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Macaroni salad is a cold pasta salad commonly served as a side dish during picnics, barbecues and covered dish "potluck" dinners. The main ingredient in a macaroni salad is obviously macaroni pasta, but the shapes can vary from elbow to rotini to shell. The form of the pasta should be relatively small in size in order to accommodate all the mixing of other ingredients and dressing. A typical macaroni salad contains cooled cooked pasta, chopped sweet or dill pickles, diced hard boiled eggs, green bell peppers, diced celery and mayonnaise or salad dressing. Recipes for macaroni salad can vary widely from region to region.
A good macaroni salad starts with a supply of cooked macaroni pasta which has been rinsed in cold water and allowed to drain. Cold pasta salads perform better when the starch has been rinsed off the pasta, unlike spaghetti dishes in which the sauce should stick to the unwashed pasta. When using shell macaroni or other shapes with pockets, the pasta should be shaken vigorously to remove any excess water trapped in the folds.
The cooled pasta can be placed into a large mixing bowl while the other ingredients are prepped. Proportions of these additional ingredients are a matter of preference, but in general the ratio should be in favor of the pasta, not the accessories. Chopped pickles or pickle relish give macaroni salad a pleasant sour bite, but should be used sparingly to avoid overpowering the overall dish.
Following the addition of chopped pickles, some macaroni salad recipes call for a few pieces of diced green bell pepper for color and flavor. Celery could also be used to give the macaroni salad a crunchy texture, but a little does go a long way. Chopped hard boiled eggs, both whites and yolks, can also be added to macaroni salad to give it a chewier texture and absorb some of the flavors created by the dressing as the ingredients marry.
Additional ingredients could include finely diced white or green onions, celery salt or Italian herbs such as oregano and dried parsley. Some recipes allow for dill weed if the pickles are omitted. This mixture of pasta and other ingredients should be gently mixed together in the bowl.
Different dressings may be used to make a flavorful pasta salad, but traditional macaroni salad generally uses a tangy blend of mayonnaise and vinegar or a creamy salad dressing to bind all the ingredients together. A generous supply of mayonnaise or salad dressing may be required to get the pasta mix to a creamy consistency, but too much dressing can make the macaroni salad too "wet." The finished macaroni salad should be refrigerated before serving in order to allow the flavors to mix and the entire salad to tighten up.
Some macaroni salad recipes, especially in the Deep South, suggest using a traditional mustard potato salad recipe, complete with pickles, eggs and celery, and merely substituting the boiled potato cubes with cold macaroni pasta. While a mustard dressing for macaroni salad may not be traditional, it does provide a sharper bite than plain mayonnaise and works well with other barbecue side dishes such as baked beans and coleslaw.
I see cold macaroni salad as the base for many other variations on the theme. I've made macaroni chicken salad, vegetable macaroni salad and crab macaroni salad, among others. I tend to use a mix of regular mayonnaise and yellow mustard as macaroni salad dressing, but I agree with RocketLanch8 that a creamy macaroni salad dressing with a tangy bite, like Spin Blend, does give it an extra punch.
I personally leave out the celery and add more pickles to the mix. There are salad cube pickles available in both dill and sweet varieties that work quite well in macaroni salad. I prefer dill over sweet, but I've also made it with bread and butter pickles a few times.
My mother grew up in Amish country in western Pennsylvania, and she used to make a macaroni tuna salad that was really good. She followed a recipe very similar to the ones mentioned in this article, but she also added a can or two of drained canned tuna to the mix. She also added a lot of diced hard-boiled eggs and chunky sweet pickles.
The macaroni salad dressing she used was a regional favorite called Spin Blend, which tasted like a combination of mayonnaise and lemon juice with a hint of horseradish. She never added mustard to her cold macaroni salad. I still use her recipe whenever I make macaroni salad for covered dish dinners, but it's nearly impossible to find an acceptable substitute for Spin Blend.
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