Southern macaroni salad is a popular party side dish that you can make ahead and bring along when you're assigned a dish to pass. Filled with tender pasta, crispy fresh veggies, and the BEST macaroni salad dressing ever, it will fly off the buffet table in a flash.
My only experience with classic macaroni salad was tubs of the stuff purchased at the local deli.
As with most things, the homemade recipe is miles ahead of the store bought version.
This delicious southern macaroni salad has a zippy salad dressing, perfectly crispy fresh veggies, and the best ratio of pasta to sauce.
You can adjust the seasonings to be a little bit spicy or keep it sweet and creamy. Make a batch to bring to the next potluck you're invited to and watch it fly off the buffet table.
Why This is the Best Recipe
You could buy macaroni salad from a local deli but the pasta is usually too soft and the dressing might be just too much.
This is the best southern macaroni salad because:
- Fresh, Crispy Veggies: The ratio of pasta to veggie is just perfect and they are fresh and crisp for a perfect texture.
- Firm but Tender Pasta: Learn how to cook the pasta for the pasta salad so it doesn't get mushy as it sits in the dressing.
- Flavorful Macaroni Dressing: This recipe has the perfect mix of seasonings and a touch of vinegar to keep it from being gloopy.
- Easy Make Ahead Dish: Want to make this in advance of your party? Check out my tips for how to prep it so it doesn't dry out overnight.
This classic macaroni salad recipe only needs a few ingredients:
- Ditalini Pasta: I chose ditalini instead of the more traditional macaroni because once it is cooked, the size of the noodle is similar in shape to the diced veggies and eggs. I love the texture it gives the pasta salad. If you prefer, you can absolutely use elbow macaroni instead.
- Mayonnaise: A true southern recipe would use Duke's mayo. However, my mom prefers Miracle Whip and some folks love the olive oil mayo. You can use the brand you love best.
- Sour Cream
- Red Bell Pepper
- Red Onion: If sweet Vidalia onions are in season, this would be a perfect southern ingredient to use.
- Hard Boiled Eggs: I make these in just a few minutes with my Instant Pot method.
- Gherkin Pickles: If you don't want to hand chop the gherkins, you could substitute pickle relish or make my chow chow relish variation. See the notes at the bottom of the post.
- Red Wine Vinegar
- Dijon Mustard
- Garlic Salt
- Celery Seed
- Salt & Pepper
Prep the Macaroni Salad
First, boil the pasta according to the package directions.
To ensure you have perfect al dente pasta that will stand up to the creamy salad dressing without getting mushy, I encourage you to set the timer for 30 seconds less than the lowest time listed on the box.
The ditalini tend to stick to the bottom of the pot, be sure to stir it a few times as it cooks.
I always set a wooden spoon over the pot to keep it from boiling over. Such a handy trick!
When the pasta is done, strain it and rinse with cold water to halt the cooking.
Meanwhile, finely dice the red onion and soak it in a cup of ice water.
My husband and I both struggle with heartburn with raw onions and this has been such a life saver trick! The ice water cuts the harshness of the onion and makes the dish much more palatable.
Add the finely diced celery, red pepper, gherkins or pickle relish, and hard boiled eggs to a large mixing bowl.
Strain the red onions and add them to the mix.
Add the cooked pasta and give everything a quick stir to combine:
Make the Macaroni Salad Dressing
Making the salad dressing is super easy.
Simply add the mayo or Miracle Whip, sour cream, pickle juice, red wine vinegar, sugar, Dijon mustard, garlic salt, celery seed, and salt and pepper to a mixing bowl.
Whisk them all together till smooth.
Assemble and Chill
Pour the prepared dressing over the pasta and veggies. Gently toss to combine.
Store in a covered dish in the fridge for one hour so the flavors can mingle before serving.
Make Ahead Tips
If you plan to make the salad early in the day for a party that same day, proceed through the recipe as instructed and store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Simply stir the salad before serving to combine the dressing and ingredients again.
If you plan to make the salad the day before, I actually suggest you prep it this way:
- Dice the veggies and eggs. Store them in an air tight container or zip top bag.
- Cook the pasta and strain. Rinse in cold water. Toss with just 1 tablespoon olive oil so the noodles don't stick together. Store in a separate container in the fridge.
- Prepare the dressing. Store it in a mason jar in the fridge.
Then you can just toss everything together before serving the next day. This prevents the noodles from absorbing most of the salad dressing and drying out.
How Much Pasta to Use
I'm very particular when it comes to the ratio of salad dressing to pasta in a pasta salad.
I personally prefer my pasta salads to be filled with flavor but not too heavy on the dressing.
I think the full 16 oz of ditalini is the perfect amount of pasta to the amount of dressing called for in this recipe with one condition:
You must assemble the dressing and pasta and serve it within a few hours.
If you let the full box of pasta sit in the salad dressing overnight, it will get way too dry before you serve it since the pasta will absorb the dressing as it sits.
Just be sure to use my prep ahead tips mentioned above if you want to make it the day before.
Southern macaroni salad is the perfect summery side dish for a variety of delicious main dishes:
- Grilled or Fried Chicken
- Barbecue Platters
- Hot Dogs
- Deli Sandwich Platters
Southern Chow Chow Macaroni Salad: You could substitute ¼ -⅓ cup chow chow relish for the gherkins and pickle juice. If you make my homemade recipe, you can skip adding the celery seed to the macaroni salad dressing. Chow chow relish will add a little extra crunch and color to the side dish.
Southern Ham and Cheddar Macaroni Salad: Dice up leftover spiral ham with brown sugar and add small diced cubes of cheddar cheese or shredded cheddar cheese to the prepared macaroni salad.
Southern Macaroni Salad
For the Macaroni Salad
- 16 oz ditalini pasta or elbow macaroni
- ½ red onion finely diced, could use a sweet Vidalia onion as an alternative
- 1 small red bell pepper finely diced
- 3 stalks celery finely diced
- 4 sweet gherkins finely diced, may substitute pickle relish
- 2 - 4 hard boiled eggs finely diced
For the Macaroni Salad Dressing
- 1 cup mayonnaise or Miracle Whip
- ¼ cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoon pickle juice
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 sprinkle garlic salt
- 1 sprinkle celery seed
- 1 pinch kosher salt
- 1 pinch black pepper
Prepare the Macaroni Salad
- Boil the ditalini pasta according to the package directions. For best results, set the timer for 30 seconds less than the lowest time listed on the package. This will ensure you have al dente pasta that can hold up to the salad dressing without becoming mushy.
- Drain the pasta and immediately rinse in cold water.
- Meanwhile, finely dice the red onion and place it in a cup of ice water while you prepare the rest of the salad. This takes the "sting" out of the onion and helps to reduce heart burn.
- Add the diced red pepper, celery, gherkins, and hard boiled eggs to a large mixing bowl. Strain the red onions and add them to the bowl. Add the cooked pasta and stir everything together.
Prepare the Macaroni Salad Dressing
- In a medium mixing bowl, add the mayonnaise or Miracle Whip, sour cream, pickle juice, red wine vinegar, sugar, and Dijon mustard. Give a gentle shake of the garlic salt and a light shake of the celery seed. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk everything together. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.
- Pour the dressing over the macaroni salad and gently toss to combine.
- Chill the macaroni salad in a covered container in the fridge for one hour and serve cold. The side dish can be made ahead with 24 hours of serving. Just stir to combine again before serving.
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