Classic Macaroni Salad

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!

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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.

Scoop of Classic Macaroni Salad

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.

Spoonful of Classic Macaroni Salad

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. 
Classic Macaroni Salad in a blue bowl

Ingredient FAQs

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.

Scoop of Classic Macaroni Salad

Classic Macaroni Salad

Course Side Dish
Cuisine American
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 10 minutes
Total Time 2 hours 35 minutes
Servings 8
Calories 397kcal
Author Stacey Little


  • 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.


I love the bite of red onion, but sometimes it can overpower a dish. Once it’s diced, soak the red onion in cool water for about 5 minutes, then drain before adding to the dressing. This will tone down the sharpness of the onion without changing the flavor. 


Calories: 397kcal | Carbohydrates: 42g | Protein: 7g | Fat: 22g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 13g | Monounsaturated Fat: 5g | Trans Fat: 0.1g | Cholesterol: 12mg | Sodium: 494mg | Potassium: 155mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 50IU | Vitamin C: 7mg | Calcium: 19mg | Iron: 1mg
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