Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad

Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni SaladAmerica has been having a love affair with pasta salad since at least 1920, when early recipes began appearing in American cookbooks. At first, the salads were mainly diner and deli side dishes, but eventually they achieved much higher status to become rock stars of the picnic buffet table. To give these salads “gourmet” allure, the standard elbow macaroni was replaced with more exotic pasta shapes, such as penne, farfalle, cavatappi, fusilli, radiator, gemili, and conchiglie. And the simple mayonnaise or vinaigrette dressing took on bold new flavor profiles.

I make a lot of wildly creative pasta salads. This is not one of them. Sometimes tradition is what everyone wants, and the 4th of July seems to be one of those times. If I don’t bring THIS old-fashioned pasta salad to the 4th of July shindig, I will be in BIG trouble.

The macaroni salad presented here is based on one that played an integral part of all of our family picnics when I was a kid. Each cook (Grandma Mary or one of my aunts) would give it a slightly different spin, but it was always rich, creamy, and delicious. Over the years, the addition of Calamata olives became my personal touch (the original salad featured canned black olives), along with red bell peppers, garlic, and buttermilk-lemon dressing for a zippy tang. Tradition doesn’t have to be boring.

After years of experimenting with mac salads, there is one thing I know for sure: pasta absorbs seasoning in much the same way that potatoes do. In other words, you must over season today to get the perfectly seasoned salad you will eat tomorrow. When you taste this salad just after it is made, you will swear it has too much acidity. I know, I know! The red wine vinegar in particular has a pungent kick at first. But don’t worry. In a few hours, every element will be in perfect, harmonious, and very tasty balance. I promise.

And in just the same way pasta absorbs flavor, it also absorbs liquid. You will note that the dressing is perhaps a little more liquid than is typical. Again, no worries. The consistency of the salad will be perfect after chilling for a few hours.

Ingredient Note   I used to love this salad with chopped eggs, but now I prefer it without. MauiJim likes it with sweet pickles. I like it with dill pickles. Since it’s hard to remember which way I made it the last time–to be fair to one or the other of us–I now leave the pickles out altogether. No one, including me, seems to miss them. But I leave that to your discretion.

Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad

Old-Fashioned Creamy Macaroni Salad

Although this is a simple salad–which I expect everyone makes in one variation or another–it is one of my most requested recipes. Folks cannot seem to get enough of it, and if a picnic potluck is in the works, I am invariably corralled into bringing THAT MACARONI SALAD. You just can’t argue with tradition, even on Independence Day.

Note   If you are making this salad a full day or more ahead, leave out the olives and fold in just before you serve the salad. They do on occasion tint the macaroni with which they come in contact an unlovely shade of purple.

4 cups small, dried seashell, salad, or elbow macaroni (1 pound)
3 cup minced celery (about 6 stalks)
3 cups tiny shelled peas, fresh or frozen
1 cup quartered Calamata olives
1 cup chopped fresh red bell pepper or roasted, peeled, canned red pepper
1 cup thinly sliced green onion (3 green onions, white and green parts)

6 hard-boiled eggs, chopped, optional
¼ cup chopped dill or sweet pickles, optional

1½ cups “Best Foods” mayonnaise (or other creamy, rich mayonnaise)
½ cup lowfat buttermilk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 large cloves garlic, pressed or minced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the peas. Boil for 1 minute only, remove with a strainer, and then refresh under cold running water. Put into a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add the macaroni to the still boiling water. Boil for 6-8 minutes or so, until the macaroni is just tender but not mushy. Drain and flush well with cold running water until cool. Drain again and put into the large mixing bowl with the peas.
  3. Add the celery, olives, red bell pepper, and green onion, plus eggs and pickles if using. (Add the olives later if you are making the salad a day or more ahead.)
  4. To make the dressing, scoop the mayonnaise into a medium-size bowl and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the buttermilk, lemon juice, vinegar, Dijon, garlic, salt, and black pepper to taste. The dressing will taste overly tangy and salty at this point—which is perfect.
  5. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently to combine. If necessary, season with additional salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
  6. Mound into a 3-quart serving bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 3 quarts; Serves 8-12; or more, if other salads are present.

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  1. Lori says

    This came out WONDERFUL! Thank you so much! Definitely the best recipe I’ve come across for macaroni salad!

  2. -teamom says

    My daughter absolutely hates celery (though she’ll eat celery root [celeriac]). Celeriac is not really in season in the summer, so I’ve searched for something else, for the crunch. Daikon radish works well, and gives a spicy kick. Jicama will give a crunch as well, if you can find it. Like pasta, it absorbs flavours. Cook your pasta with some lovage (for a celery flavour) or bay – both will ease the starch, and lend a small flavour.
    Keep on cookin’!

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Thank you, teamom! I would be lost without celery. It really is hard to replace with anything else. Llove you idea to cook the pasta with lovage or bay. Will definitely try that.

  3. Susan says

    I still get cravings for the old fashioned mac salad so I’m so happy to see you feature it just in time for the 4th. My only other addition is to drain and chop some tomato into the salad just before serving, it helps keep the salad tasting moist. I love your addition of the kalamata olives. I’ve switched out regular black olives for those myself as I love the briny flavor. The color does bleed though, so I blot them if mixing into a salad.

  4. Kim in MD says

    I have just discovered your wonderful blog (through Tastespotting).This salad will be the perfect addition to my BBQ menu this weekend! I was wondering if you salt the pea/pasta water?

    I can’t wait to try your chicken and rib recipes, too. Brining always make everything better!Thanks for sharing your fabulous recipes! :-)

    • sms bradley says

      Thank you, Kim! :-) No need to salt the water for the peas, but you could throw a tablespoon in for the pasta if you like. It’s main purpose is to raise the temperature at which the water boils, thus helping to keep the pasta from getting mushy while cooking. I haven’t noticed a difference for the small pasta shapes though, so usually just leave the salt step out. Best…Susan


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