This tangy, creamy and crunchy "Hawaiian" mac salad is super easy to make; the hardest part is just grabbing all the ingredients out of the pantry.
The next time someone asks you to bring a side, skip the deli container at the store and definitely make your own. It's so much more delicious and fresher, and there's just no comparison. Tweak the flavors to customize it exactly how you like it.
Make it ahead, since it's even better the next day. We'll reserve some of the dressing to mix in right before serving to freshen it up.
A Little History of Hawaiian Macaroni Salad
In Hawaiian cuisine, there's an interesting difference between "local" food and "Hawaiian" food. In short, "local" Hawaiian foods are dishes endemic to and popular in Hawaii, like Huli Huli chicken, Spam dishes and shave ice. "Hawaiian" foods are specific to the culture of native Hawaiians, like poi or lau lau. (This article from Onolicious Hawai'i is a good primer.)
Hawaiian mac salad is definitely "local" food, and like most "local" Hawaiian dishes, it's a mixture of different cultures and cuisines that come together in Hawaii. In this case, sometime in the late 1800s, some unknown locals put their own special upgrades on regular mac salad, and a "local" favorite was born. Hawaiians often pair it with salty-sweet dishes to help balance everything, and sometimes add in more Hawaiian touches, like breadfruit ('ulu) or kamaboko (fishcake).
What You'll Need
All of the ingredients work together to balance out all the flavors and textures.
Here's a tip for prep: Use ramekins and deli containers to prep everything; and get to know your containers and their measurements, so you don't have to always be measuring. It's part of the mis en place you can do ahead of time to save you loads of time down the road.
- Macaroni or elbow-shaped pasta - you can also use fulsilli, but macaroni is classic.
- Mayonnaise - the base to the dressing. The brand does make a difference, so go with Best Foods or Hellmann's.
- Cider vinegar - added to the warm cooked pasta to add some tang, acidity and balance for the other richer dressing ingredients. Can substitute lemon juice if you need to.
- Celery - adds that wonderful crunch.
- Carrots - sweet, colorful, slightly crunchy.
- Scallion or green onion - both the green and white parts go in. Save some green to sprinkle on top for serving. You can substitute diced onion.
- Sweet pickles - these provide a great flavor as well as a crunch. If you don't have sweet pickles, you can substitute sweet relish.
- Dijon mustard - adds a little kick.
- Brown sugar - richly sweet.
- Whole milk - so it's creamy and smooth.
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper - for flavor.
Jump down to the full recipe card for quantities.
Tools & Equipment
- 4 cup measuring cup to make the dressing
- 4 qt pot to cook the pasta
- Large bowl for mixing
How to Make It
Let's go step-by-step for how to make Hawaiian-style macaroni salad.
Step 1: Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling, properly salted water until it is very soft. Go over the box cook time by about 50%.
Step 2: Strain the cooked pasta and add to a large bowl. Mix in the cider vinegar and allow the pasta to cool for 20 minutes.
Step 3: While the macaroni sits, make the dressing. Reserve one cup for later.
Step 4: Add the veggies to the pasta and all but 1 cup of the dressing. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or overnight.
Step 5: Just before serving, mix in the reserved cup of dressing to freshen it up. Garnish with some scallions and serve.
Tips for Success
- Overcook the pasta by 50%. Normally a no-no. But for Hawaiian-style macaroni salad, it's a definite yes. If you cook the noodles al dente, they can be too firm when chilled and aren't as desirable to eat in a cold pasta salad.
- Use a larger bowl than you think you need to make mixing easier.
- Reserve some dressing to mix in right before serving to freshen it up.
- Give it time to chill. The flavors will meld together and it will taste even more amazing.
How to Store It
Store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 days, but it is best within the first few days.
Serve It Up With
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Hawaiian Macaroni Salad Recipe
- 1 lb macaroni or elbow-shaped pasta
- ½ cup cider vinegar
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
- 4 scallion/green onions, thinly sliced (about ¾ cup)
- 1 to 2 celery ribs, finely diced (about ½ cup)
- ¼ cup sweet pickles, chopped
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- ½ cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoon brown sugar
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- Cook the pasta until it is very soft in plenty of boiling, salted water (4 quarts). Go over the box directions' cook time by about 50%, then drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Example: If the box says 10 minutes, then it should cook for about 15 minutes.
- Pour the vinegar into the pasta and stir to combine. Cover and let sit for 20 minutes.
- While the pasta sits, make the dressing by whisking the mayonnaise, milk, mustard and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar fully dissolves. Taste test and adjust acidity levels by adding a little more sugar or some cider vinegar as needed. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve 1 cup of the dressing to add right before serving.
- Add the veggies and the dressing to the pasta. Gently stir to fully combine.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight to chill.
- Just before serving, stir in the reserved cup of dressing until fully combined and garnish with some scallions. Enjoy!
- This recipe can easily be scaled up or down.
- The brand of mayo makes a big difference. Use Best Foods or Hellmann's
- Reserve 1 cup of the dressing and add right before serving, whether that be an hour after chill or the next day. This will freshen up the mac salad with fresh dressing.
- You can substitute lemon juice for vinegar if needed.
- Get all ingredients out and mise en place prep ahead so it is super easy to make.
- Lasts for up to 3 to 5 in the refrigerator but is best within the first 2 days.