How to make the best macaroni pasta salad with an easy creamy dressing and crisp, colorful vegetables. We love this easy salad!
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How to Make the Best Macaroni Salad
There are lots of options when it comes to making pasta salad. We’ve already shared a few with you including our Quick and Easy Pasta Salad, this Lemon Orzo Pasta Salad with Cucumbers, and for a gluten-free salad, this Mediterranean Zucchini Noodles Salad.
When it comes to making a cold, creamy pasta salad, keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t overcook the pasta. Use the package directions of the pasta you choose as a guide, but a minute or two before it should be done, test it. If done, drain the pasta and move onto our next tip.
- Rinse the cooked pasta under cold water before tossing with the salad dressing. If you’ve ever made pasta salad that turned sticky, not rinsing the pasta before tossing with the dressing could be the reason. The cooked pasta is coated in starches. By removing the starches, the salad won’t turn sticky or clump as much.
- Choose lots of colorful veggies and textures to add to the salad. It’s just better this way.
- Use a bright and flavorful salad dressing. Since the base of our dressing is creamy, we love brightening it up with some acid from vinegar and mustard. If you love sweeter salads, you can add a bit of honey, as well.
How to Make Creamy Pasta Salad Dressing
For creamy macaroni salad, we love using a slightly adapted version of our potato salad dressing (it gets rave reviews). Instead of just using mayonnaise, which can make the pasta heavy, we combine mayonnaise with sour cream.
Since the sour cream has a bit of tanginess, it lifts the flavors of the dressing, just as fresh lemon juice would to other dishes.
In addition to the mayonnaise and sour cream, we use these ingredients:
- Yellow mustard adds a bit of color and rounds out the flavor of the dressing nicely. We usually use Dijon mustard in our recipes, but just like when making our potato salad, we prefer regular yellow mustard for the best pasta salad.
- Apple cider vinegar adds even more flavor to the dressing. Just a tablespoon will do it. If you don’t have apple cider vinegar, most kinds of vinegar will do, especially white or red wine vinegar.
- Salt and pepper are a must when it comes to making the dressing. There’s a lot of pasta and vegetables going into the bowl. Nobody wants an unseasoned salad, right? We start with a 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt and go from there based on taste.
- Honey is an optional ingredient. We typically stay away from sweeter pasta salads, but if that’s what you love, add a tablespoon or so of honey to the dressing, and you’ll be a happy camper!
More: You may also enjoy our Italian-inspired salad, here’s our Three Herb Italian Pasta Salad
What Goes into a Creamy Pasta Salad?
What you add to your macaroni salad is up to you, but think about checking these boxes:
- When choosing the pasta shape, choose something that will hold onto the dressing. Shapes that have nooks and crannies like elbow macaroni, small shells or even spiral shapes work nicely.
- Add some color and texture with a variety of vegetables. We always end up adding onion and prefer red onion for the pop of color. In addition to the onion, we love celery, bell pepper, and radish. For more veggie suggestions, check below where we share possible variations to the salad.
- For a little extra brininess, we love adding chopped dill pickle (try our homemade dill pickles). You could leave this out or swap with a sweeter option like bread and butter pickles or for something different, go for spicy!
Related: Try our Creamy Herbed Chicken Salad
This pasta salad has lots of possible variations. Here are a three of our favorites:
- For a healthier creamy pasta salad, try swapping the mayonnaise for low-fat mayo and some or all of the sour cream called for in the recipe with yogurt. The dressing will be a bit tangy, due to the yogurt, but will still taste great.
- Turn this into an Italian pasta salad by adding a handful of chopped ham or salami and some cubed cheese. A dash of dried oregano would be excellent, as well.
- For more of a vegetable-packed salad, consider stirring in peas, tomatoes, corn, cauliflower or broccoli.
Perfect Creamy Macaroni Pasta Salad
The key to the best creamy pasta salad is to rinse the cooked pasta under cold water before tossing with the dressing. Skipping this step means the dressing will turn sticky. We also “de-flame” the onion, which tames raw onion flavor so that the onion does not take over the salad. A quick bath in cold water does the trick.
Watch Us Make the Recipe
You Will NeedFor the Salad
8 ounces dry elbow macaroni or small pasta shape
1/4 medium red onion, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
1 medium bell pepper, seeds removed and chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped, about 1/3 cup
3 radishes, trimmed and finely chopped, about 1/3 cup
1 to 2 medium dill pickles, finely chopped, optionalFor the Dressing
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise, try our homemade mayonnaise
1 ½ tablespoons yellow mustard, substitute Dijon or whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons honey, optional for sweet version
1Cook pasta according to the package directions. Drain and rinse well under cold water to remove starch from the outside of the pasta.
2Meanwhile, add the chopped onions to a small bowl and cover with cold water. Set aside for 5 minutes and then drain. This tones down the raw flavor of the onion so that it won’t overpower the salad.
3In the bottom of a large salad bowl, make the dressing. Whisk the sour cream, mayonnaise, mustard, cider vinegar, salt, and pepper. For a sweeter macaroni salad, add honey to taste. I typically add half of a tablespoon but try one to two tablespoons if you enjoy sweeter macaroni salads.
4Add the rinsed macaroni, drained onions, bell pepper, celery, radish, and the pickle to the bowl with dressing. Mix well. Taste, then adjust with additional salt and pepper.
Adam and Joanne's Tips
- Keep the pasta salad, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
- Dairy/Egg Free Options: Use vegan mayonnaise (here’s our homemade recipe) and a dairy-free sour cream.
- Nutrition facts: The nutrition facts provided below are estimates. We have used the USDA database to calculate approximate values.