted too fast in the dressing for it to be a true BLT. Chopped jammy-to-hard-boiled eggs are a vegetarian-friendly addition, too, or any kind of cheese you please. Go ahead and “mac” it your own!