This veggie-packed macaroni salad is vegetarian and features a balance of creamy, tangy, and crisp flavors and textures! It's the perfect addition to potlucks and barbecues because it's versatile and takes under 30 minutes of active time to assemble.
Macaroni salad is a classic American picnic and potluck dish that is perfect for warm-weather gatherings. While macaroni salad is usually vegetarian as-is, sometimes cubed meats and cheeses sneak into the salad, which is why I've designated this as a vegetarian salad.
In this vegetarian version of classic macaroni salad, elbow macaroni is tossed in a tangy but creamy mayo-based sauce that is balanced out by crisp veggies and fresh dill.
It takes under 30 minutes to put this macaroni salad together, and it's the perfect addition to barbecue meals alongside broccoli salad, black bean burgers, and potato salad.
- Mayo-based, but not overwhelmingly creamy. The mayonnaise is mixed with red wine vinegar and dijon mustard to lighten up the salad and balance the creaminess with tangy flavor.
- Not you're grandma's macaroni salad! This salad leans heavily on fresh vegetables and it has a tangy mayo and mustard based sauce.
- Versatile: This is a crunchy salad that you can easily turn into a vegetarian main dish by adding chickpeas, white beans, or baked tofu.
- Prep in advance: All of the components of this salad can be prepped up to 24 hours in advance. It's also easy to double the recipe, make it vegan, or cut the recipe in half.
- Elbow macaroni: While technically this pasta salad works with any type of short-grain pasta, it's not a macaroni salad without elbow pasta. If you want to make a gluten-free version, you can substitute it with gluten-free elbow macaroni.
- Mayonnaise: This is the key ingredient in the dressing that provides the classic creaminess. I grew up in a family that used Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise, and I know that many still prefer Miracle Whip in macaroni salad. I prefer mayo, but if you want that classic Miracle Whip flavor, you can add an additional ¼ teaspoon of sugar to the dressing and adjust it to taste. Or just use Miracle Whip!
- Red wine vinegar and Dijon mustard: These both add tangy and acidic flavor that balances the richness of the mayo. An equal amount of whole-seed mustard can be used in place of Dijon, but note that the result is a milder dressing.
- Dry mustard may seem superfluous in addition to Dijon, but it has a sweeter flavor than Dijon and helps to drive the mustard undertone in the dressing.
- Fresh dill provides a fresh and slightly sweet flavor that lightens up this mayo-based pasta salad.
- Red bell pepper: You can substitute with orange or yellow bell peppers.
- Red onion: This adds a sharp and pungent flavor that balances the sweetness of the other vegetables. Substitute with white or yellow onions as needed.
- Shredded carrots add crunch and color. I like to buy matchstick carrots to cut down on prep time, but you can also grate whole carrots on a box grater to make shredded carrots at home.
- Celery adds crunch and additional fresh flavor.
Chilling the salad
There are a few schools of thought when it comes to chilling macaroni salad. All methods have a place, but I'm sharing my two favorite methods.
Rinse the pasta under cold running water
This method is controversial to some, but it cuts down on chill time, so I prefer to do it. Warm pasta also absorbs dressing more readily, and while we do want the pasta to absorb some of the dressing flavor, we don't want it to dry out.
As soon as the pasta is drained, rinse it until gently running cool water. Toss the macaroni salad with ⅔ of the dressing and all of the vegetables. Cover and chill the pasta salad and the remaining dressing separately for at least 30 minutes, then toss with the remaining ⅓ of the dressing just before serving.
Toss everything together and chill
This is the easiest method, but because warm pasta absorbs more sauce than chilled pasta, you're at risk of having a dry pasta salad. Instead, toss the warm pasta with ⅔ of the dressing and reserve ⅓ for just before serving.
Chill the macaroni salad for 45 minutes to an hour.
Variations and tips
- Pasta cooking tips: Elbow macaroni should be cooked to al dente, meaning it still has a bit of a bite to it. This prevents the salad from being soggy and breaking down. Make sure to salt the pasta water well.
- Vegetables: Like with my ranch pasta salad and vegetarian pasta salad, any kind of veggie goes. Try adding sliced radishes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, thawed frozen peas, or broccoli.
- Add protein like chickpeas, tofu, or hard-boiled eggs to make this salad a main dish.
- Make it vegan by using an equal amount of vegan mayonnaise in place of regular mayo.
Storage: Keep leftovers refrigerated in a closed container for 3 to 4 days. I have not tried freezing this salad, but I don't generally recommend freezing raw vegetables as they lose their crispness during thawing.
Food safety note: Mayo-based salads can be a food safety risk if left at room temperature for too long, so it's best to keep the salad chilled until ready to serve.
If you want to prep the salad in advance, you can chop the veggies and make the dressing up to 24 hours ahead of time. If you're making the pasta in advance, toss it with a small amount of oil to prevent it from sticking together.
Similar recipe ideas
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Veggie-Packed Vegetarian Macaroni Salad
For the salad
- 8 ounces elbow macaroni
- 1 medium red bell pepper diced
- 2 stalks celery diced
- 1 cup matchstick carrots
- ½ cup diced red onion from ½ small red onion
- ¼ cup chopped fresh dill
For the sauce
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- ½ teaspoon dry ground mustard
- ¼ teaspoon table salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon granulated sugar adjust to taste
- 1 clove garlic
- Cook macaroni in a large pot of well-salted boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta and rinse until cool running water to quickly chill it.
- Meanwhile, prep the vegetables and assemble the sauce. In a medium bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, dry mustard, salt, pepper, and sugar. Use a microplane or the smallest holes on a box grater to grate in one clove of garlic. Whisk until combined. Taste for seasonings.
- Toss the pasta with ⅔ of the sauce. Stir in the diced bell pepper, celery, carrots, onion, and dill. Cover and refrigerate both the pasta and remaining sauce for at least 30 minutes, or until chilled. Before serving, toss with the remaining ⅓ of sauce.
- Alternative chilling method: Because I know that some people don't like rinsing pasta until the water to chill it, another option is to toss the pasta with ⅔ of the dressing and the veggies, then chill in the fridge for an hour. The pasta will absorb more of the sauce this way. Toss with remaining sauce before serving. You can also toss the pasta with a bit of oil and chill it separately from the sauce, but this way the pasta doesn't absorb as much of the sauce flavor.
- Storage: Keep leftovers refrigerated in a closed container for 3 to 4 days. I have not tried freezing this salad, but I don't generally recommend freezing raw vegetables as they lose their crispness during thawing.
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