Southern macaroni salad is a vibrant combination of colors and textures with a sweet and tangy dressing to hold it all together. This is one of those beautifully tasty pasta recipes that makes people love macaroni salad! Oh, and it takes only 30 minutes to put together!
Southern macaroni salad isn’t one of those dainty pasta salad recipes. It’s a robust combination of elbow macaroni and crisp summer veggies bound together by a distinctively tangy and slightly sweet southern dressing with a refreshingly addictive flavor profile.
Let me show you what I’m talking about!
What I Love About Southern Macaroni Salad
There are just so many things to love about this southern macaroni salad, I could go on and on. I love the slightly sweet nuances in the cold creamy dressing and the invitingly beautiful presentation of the dish itself. The fact that it only takes 10 minutes to put together is another big plus in my book. Here are even more great reasons to love this dish.
- Totally flexible recipe
- Robust flavor
- Beautiful presentation
- Comes together quickly
- Wholesome and nutritious
- Multiple uses
Easy Macaroni Salad Recipe Notes
Making this easy macaroni salad is so simple if you know the little tricks to pull it together!
One cardinal rule for making great pasta salad involves draining and rinsing your pasta after it cooks. Normally you should avoid rinsing pasta for many recipes but when making pasta salad you want to stop your pasta from cooking completely.
Speaking of which, you should season your pasta salad rather aggressively. Foods that are served cold, such as an easy pasta salad, requires more seasoning to taste because chilling kind of dulls the natural flavors.
Lastly, it is important to let your southern macaroni salad rest in the fridge before serving and/or eating. Resting time can vary with recipes and I know it can be hard to walk away but I find this one tastes best if it rests overnight.
Grandma’s Macaroni Salad Ingredient Notes
This southern macaroni salad is so good it reminds me of what grandma used to make! It is super creamy because the recipe calls for sweetened condensed milk instead of sugar. Sugar works, as we all know, but it can remain gritty sometimes and its hard to get the measurement just right.
With the sweetened condensed milk, you don’t have to worry about that. Plus, it helps bind all the other ingredients together for a thick dreamy dressing that coats all the different playful textures.
I prefer to use the elbow macaroni in this recipe and take a stroll down memory lane, but others will work, too. Mini farfalle, affectionately referred to as bowtie pasta, will work just as well or you can even use the small conchiglie pasta (shells).
Also, don’t skip the paprika as some people do. It combines with the apple cider vinegar to infuse a bit of a smoky tangy undertone that really takes the dressing to the next level.
Cooking the noodles takes a little time but not much, usually 7-9 minutes. You want to keep your pasta al dente so it doesn’t get soggy and ruin your southern macaroni salad.
Regardless of what you’ve heard before, you must salt your pasta water for maximum flavor. I find that 2 tablespoons per 4-6 quarts of water is typically ideal. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have anything to do with raising the boiling point.
Pasta absorbs the water as it cooks. So, if you salt the water appropriately it will absorb the salt too, essentially seasoning the pasta from the inside out. That is really the key to making incredible tasting pasta!
Old Fashioned Macaroni Salad Recipe Storing Tips
Of course, you’ll need to store your southern macaroni salad in an airtight container in the fridge. If that big huge bowl takes up too much space and your fridge is already packed, you can store your macaroni salad in two 1-gallon Ziploc bags. That will save some room and still allow all the yummy flavors to mingle.
If you are preparing for the week and you know you’ll be taking southern macaroni salad for lunch a few times, then go ahead and store it in some single serve portion containers. It just makes things easier for you to grab and go.
Can You Freeze This?
Sorry! Unfortunately, you just can’t freeze this one. Since it only takes 10 minutes to throw together, there really is no need.
If you are prepping and looking to save some time, go ahead and pre-make the dressing and store it in an airtight container in the fridge. I find a mason jar works great for this.
You can also chop the veggies and do the same with them. When you are ready to make your southern macaroni salad, simply boil your elbow pasta and combine everything. Voila!
How Long Can You Keep This?
Well, if you store it properly it will stay fresh for 3-5 days in the fridge. It should be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and you should observe the recommended window (less than 2 hours) for serving at potlucks and get togethers. Here is a bit more about food safety and mayo-based dishes from Food Network and the FDA. (It really is some great information)
Classic Macaroni Salad Recipe Variations
Tweaking this classic macaroni salad to suit your personal taste and dietary restrictions is just a given! Of course, the original recipe is pretty bang up just like it is so you may want to give it a try before you change it.
You can add some nice flavor and dress up your southern macaroni salad before serving it by using some fresh herbs. You only want to do this right before you serve it, though. Fresh herbs are delicate, and they do their best work immediately after they are chopped. I love adding cilantro, dill or basil depending on my mood and the occasion.
Adding protein is one way to dress up your southern macaroni salad. Cubed ham is really good for this and the slightly salty flavor is great with the sweet smoky nuances in the dressing! Half a can of black beans is great too and they add some beautiful color to your salad.
Cheese is another great option because everything is better with cheese! I find that cubed cheese works best with this recipe. Cheddar, Colby and Monterey jack are all great options.
For a really feisty twist, you can even add some olives or capers to your southern macaroni salad. I would be conservative though.
Can I Make This Recipe With Bacon?
Of course, you can! Bacon is great on almost anything and that salty savory flavor is incredible with the slightly sweet smoky dressing. Its enough to make you salivate!
Now, if you are an active member of the bacon lovers’ society and you like a pasta salad built around bacon, try making bacon ranch pasta salad. That wholesome creamy ranch dressing really coats the salad and prepares it to welcome the awesome bacon, that incredible protein we all know and love!
You can also make a BLT pasta salad for a little bit lighter dish that is a beautiful tasty prelude to any meal. It also makes a great side when you need a little decadent variety.
Can I Add Chicken To This Recipe?
Sure, you can! Adding chicken is yet another option to up the protein factor in your southern macaroni salad and include some texture variety. I like using the white meat but it all works. You can use white meat, dark meat or a combination of both!
Chicken macaroni salad and chicken pasta salad are both hearty favorites at friendly get togethers where you need to feed large crowds.
Can I Add Tuna?
Tuna macaroni salad and tuna pasta salad are great take alongs for poolside snacks, picnics and even brown bag lunches during the week. If you really want to make things easy, you can just toss a can of tuna fish in your southern macaroni salad. It is divinely delicious!
What Other Proteins Can I Use In This Recipe?
Hey, pumping up the protein in your southern macaroni salad is a fantastic way to stretch it and add some delightful new flavor combinations.
Some people make macaroni salad with egg or even throw a handful of tiny cooked shrimp into the mix. Friends and family tend to get really excited over shrimp pasta salad and somehow, I just can’t blame them!
Can I Change The Sauce In This?
If it suits you, change the sauce. Now the cold creamy slightly sweet dressing with the smoky undertones is pretty darn inviting but sometimes you just want something a little different. I totally understand and I know that cream-based dressings don’t suit everyone’s dietary guidelines.
Pesto pasta salad is a fantastic alternative to the yummy cream-based dressing in this southern macaroni salad. The introduction of all those fresh herbs and olive oil give this recipe a whole new personality!
You could also make pasta salad with Italian dressing if you need to save time and still make a fantastically delicious dish. Trust me – they are gonna want seconds!
Southern Macaroni Salad
- 1 pound uncooked elbow macaroni
- black pepper
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 1 -14 ounce sweetened condensed milk
- 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard
- 1 large red onion chopped
- 1 green bell pepper chopped
- 1 red bell pepper chopped
- 1 cup celery chopped
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until al dente, about 9 minutes. Rinse under cold water to stop cooking then drain well.
- In a medium bowl make a dressing by whisking together mayo, condensed milk, vinegar, paprika, mustard, salt and black pepper until smooth
- In a large bowl add the cooked pasta, onion, green and red bell peppers, celery and whisked dressing. Fold gently until well combined. Refrigerate overnight and serve.
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More Pasta Salad Recipes
There are so many incredibly scrumptious pasta salad dishes you can add to your menu rotation. You can even separate them out and put them in you ‘potluck and picnic’ recipe choices. This southern macaroni salad is hard to beat but there are some other really delicious pasta salads you may love. Here are some of my favorites!
- Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
- Antipasto Salad
- Best Macaroni Salad
- Greek Pasta Salad
- Italian Pasta Salad
This southern macaroni salad is one of my favorite cold pasta salad recipes of all time. The flavor of the thick creamy dressing is almost unparalleled in the cold pasta world because its just so darn good! Once you know how to coax out those incredible flavors, it’s a game changer and this southern macaroni salad tends to disappear quickly. There usually aren’t many leftovers (if any at all).
This is my go-to cold pasta recipe when I need something really flavorful and easy to throw together. Try it for yourself and let me know what you think in the comments below!
Gini Beaulieu says
Best macaronisalad I have had!
Thanks for sharing!
Yay, Gini! Thank you so much! 🙂
Leesa Braun says
Oh my gosh, this is SO GOOD! Everyone loved this salad! I was intrigued with the ingredient of sweetened condensed milk, so decided to try it. (That, plus all the great reviews!) It is a unique flavor and a keeper recipe! So glad to add this to my collection of your recipes, Kathleen.
Leesa, I’m so happy it was a hit for you!!!
I made this salad for a pot luck picnic last summer. EVERYONE loved it and wanted the recipe. I’ll be making a lot this summer. It goes with anything and can also be a meal in itself. Thanks so much for sharing.
PS.-I’ve seen many recipes that add about 1/2 cup of sugar to this but that makes it WAY too sweet. Your recipe is the topper!!!
Ooooh that’s awesome, Carla! 😀 Hope you enjoy it again!
I’m having macaroni and tomato sauce for dinner. I’ll use the remaining macaroni for this salad! Yum!
Yay! Enjoy! 🙂
MAGGIE P ROGERS says
Just FYI, this site is using your pictures on a different recipe without credit: https://mindwaft.com/how-to-make-the-best-macaroni-salad/
Thank you so much for looking out for me Maggie <3 <3 <3
I just have to leave you a comment about this delicious salad (as one Southern gal to another, right?!). Today was my 2nd time to make this. The 1st try was good, but I made the mistake of just going by the ingredient list that showed up when I hit pin, and I should’ve known to go to your website. But, alas, I didn’t, and initially only used 1/4 of the sweetened condensed milk. I added a bit more, as it needed more moisture, and it was really tasty, just not creamy! Realizing something was wrong, I went to your website. I made this today, with the full can this time, and it is divine! I don’t know if I want to share lol! Love your recipes, and may make the peach crisp or cobbler after while. Thanks for sharing your recipes, and happy 4th to you and your family!
Hi Sheri. Wow, what a lovely comment. So glad you came to the website and got the full recipe! I’m happy to hear you love this salad and I really appreciate your sweet sentiments! You made my day 🙂
What kind of fresh herbs did you put on top?
Hi Ashley. Just a little bit of chopped flat leaf parsley for more color 🙂
wow very yummy! Thank you for sharing your recipe!
Thank you Jodi hope you enjoy!
I sub mayo with Veganiase. No saturated fat but creamy and delicious. I also made only half the pasta but the same amount of veggies. More colorful and crunchy which is exactly what we love!
Hey Joyoga. Love the modifications! Sounds delish 😉
Your website makes me happy! I just joined last week, I NEVER write comments but just want you to know that I can’t wait to try your recipes. Perfect morning… Coffee, ipad, back into bed to plan my foodie day! Thanks Kathleen!
Wow Lezlie how very lovely of you to say!!! Thanks for joining. I’m so happy you’re here with me 😉
Could you use miracle whip?
Hi Darcy! I Love Miracle Whip! I would not use it in this recipe though because it is already pretty sweet on it’s own. The sweeetened cond. milk makes this salad really creamy and it stays well dressed. It seems like it also helps the dressing not completely absorb into the pasta salad so I hate to mess with adjusting that to compensate for the sweetness of MW.
Made and it was great
Thanks Darcy so glad you liked it!
Is that a whole can of condensed milk? I can’t imagine that much sweetness in a macaroni salad but the reviews say it’s a winner!
Hi Angela. Yes I use a whole can. This makes a sweet Southern style dressing.
Beth Edwards says
What is the fresh green herb in the picture~parsely?
Hey Beth, yes I sprinkled some parsely on for it’s beauty shot! LOL
Do you prefer any special brand of pasta?
Hey Jodi, Barilla or DeCecco are my favorites 🙂
Tammy Nissen says
THIS IS AWESOME!! I served this at my sons confirmation luncheon and EVERYONE wanted the recipe! My 11 year old nephew couldn’t get enough of it. I thought he would get a tummy ache from eating so much, lol. This will be a regular at all of our family functions! THANK YOU!
Barbara Bakes says
Macaroni salad never looked better!