Enjoy the nostalgic flavors of Classic Macaroni Salad. A staple at potlucks in the South, this pasta salad recipe is an easy and filling side dish!
As a kid, I always feared potlucks. Mainly because I had this weird fear of eating other people’s food. I’m pretty sure this stemmed from a tragic incident when a family potluck yielded some kind of jiggly mess that had fruit loops and other unidentifiable objects in it. I guess that just burned me.
After that, I always stuck to what the folks I knew brought. It often reminds me of that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Aunt Bethany shows up with the lime jello mold topped with cat food. Ugh! I’ve gotten better over the years, but there are times when I get a little weak-kneed heading into a potluck.
What is Classic Macaroni Salad?
A potluck in the South just isn’t a potluck without a few staple dishes like macaroni salad, some form of congealed salad, banana pudding, probably a cobbler or two, and enough casseroles to feed an army.
Macaroni salad typically consists of cooked elbow macaroni pasta mixed with a creamy dressing, which may include ingredients like mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, sugar, and various seasonings. My macaroni salad recipe incorporates diced celery, onions, and bell peppers. Other traditional southern macaroni salads may also feature hard-boiled eggs, sweet relish, and/or diced pickles.
Classic Macaroni Salad features a creamy texture with tangy and savory flavors. This is a beloved side dish at most all picnics, barbecues, and potlucks around these parts.
Tips for making the best macaroni salad ever…
- Shock the pasta with cold water immediately after cooking! This stops the cooking and washes off the excess starch to ensure the pasta doesn’t stick together as badly.
- Soak your diced red onion in cool water before adding the dressing! To avoid the flavor of your red onion being too overpowering, soak it in cool water for about 5 minutes. Then drain it and add it to your dressing. This will tone down the sharpness of the onion without changing the flavor.
- Add half the dressing first. Then refrigerate before adding the rest of the dressing. This salad is best after it has some time to rest, but as the pasta will continually absorb the dressing, it can be kinda dry once you’re ready to eat. To combat that, I add about half of the dressing, refrigerate, and then add the rest of the dressing when ready to serve so you get all the yummy creaminess.
- Taste test and add more salt and pepper! As the salad rests, the flavors will change. As a result, I always suggest that you taste the salad and add more salt and pepper to taste right before serving.
Elbow Macaroni – I suppose you could try a different type of macaroni but I have always used and loved elbow macaroni.
Red Onion – I think red onion is the best choice here because of the flavor and the color, but another type of onion should work.
Celery – Not much to add here except you only need one rib or about 1/3 cup of diced celery.
Green Bell Pepper – You need a half of a green bell pepper. Again, I like the green one because of the flavor and color. Each color bell pepper comes with its own unique flavors, but you’re welcome to use another color. Green, yellow, orange, and red bell peppers all the same pepper. The color just changes the longer it stays on the plant. They get sweeter as the color changes from green to yellow to orange to red – with red being the sweetest.
Mayo – And not just any mayo! You know I’m going to recommend my tried and true Duke’s brand mayo. Obviously you can use another brand, but I never use any other kind. Duke’s is superior in my book.
Yellow Mustard – Not brown or spicy mustard… yellow mustard only please.
White Vinegar – Any old white vinegar will do the trick!
Salt & Pepper – Yes & Yes, please!
White Sugar – Or, “granulated sugar” if you prefer that title. 😉
Granulated garlic – Granulated garlic is not the same as garlic powder. Granulated garlic has a coarse texture similar to sand. If you can not find granulated garlic, you can use garlic powder as a substitute, but try to use granulated garlic if it is available.
Onion Powder – Any brand or generic will work in this recipe.
Classic Macaroni Salad
- 3 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
- 1/2 medium red onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
- 1 rib celery, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
- 1/2 green bell pepper, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
- 1 cup mayo (like Duke's)
- 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
- 3 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 teaspoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- Cook macaroni according to package directions using salted water. Drain and run cool water over the pasta until it is cooled.
- In another bowl stir together mayo, mustard, vinegar, pepper, sugar, salt, garlic, and onion powder. Add the onion, celery, and bell pepper. Mix well.
- In a large bowl, add the pasta and about half of the dressing and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate the pasta and remaining dressing for at least 2 hours.
- When ready to serve, add remaining dressing and toss to coat. Add additional salt and pepper to taste.
If nutritional values are provided, they are an estimate and will vary depending on the brands used. If calorie count and other nutritional values are important to you, I recommend grabbing your favorite brands and plugging those ingredients into an online nutritional calculator.
Just a quick funny story on cooking cleanliness. My Dad was a stickler on clean hand in cooking and before going to the table. He was also not above leaving a restaurant showing unsanitary practices, including a waitress licking her fingers to separate placemats or menus, and he better not see an employee leave a restroom with out washing…With Soap!! And yep, I’m the same way. One step further, I usually cook and prep food with gloves because I can’t handle foods that are wet, sticky, greasy or smelly on my hands. Don’t like lotions or hand/face creams either.
Just my personal craziness. Love Y’all!!
I had a recipe that I used for years and I liked it but it did have an aftertaste. I decided to try a new one and picked yours from Pinterest. I cannot tell you how many people love this macaroni salad and have asked for the recipe! Saturday I made a triple batch, one for my grandson’s birthday party and a double batch for our church picnic. More requests came for the recipe! I’ll be checking out more of your recipes after the success I had with this one!
Thanks, Karen! So glad that you enjoyed it!
Understand & agree Susan!! 👍👍
Robbie Ray Anderson
My wife had a school nurse friend many years back that always brought food for staff get-togethers. One day we went to her house to pick some black eyed peas and went inside afterwards. She had a big ole cat walking around on top of her kitchen countertops and another was sleeping in a big empty pot sitting on top her stove. Needless to say her food was avoided like the plague!
Same here! My husband and I went to my boss’s house for an afternoon gathering. She had a beautiful spread on the kitchen counter, but unfortunately it was summertime in central Florida. The smell of food attracted every fly in town 🪰🪰🪰🪰
Needless to say, we both backed away from the buffet. 🤠
Ugh! And see! This is my point. 🙂
I have your cookbook that has this recipe, but not the notes you give in your email posts. I always add your notes because they are helpful things that I might not remember otherwise. Love my cookbook and your helpful suggestions.
Thanks, Harriet! I try to get as much as I can in these posts to ensure every recipe turns out successfully!
That is the same exact recipe I have been using for years and I wouldn’t change a thing!
Love, love, love your recipes and clever stories!
Put some SOUTH IN YOUR MOUTH, everyone. 😋
Thank you so much, Susan!
My mother taught me to put mustard in our macaroni salad dressing. Best Foods Mayonnaise-California, Heinz Apple Cider Vinegar, French’s Mustard, salt, pepper, and if Pops had his way, some sweet pickle juice. Elbow macaroni-NOT salad macaroni, diced pimentos, chopped sweet pickles, hand-chopped black olives. We had to start chopping whole sweet pickles when we could no longer get sliced sweet pickles. Annoying, and sweet pickle relish just did not work. It’s a moot point now, as I have now become allergic to cucumbers (and melons, and squash). Macaroni salad, tartar sauce, and other things are just not the same without pickles in them. Candied jalapeños do substitute fairly well. Except for Orzo and Acini de pepe, I now cook my pasta in one of those microwave pasta cookers. It’s faster, and way less messy. You will pry mine out of my cold, dead, fingers. 8)
Ugh! I hate to hear about the allergy. I’m not sure what I’d do without pickles! 🙂
It’s tough. I miss them a lot. I had no idea a famous chicken sandwich place marinated their chicken in dill pickle juice. I found out accidentally just before they built one in my town. That was a lucky break.
I bet! I’m not sure what I’d do without pickles and my chicken sandwich!!
Why do all summer salads come with Sugar……..I am not into sweets will this taste as good without the sugar and vinegar?
I’m not sure how it’d tastes without the sugar and vinegar. I’ve never made it that way. Two teaspoons isn’t really enough to make it sweet, but you could certainly leave it out.
Maybe try a more savory dressing. Add a little Ranch dressing or Italian dressing. You don’t need sugar but you do need taste so try mustard added to Mayo also. Summer is all kinds of salads that not necessarily with sugar and or vinegar. Everyone’s taste is different. Have a beautiful summer and hope you find some yummy salads you like or love.
I love the picture of your macaroni salad which is delicious. Truly awesome. I give it 5 gold stars. I’m to make it again adding a can of tuna fish with a cup of dried cranberries.
Thank you for the recipe.
You are so welcome! Thanks for the kind words, Larry!
Yum…that sounds like some great add-ins! Thanks!
Great classic recipe. I made it with vegan mayo for a potluck and it was a big hit. Thanks a bunch!! Only thing I changed was adding a half cup of diced red bell pepper for a little more color.
Great idea! So glad y’all enjoyed it!
I have to agree with the lady that said the sauce was too vinegary. I also thought the mustard was an unnecessary addition and really overpowering.
Sorry it didn’t run out as you expected. Did you add some extra mayo to balance it out?
People not from the South just don’t get it…lol…vinegar makes sooo many things taste better. Think NC barbecue and vinegary sauce!!! And the comment on mustard! My goodness, mustard makes macaroni salad, potato salad, deviled eggs taste so much better. You can definitely tell who’s not from the South in these comments and ratings!! Enjoy your blog….., you are most definitely a Southern cook!!! Thanks!!
Thanks for the endorsement, Beverly! 🙂
I have no idea why that lady in the review was being a troll and complaining there was too much vinegar. If she made it correctly (which I’m guessing she did not) it would have been delicious! I made this for a bbq and everyone loved it! Thank you for the recipe!!!
Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Laura!
Excellent macaroni salad.
Great dish! Everyone loved it! I added a tiny bit more sugar as i had a little more macaroni. Really good! Thanks!!
This is such a classic Southern dish! So glad that you love it too!
Super easy, love it! By the time the pasta cooked everything was pulled out and done!
So glad it was easy!
This was awful! It should be like 1 tbsp vinegar. It literally tasted like straight up vinegar. I tried fixing it but ended up throwing the whole thing out which was very annoying
Unfortunately I can’t suit every taste. It’s had great reviews otherwise. Are you sure you used the correct amount of vinegar? Did you taste the dressing before adding it to the pasta and other ingredients?
How many calories ?? For like a cup ??
I don’t keep track of nutritional information as it can vary widely based on specific brands of products used. You can choose the products you’d want to use and plug them in to something like MyFitnessPal.com to find the exact nutritional stats you’re looking for.
this has been my go-to salad for memorial day & 4th of july for 30 years! because of this classic recipe, my kids & grandkids dont like anyone elses salad! i do, though, add fine-diced carrot to give it a little “sweetness” (i use kraft mayo instead of dukes) i never even heard of dukes till i moved to texas. this is how my mother made it, so i stuck to the same way. and i read someone said they add the macaroni warm-i do that too 🙂
and happy 4th to everyone!
Happy 4th, Holly!!
Mom’s way is always the best way, right!?
This recipe is delicious. The perfect macaroni salad! Next time I may add some steamed shrimp cut into bite size pieces. Thanks for the recipe, keep ‘em coming! Also, congratulations on the building of your families new home!
Thanks so much, Donna! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this and I love the idea of adding in some shrimp!
I had a friend in NC who make ham salad, but also make salad out of bologna. Her family called the bologna salad “party meat”!
That was the first time I have heard of that!
I’ve never heard it called party meat! Interesting!
As a person who has experienced food poisoning from our church camp meeting a few years ago I am with you… I now only eat the food from the people that I KNOW share my kitchen standards…. ????????♀️
It’s awful, right???
Stacy, My mother used to make ham salad and believe it or not she sometimes made it out of bologna and it was good, but I remember she would use a solid roll of bologna. Have you ever done this? And, if so tell me.
Hi Bobbie! I’ve not done it myself, but am quite familiar with it!
Your tomatoe & cracker salad is just Awesome! I will be trying your Macaroni Salad. Thank you!
Thanks so much, Sherry! I sure hope you enjoy it!
Boy howdy, you hit the nail on the head regarding staple dishes at a southern potluck! ???? Thanks for this mac salad recipe, always looking for good recipes to add to my potluck folder!! Have a blessed Easter.
Cynthia A. Greenfeather
My husband’s not a pasta fan at all, (must be from another planet, right?) so I almost never make macaroni salad. Never would have thought to put mustard in it. I might just try that sometime. Years ago, I had macaroni salad at a friend’s house, and it was made with boxed macaroni and cheese. It was really good! I made some for a family picnic, and my ex-husband’s grandfather, who LOVED pasta any way, shape or form, HATED it! Oh, well, can’t win ’em all.
First off I would like to say excellent blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
I was curious to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before
writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out.
I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the
first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints?
My Nanny made Macaroni Salads all the time.Her key ingredient was Thousand Island Dressing.I may have to give yours a try and see how I like it.I’ll have to add eggs and a little bit of pickles and juice too.You can’t go wrong with any of the salads in summer.
You are so right! The thousand island dressing sounds great!
Hey Stacey! I grew up o church potluck dinners! My biggest fear now is the “all you can eat” places where who knows when it was cooked and how long it has been sitting there! I won’t go there!
I do have an aversion to buffet for those exact reasons. 🙂
Kentucky Lady 717
Aren’t you a friend of “SOUTHERN PLATE” Christy who has a blog ? Seems I remember her talking about you or maybe you were on one of her videos….am I right ?
What part of the South are you from ? I like your food, you cook a lot like I do ….when I cook 🙂
I make my potato salad like you except I use boiled eggs, but I mash the yolks before I add them to the salad…..don’t care for chunks of egg yolk…..
And I too am very picky about pot lucks…..I avoid them…..you never know who cooked what and if their kitchen looks like the hoarders LOL…..I have this fear too…..
I worked with this lady who lived with her mother and brother and they had a couple of big dogs, and she would come to work with dog hairs all over her coat and it smelled like the dogs had slept on it, and she would always bring homemade goodies to work, and I don’t think many people ate any……certainly not me……..she just did not look like a clean person…..you usually can tell……and I can tell…….
Oh, yes! Christy and I are great friends. IN fact, she wrote the foreward for my cookbook. I’m a lifelong Alabama resident.
Love your stories and I can relate to almost everyone. My mom was the one at ever dinner on the grounds at Church that would run point and tell me what to eat and not to eat. Now I work in a family owned restaurant that makes everything homemade. I love what you do.
Jen from bham
Omgosh! I cannot believe I JUST found you Stacey! Where have you been all my life?!?! Your recipes are amazing…..right up my alley. I have been reading your fb page, website and blog for over an hour. I’m so happy I found you!!! I have your cookbook in my Amazon cart. After this comment I’m heading to Amazon to buy your book!!!!! I cannot wait to receive it. Thanks, Stacey! I can’t wait to get cookin’.
Ha! These types of comments just make my day! Welcome, Jen!! I’m so glad you’ve found lots that you like here! Thanks so much for your support!! War Eagle!!! (Sorry for all the exclamation points. I’m Just excited!)
Jen from bham
This is just great! I’m still looking around and have a grocery store list 3 miles long. Your stories are excellent and I can relate in so many ways. You are very inspiring and I look forward to watching your success. It’s ” normal” people like you that make a difference. Thank you for sharing your stories and delicious recipes.
You are so sweet. Thanks so, so much!
This was REALLY good! My hubby loved it and he is very picky!! Thank you for the recipe!
You are welcome!
When fixing eggs for potato salad use the microwave..cuts down on time..I take 3 eggs and crack them into a glass bowl,stir them just to mix yolks and whites and then nuke them for 15 seconds…stir and nuke again 15 more second and stir again and nuke till they are fluffy and all the liquid is cooked..them I smash them up good and put them in the mix of Mayo and pickle rellish and seasoning.Stir that and then add my potatoes…a lot quicker than boiling and peeling eggs..
That’s awesome! I crack mine in a pyrex pie dish, stir to barely marble them, nuke, then cut em up with a pastry blender. So much easier than fighting with stubborn clingy shells! I put hard cooked eggs in anything I can get away with. Green bell peppers, though, are essential to any self respecting Southern macaroni salad. Oh, and Duke’s, of course. Sugar is the miracle ingredient.
Amen, Fritzi! Thanks for sharing!
wow, thanks for sharing
What’s up with the KRAFT mayo???
LOL!! You know I’m loyal to my Duke’s mayo, but Kraft was buy one get one free… I just couldn’t pass it up!
Cynthia A. Greenfeather
I saw that, too! I tried dukes once, and I liked it. To me, it’s a cross between miracle whip and Hellmans. Hellmens is so bland, but so nice and rich. miracle whip is tangy, but too sweet. I almost always use both together, unless I’m looking just for a tangy flavor. My husband loves miracle whip, or I’d probably just buy dukes.
Now that you have posted your delicious macaroni salad recipe I’m hoping you will post your potato salad, tuna salad, egg salad and chicken salad you mentioned. I love all kinds of these salads for summer picnics we have for our growning family reunions. But I love tuna salad, egg salad and chicken salad the best for everyday sandwiches. You are such a good cook and I have enjoyed making most of your recipes.
This hits home with me. I am very picky about whose food I eat. I had an uncle who, at family reunions, would only eat what my mother or I would take. I am a very clean cook, I am very careful and my hands are washed a dozen times. I usually take baked beans and a casserole or two, plus cake or pie and naturally sweet tea!
Cynthia A. Greenfeather
I’m a nurse, so I wash my hands multiple times when I cook, and if I go to a potluck prepared by people I don’t know, I’m always leery, and apt to only eat what I bring, or the foods that have to be thoroughly cooked. Over the years, I’ve made home visits to people who had cockroaches and we’re very unclean, but were the sweetest people you’d ever want to know. More than once, they’ve given me cookies to take with me. I couldn’t bring myself to eat them, because of the possible cockroach contamination. But I confess, Iam a TERRIBLE housekeeper, but as I said, I wash my hands many times while cooking, and even though my house is a mess, I am very careful when it comes to cooking. Thank goodness I never carried any cockroaches home with me. (I used to pray that none would get caught in my supplies or clothing while I made home visits. God ALWAYS answered my prayers). Happy cooking!
My Aunt Nancy’s corn salad is always a hit.
Sounds delicious! I have never put mustard in my macaroni salad but I sure look forward to trying it!!
Usually I bring dessert of some sort to a potluck. Death by chocolate, biscotti,or toffee are a couple of favorites!!
wow this is different for me. I make mine just like this but have always added boiled eggs. I also use a lot of boiled eggs in my potato salad. More than most folks. I just realized that was probably because we had chickens and in the summer were overrun with eggs and most people we knew had their own chickens. We did what we could to use them up. Lasagna, broccoli salad, strawberry spinach salad, usually brownies. All easy and yummy! I also make a lot of macaroni salads with different shapped pasta and raw veggies that are non mayo dressing usually Italian. If I use seashells and mayo I usually had a couple of cans of tuna (and yes, boiled eggs) 🙂
I’m a big boiled egg fan, too! I love ’em in potato salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad (of course!), all types of green salads, just by themselves… Wait, I’m starting to sound like Bubba on Forrest Gump… fried shrimp, boiled shrimp, shrimp cocktail… LOL!
I love eggs, period. Especially, soft boiled eggs with buttered toast. The hard part is getting the eggs boiled just right because I love a runny yolk but don’t want any semi-congealed white.
Cynthia A. Greenfeather
Not any more! America’s test kitchen has a 100% FOOLPROOF way to make PERFECT soft boiled eggs! You can Google it and it’s on lot of free sites now, but if you want to make 1 soft boiled egg or a dozen, you boil an inch of water, add the eggs with a spoon or tongs so that they don’t crack, and you don’t burn. Put the lid on, turn the eggs down so the waters gently boiling (must continue to boil so steam is maintained), cook for 6 1/2 minutes, EXACTLY. Remove from heat, rinse in cold water so you can handle them, and crack them open and eat. Use large eggs, not med or extra large.
You absolutely nailed it with this recipe!
This is the first time making a macaroni salad and it is wonderful.
Can’t wait for the wife to come home from her nursing job to taste the salad AND your rib recipes!
Thank you for sharing this.
Thanks so much! Hope y’all enjoyed it all!
Ha I could write a book on church mystery foods S I was the dare devil taster in my family always sampling other peoples food. This recipe is close to my moms except she added extra mayo, one vidalia with one red onion, some sweet pickle juice and diced sweet pickles, small mini blocks of sharp cheddar or colby jack cheese. So many versions of this came across my plate with small chopped blocks of ham, chopped chicken, cooked smoked bacon, large green peas or beans.
You’re a brave kid to serve as the taster! Love the idea of adding the chunks of cheese and meats!
Your Mom fed you right! I add whatever I have in the frig to it. Love peas and ham added!
Becki @ Becki's Whole Life
Too funny. My husband hates potlucks and I have always loved them because I like to try different recipes. I think its a germ thing for him…or unknown preparation methods…love this Mac salad – classic and full of all the right flavors!
When I take anything to potlucks I always list ingredients like dairy, nuts, eggs, or anything unusual, and tape it to the front of the dish. Better safe than sorry. I usually take baked beans, or potato salad, and almost always take cake. I spent 20 years baking and decorating cakes, and while I no longer do fancy decorating, people still request my icing.
I would love to have your fancy decorating icing recipe. I love the bakery icing but cannot find a good recipe for it so far for my cakes. Hope you can share it.
Here’s a quick hint- just rinse your macaroni briefly, not until completely cooled (you want it still kinda hot). Sprinkle with part of your vinegar and mix well. Then let it cool. The vinegar will season the macaroni while it is still warm, making your salad even yummier! This works the same with potato salad as well!
I always, always have to make hash brown casserole or broccoli salad, and never carry any home!
Great suggestion!! Thanks for sharing, Jane!
I have always poured about 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar over my hot potatoes for potatoe salad – my gram’s recipe – but never thought about doing it over macarini. Will definately have to try that. Thanks Jane.
Hope you love it!
If you want a great summer surprise for this Mac salad toss in some chunks of you choice of imitation crab, imitation lobster, med sized cooked shrimp or turn it Cajun with some crumbled andouille sausage or diced crayfish tails and a teaspoon of Cajun spice. It will be the first bowl emptied.
Great way to jazz this up! Thanks for sharing!
Everyone loves for me to bring my Aunt Sue’s Orange Juice cake (guest posted on Southern Plate). It is so good and moist. Being lactose intolerant, potlucks always make me a bit nervous as well because I can’t stop and ask about every dish. I usually have to steer clear of the creamy casseroles and most desserts but there is always so much food, I never leave hungry.