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When it comes to macaroni salad, I have to admit I haven't always been the most discerning. Being a lover of mayonnaise, those bowls of mayo-laden pasta that you'll find at just about any deli have always appealed to me—they're like eating straight-up mayo without the guilt/shame/disgust that occurs when pasta isn't part of the (almost) two-ingredient equation. Still, I don't kid myself. I know those aren't "good" macaroni salads, and having spent years messing around with pasta salad recipes to accompany my barbecues, I know how much more flavorful and exciting a macaroni salad can be.
Keeping true to form, my take is primarily a creamy-mayo delivery system. But it also takes some cues from higher-brow pasta salads, delivering pumped-up flavor and a nuanced dressing that has a whole lot more to offer than its deli-counter cousins.
The biggest revelation in macaroni salad to me came with the publishing of Cook's Country's Hawaiian Macaroni Salad. In their recipe, the macaroni, which is commonly cooked to al dente, is instead taken beyond doneness and boiled until incredibly tender and "fat." Why would someone do such a thing? Because that super-soft pasta absorbs liquid better, which means the dressing can actually permeate each tube instead of just sitting on top of it.
So, to infuse the pasta with maximum flavor, this recipe calls for adding the vinegar straight to the cooked macaroni before introducing the mayo-based dressing, not unlike Kenji's method of adding vinegar to boiled potatoes for potato salad. This extra step ensures that every squishy elbow is super tangy; on its own it tastes a little weird, but the whole thing becomes remarkably well-balanced once the creamy dressing is tossed into the mix.
It's a trick that's so effective, I use it for all my macaroni salads, Hawaiian or otherwise. And it's not just the enhanced flavor I love—I've also come to prefer the pleasantly soft macaroni over firmer iterations, especially once it's all been chilled.
Building a Better Dressing
Now that we've got our tender, tangy macaroni, we just need a dressing that builds it into a flavor-packed salad. As I mentioned, I'm a mayo man, and proud of it. But to give the dressing a more robust base, I combined one part sour cream for three parts mayo—a mixture I've used successfully in coleslaws, too.
I also stirred in Dijon mustard for a bit of bite—it may seem strong at first, but I promise it'll mellow out once the salad's chilled. The dressing also gets some lemon juice for bright acidity, Worcestershire for some umami complexity, a decent hit of garlic powder, and some hot sauce for just hte slightest touch of heat.
Since the "fat" pasta was ripe for absorbing extra liquid, I also thinned out the dressing with whole milk so that it would be more likely to seep into the macaroni as it cooled in the fridge.
A Little Crunch
With all those soft, creamy ingredients, though, this salad definitely called for some contrasting crunch. I tend to throw in whatever I have on hand—usually a combo of things like onions, shallots, carrots, celery, or bell peppers. For a complete recipe, though, I wanted to pick the perfect counterpart to the rich, tangy dressing.
I started small, with one rib of chopped celery, and then, tasting as I went, added sliced scallions. It still needed a little more punch, so I opted for shallots, which are usually sweeter than onions, though the latter will do in a pinch.
At that point, I had a nice bit of crunch in each bite. The combination of celery, shallots, and scallions add a freshness that complements, but doesn't compete with the rest of the ingredients. At this point, it's just a matter of popping the whole assembled dish into the fridge for an hour or so until it's thoroughly chilled.
A Great Macaroni Salad
This is quite the cunning macaroni salad. On the surface, it doesn't look much different than its deli-bought counterparts—it's macaroni in a white, creamy sauce—but one taste tells a completely different story. For one thing, it's got a whole lot of tang going on, thanks in no small part to that early introduction of vinegar.
The other additions to the dressing add a subtle depth that the standard macaroni salad just doesn't have. The mustard's the most prevalent, with its slightly pungent bite, but the Worcestershire and hot sauce come through in moderation, too. Finally, the veggies all hold up nicely over time, maintaining their crispness and holding onto their unique, fresh flavors. This may not be the most revolutionary, fancy-pants pasta salad, but it delivers on everything a great macaroni salad should, and then some.