Home Southern Macaroni Salad

Southern Macaroni Salad

by Brad Prose

Irresistibly creamy yet crunchy, this Southern Macaroni Salad abounds with savory and nostalgic flavors inspired by pimento cheese. Skip the plate; eating directly from the bowl is encouraged.

You are now entering the danger zone! Southern Macaroni Salad needs to come with a warning. Not only will you find yourself eating it straight from the fridge at 2 AM, but all of your friends and family will also be requesting it at their next party. Just don’t tell grandma!

There are some dishes that are timeless classics, and easy macaroni salad is one of them. Whether it’s sitting next to smoked chuck roast or piled on a plate next to butterflied chicken drumsticks, it’s universally beloved. This version takes the picnic classic and infuses it with a little southern soul.

Oh, and you might also like to make the Jalapeno Pimento Cheese recipe. Why not, you’re already on a roll.

Why You’ll Love Southern Macaroni Salad

Creamy macaroni salad is an almost visceral experience. The way it sounds as you stir those noodles in the lusciously creamy sauce, the crunch of the celery, and the way the tangy pop of the dressing hits your taste buds. There’s a reason grandmas throughout the decades have been closely guarding that pasta bowl.

  • Familiar Flavors – Not only does this recipe combine ingredients you most likely have on hand, but the flavor itself also pulls from nostalgic memories we probably all have. 
  • The Ultimate Make Ahead – This recipe is good the moment you stir everything to combine it. However, it’s great the next day. This is one of those dishes that just gets better the longer it refrigerates and the flavors are allowed to marry. 
  • Jalapeno Pimento Cheese – Pimento cheese is not just for piling up on buttery crackers. The inspiration for the flavor profile in this macaroni draws from the southern staple often referred to as the caviar of the south.
  • Super Simple – If you can boil a pot of water, you can make this Southern Macaroni Salad. The most labor-intensive portion of this dish is simply chopping the vegetables. 
  • Budget Friendly – Every ingredient is easily accessible and affordable, making it very simple to double up and feed a crowd.
Don't forget to add paprika to the top of this southern macaroni salad

Ingredients You’ll Need

One of the great things about this beloved dish is the simplicity of macaroni salad ingredients. Pasta, a handful of condiments, and a few fresh ingredients and you will have people asking what your secret is. 

  • Macaroni Pasta – This is a recipe for macaroni salad. Get out those elbows and skip the fancy stuff. It’s all about the way those noodles hug the ingredients. 
  • Sharp Cheddar – Pull out the block of cheddar and cube that cheese up! There’s nothing like that perfect bite of macaroni with a chunk of savory cheese and a kick of jalapeno. Cheese in pasta salad is as classic as franks and beans. 
  • Celery – Texture plays a big role in the ultimate macaroni salad. Not only should it be creamy, it needs that crunch factor. Celery gives the crunch while also bringing freshness. 
  • Jalapeno Pepper – Just like a sassy southern lady, a jalapeno pepper brings the kick to the party. However, the heat is tamed with the addition of tangy and sweet.
  • Scallions – Green onions provide both an herbaceous note and a mellow onion flavor that enhances the salad without overpowering it. 
  • Roasted Red Bell Pepper – Skip the jarred pimentos and take the time to roast your own red bell pepper. This adds both sweetness and also a little smoky flavor. 
  • Mayonnaise – The unofficial condiment of the south that is practically a food group unto itself. Use Duke’s mayo if you can. Grandma would approve.
  • Lemon Juice – Fresh squeezed is the only way. This brings brightness to every bite.
  • Yellow Mustard – Just like no self-respecting southerner would serve potato salad without that pop of yellow, this macaroni salad gets a zesty pop from the addition of yellow mustard. 
  • Apple Cider Vinegar – This bright, acidic punch thins out the dressing while making the rest of the flavors come alive. 
  • Sweet Pickle Relish – Helps balance the acidic flavors in the dressing with a kiss of sweetness.
  • Garlic – Just a hint of garlic wakes up all of the flavors. 
  • Paprika – Not only does paprika echo the flavors of the roasted red bell pepper, but it’s also the ingredient that has let grandmas know for decades when family cracked the lid of the Tupperware to steal a bite. Just remember, always sprinkle a little extra on top to hide the evidence of snacking.
  • Kosher Salt & Freshly Ground Black Pepper – Season to taste at the end.
All of the macaroni salad ingredients

How to Make Southern Macaroni Salad

Just like the ingredients for making the best macaroni salad are simple, so are the steps. The hardest part is sharing!

  • Roast – Tongs out and fire up the grill! It only takes a few minutes to roast your red bell pepper over direct heat. You can also do this on a gas stove, or in the oven. Once all sides of the skin are charred, place the pepper in a ziplock bag and allow it to steam and cool so you can easily remove the skin.
  • Boil – Once your water for the pasta is boiling, salt it. This is your only chance to season the pasta itself. Cook your pasta according to the package directions for al dente. No one wants a soggy noodle. 
  • Rinse – Drain your pasta into a colander and run cool water over it. This not only will stop the cooking process, it will also prevent your pasta from sticking by removing the excess starch. 
  • Chop – Chop up your vegetables and cheddar cheese, which is practically a veggie of the south. You want to make sure everything is fairly consistent sizes. 
  • Mix – Mix together the ingredients for your dressing. Add the cooled and drained pasta to a large bowl along with all of your chopped vegetables and cheese. Pour on that dressing and mix it up. Remember, it’s all about being creamy and dreamy. 
  • Top it Off – For the southern granny stamp of approval, don’t forget that sprinkle of paprika on top! 
  • Chill – This is the most difficult part, the waiting. You want to refrigerate it for at least an hour; overnight is even better!

Not Creamy Enough?

Don’t be afraid to add more mayo, relish, salt, or anything else that you feel will round out the flavors to your preference.

Mixing the dressing into this southern macaroni salad

Variations of Ingredients

People are as passionate about their southern macaroni salad as they are their SEC rivalries. They all have a little something to make them unique or that they grew up with. Here is a list of additional ingredients you can include in this recipe.

  • Red Onions – Feel free to swap out the scallions for a bolder onion pop. 
  • Hard Boiled Eggs – You will find hard-boiled eggs in many southern salads from macaroni to potato salad. 
  • Cubed Ham – Salty pork can only improve on something that is already great. This is also a great use of any leftover smoked ham. 
  • Parsley – The grassy, clean flavor of parsley pairs well with the bright ingredients in the dressing. 
  • Shredded Carrots – For additional crunch, natural sweetness, and color, shredded carrots are a common addition. 
  • Peas – The sweet burst of peas always seem to find their way hugged into the curve of the macaroni. They pair well with the cheddar cheese. 
  • Gluten Free – Pasta has come a long way since the days of olive green Tupperware. This recipe can be made gluten-free by replacing the macaroni with your favorite alternative.
creamy pasta salad with cheese

Tips and Tricks

  • Rinse Your Pasta – Unlike Italian dishes that utilize the starch on the pasta to marry together sauces, you want to rinse your elbow macaroni as soon as it is done cooking. This will not only stop the cooking but also ensure you have an ultra-creamy sauce while preventing the pasta from sticking. We all want that creamy bite!
  • Season Pasta Water – Always season your boiling water with a generous pinch of salt. This is your opportunity to season the pasta itself. 
  • Chill – Part of the magic of this recipe happens in the inactive stage. When you allow the pasta salad to chill, the flavors will come together and deepen. 
  • Stir and Adjust – Pasta is a little bit like a sponge. It absorbs some of the dressing. When you remove your pasta salad from the refrigerator, give it a stir before serving. If it looks a little dry feel free to add additional mayo. Just don’t forget the finishing flourish of paprika!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Southern Macaroni Salad?

Unlike some versions of pasta salad that are made with vinaigrettes, this version is creamy with a mayonnaise-based dressing. Simple vegetables are often combined with cheese or a protein like ham or eggs.

How do I store macaroni salad?

Because this is a mayonnaise-based salad, it needs to be kept refrigerated in either a covered bowl or airtight container until ready to serve.

How long does creamy macaroni salad last?

After you have the first bite, it probably won’t last long. However, you can keep it for 3-5 days in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

WHAT SHOULD I SERVE THIS WITH?

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creamy southern macaroni salad with pimento cheese

Southern Macaroni Salad

Irresistibly creamy yet crunchy, this Southern Macaroni Salad abounds with savory and nostalgic flavors inspired by pimento cheese. Skip the plate; eating directly from the bowl is encouraged.

  • Total Time: 30
  • Yield: About 10 Servings 1x

Ingredients

Scale
  • ½ pound macaroni pasta
  • ¾ cup sharp cheddar, cubed
  • ½ cup diced celery
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 scallions, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, roasted
  • 3/4 cup mayo (Duke’s for tradition)
  • 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons yellow mustard
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • Kosher salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper

Instructions

  1. Roast the red pepper. Turn up your grill or gas burner and char the red pepper for a few minutes until the skin
  2. Cook the macaroni in a large point of boiling, salted water according to the package instructions. Cook until al dente. Drain and rinse in a strainer with cold water to remove excess starch.
  3. While the pasta is cooking, dice the celery, jalapeno, scallions, and roasted red pepper.
  4. In a small bowl, mix the mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, apple cider vinegar, sweet relish, grated garlic, and paprika.
  5. In a large bowl, combine the cooled pasta with the dressing in the small bowl, along with the cubed cheese and diced vegetables. Toss everything together and season with salt and pepper to taste. Feel free to add more mayo if the pasta isn’t creamy enough. Garnish with additional paprika for color.
  6. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving, overnight if possible.

Notes

The pasta will soak up the dressing, so if you’re serving for the next day don’t be afraid to add a little extra mayo to keep it creamy.

  • Author: Brad Prose
  • Prep Time: 20
  • Cook Time: 10
  • Category: Side Dish
  • Method: Boiling
  • Cuisine: Pasta Salad

Keywords: Southern Food, Southern macaroni salad, pasta salad, pimento cheese, side dish

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2 comments

Nikki July 27, 2022 - 7:07 am

As a southern girl, I can honestly say this recipe captures the taste and just as importantly the texture of the perennial favorite. More than that, it got the southern mama stamp of approval.

Reply
Brad Prose July 27, 2022 - 7:36 am

Mama’s approval means everything!

Reply

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