It may not be a salad in the traditional sense of the word, but that doesn’t stop macaroni salad from being a bright, acidic and herbaceous partner to virtually anything off the grill. Many would argue that no cookout is complete without it.
Yes, it’s unapologetically retro, a supporting player at American barbecues for decades, but its salty and sweet, tangy and textural appeal is timeless.
Beyond its nostalgic charm, macaroni salad’s staying power lies in convenience: Its steps are as easy as its ingredient list is approachable, relying on pantry staples and lending itself to adaptation. Perfectly portable, it can be prepared in advance — and even benefits from it — and its slightly subtle flavor makes it a match for all those bold, summery flavors. It’s the taste of picnic season, prepared in minutes from the comfort of your kitchen. (And if you don’t have a grill — or a cookout to go to — it’s still something simple and celebratory you can make for yourself.)
This version punches up macaroni salad’s essence for a more modern take: Macaroni and mayonnaise are mandatory, but replacing half the mayonnaise with buttermilk gives the salad a lighter, glossier base. A pinch of sugar simply heightens the tanginess, without veering into sweeter territory. Chopped celery and pickles stay true to the original deli staple, but they’re joined by mustard and capers, condiments that kick, and a bright dose of lemon zest.
At a time when an abundance of fresh herbs feels especially luxurious, mayonnaise and macaroni — the culinary equivalent of a reliable pair of Chuck Taylors — continue to delight. Fistfuls of dill and parsley bring macaroni salad into the 21st century, where it still feels zippy and even a little exhilarating.
Macaroni Salad With Lemon and Herbs
Total time: 25 minutes
Makes: 10 cups
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup minced bread-and-butter pickles
2 large stalks celery, peeled and finely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk (see Tip)
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, plus small sprigs for garnish
1/4 cup drained jarred capers, chopped, plus 3 tablespoons caper brine
4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest and 4 teaspoons juice (from 1 large lemon)
1 teaspoon sugar
16 ounces elbow macaroni
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high.
2. While the water comes to a boil, prepare your dressing: In a large bowl, stir together pickles, celery, scallions, mayonnaise, buttermilk, parsley, dill, capers and brine, mustard, lemon zest and juice, and sugar. Season with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
3. Cook the macaroni in the boiling water until al dente, about 6 minutes; drain well and let cool for a few minutes.
4. Once cooled, toss macaroni with dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately or refrigerate until chilled. Top with extra scallions, parsley and dill to garnish just before serving.
Tips: If you want to streamline the ingredient list, you could skip the buttermilk, increase the mayonnaise to 3/4 cup and use 1/4 cup milk.