Creamy, crowd-pleasing and classic, this Vegan Macaroni Salad will be wolfed down by vegans and non-vegans alike at any gathering or meal. Serve it as a main dish or a side along whatever you like for a refreshing yet satisfying and delicious bite.
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Hey Internet, every summer I tell myself I’m going to share my favorite recipe for vegan macaroni salad, and well, today’s the day.
I love pasta, and I love salad, and I love pasta salad! Have you tried my vegan ranch pasta salad or my sheet pan roasted vegetable pasta (basically a pasta salad) yet? They’re actually amazing, and I’m happy to be adding to the list today.
Today’s vegan pasta salad is a plant based version of the ever-popular macaroni salad. It features cooked elbow noodles of course, fresh crunchy veggies, cubes of vegan cheese (I know some people think they don’t belong in pasta salad, but I say they do. So do what you like!), fresh dill, and an incredible creamy sauce made from vegan mayo.
This amazing dish is great as an entree--I love to eat it with my crispy tofu on the side. But it also makes an amazing side dish and goes perfectly with: my vegan sheet pan BBQ tofu meal or slab BBQ tofu, vegan sausage, Beyond Meat meatloaf, vegan BBQ jackfruit sandwich, vegan chicken salad, or vegan honey mustard chicken wraps.
Why This Recipe Works
Macaroni salad is not exactly rocket science, and honestly it’s not that different to make vegan macaroni salad. Especially when you can simply swap out the mayo and the cheese (if using) for vegan versions.
Personally, I can’t stand store-bought vegan mayo, so I use my homemade tofu-based oil-free vegan mayo, only I substitute about half the tofu for about ½-¾ cup raw cashews or sunflower seeds. This provides a fattier sauce for the macaroni salad (which helps it keep better in the fridge).
And if you look up ‘macaroni salad’ on the internet, you’re going to find a lot of different versions with special ingredients, etc.
Most recipes I saw used red onion, but I think red onion is too strong in this salad so I use sweet onion instead. Green onion is also a good choice.
BUT this is your recipe too. Sub red onion if you love it!
And many recipes didn’t use quite as many veggies as I used and that’s OK! Use less or even more depending on your own preferences.
The real reason this recipe works is because there’s a really good balance of all the flavors. There’s the fresh dill, the cool vegan mayo, the crunchy onions and bell peppers, the sweetness of the relish and of the onion and peas are awesome, and the whole thing just really is super cohesive and delicious.
Another reason this recipe works is the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. There’s a lot of pasta and veggies but there’s also a good amount of sauce. Nothing is dry or unseasoned, but nothing is soggy or sopping wet either.
This recipe is great when served at or slightly below room temperature (so you can make it and serve it immediately if you like), but it’s also delicious cold straight from the refrigerator. I’d even venture that it’s good warm too, but I don’t want to get yelled at by macaroni salad purists. :)
Ingredients and Substitutions / Notes
- Vegan mayo: Store-bought or homemade will both work fine. I used my homemade oil-free vegan mayo, only I substitute about half the tofu for about ½-¾ cup raw cashews or sunflower seeds. This provides a fattier sauce for the macaroni salad (which helps it keep better in the fridge). But use what you like! A fun twist? Try using my vegan ranch as the sauce for this pasta salad!
- Apple cider vinegar: I love the sweetness and the tang apple cider vinegar gives the salad, but I’ve heard a couple people say they do not like the taste. You can use any other vinegar, or lemon juice will work. The only thing I wouldn’t use is balsamic vinegar because it has a really strong flavor. If you like the idea of a balsamic vegan macaroni salad, go right ahead and try it!
- Spices: I kept it simple and just used sea salt and pepper, but I also love the addition of a little celery salt! It’s optional, but a nice touch.
- Sweet relish: I have done a lot of research and sweet relish seems to be a common addition. I have to admit, I’m not a super huge fan of sweet relish normally but it’s quite delicious in the dressing for this dish. You could use any other kind, or mince a pickle or two if you prefer. Or leave it out, up to you.
- Dijon mustard: This is a classic addition though I have seen some people use yellow mustard. I’m not a huge fan of yellow mustard, but I love Dijon. Use what you prefer.
- Pasta: Macaroni salad traditionally features elbow pasta but of course you can use anything you like. Short pastas like shells, bowties, orzo, etc. tend to work best for mixing. Use gluten-free pasta if needed. I find that the brown rice and quinoa type GF pasta last a bit longer in the fridge, for what it’s worth.
- Sweet onion: I prefer the sweetness and crunch of sweet (vidalia) onion for this dish. I tried this recipe with red onion and it was still really good, but I felt the red onion somewhat overpowered the other flavors. If you love red onion, go for it! And if you prefer a much lighter onion taste, try chopping up 2-3 green onions (scallions) instead. Or leave it out entirely.
- Red bell pepper: The sweetness and crunch continues with a finely diced bell pepper. Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers are sweeter than green peppers. Out of all of them, red is the sweetest and also lends a nice color to the recipe. Feel free to use what you like and have available.
- Peas: I used thawed frozen peas as a fun pop of sweetness and texture, but also because more vegetables = delicious and healthy. I wouldn’t substitute canned peas here, but you could steam fresh peas or substitute another vegetable. Corn cut right off the cob would be absolutely delicious here (and thawed frozen corn would also work).
- Celery: I actually don’t love raw celery but I do love it in macaroni salad (and chickpea “tuna” salad, like in my vegan tuna melts). It adds a little saltiness, a great crunch that really holds up even after a few days in the fridge, and good fiber. Skip it if you really hate celery though!
- Vegan cheese: Okay, now this one is a bit controversial. It seems like some people don’t think cheese has a place in macaroni salad. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life. Feel free to leave it out if you need to but if you want true deliciousness, try it! I like to cube up vegan cheddar, but shredded vegan cheese should also work. Try my homemade nut-free vegan cheddar cheese if you like.
- Dill: I love the flavor that fresh chopped dill adds to this. Cilantro or parsley would also work, but dill is my favorite based on the other flavors in this dish.
- Other possible additions: I thought of a lot of other things that would be great in this vegan macaroni salad… here’s some ideas: my homemade vegan pepperoni or vegan ham, sliced olives, chopped banana peppers or pepperoncini, fennel, beets (they may make it pink!), shredded carrots, chickpeas (roasted or straight from the can!), cubed tofu (you could bake or air fry it first or eat it plain), etc. So many possibilities!
Step by Step Instructions for Vegan Macaroni Salad
- Cook one pound of pasta according to package instructions, then drain the cooked pasta. I like to cool mine down by rinsing it cold water, though I know this is somewhat of a no-no for some folks. To be fair, it’s the best way to stop the cooking process and ensure that the pasta does not become sticky or mushy.You can also cool it down by refrigerating it, though sometimes it may stick together so you may want to toss it with a small amount of olive oil. If your pasta is too hot when you toss it with the other ingredients, it can wilt delicate veggies like the dill and possibly melt the cheese.
- While you’re waiting, you can chop all the veggies.
- If you haven’t yet, make the vegan mayo (or skip this if using store-bought). I used my homemade oil-free vegan mayo, only I substitute about half the tofu for about ½-¾ cup soaked raw cashews or sunflower seeds. This provides a fattier sauce for the macaroni salad (which helps it keep better in the fridge). If your blender is being stubborn, add water a tablespoon or two at a time, and gently stir it to get it to blend. Once blended, throw it in the fridge or freezer to cool it down till you’re ready to use it.
- Make the dressing by stirring together the vegan mayo, apple cider vinegar, sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper, celery salt (if using), sweet relish, and mustard. Stir until combined.
- When the pasta is cooled, first toss all the veggies and cheese with it (except the dill). Pour in the dressing and mix well. Then gently stir through the dill. Taste, and add additional sea salt and black pepper if needed.
- You can serve it immediately or even better, refrigerate for at least an hour and serve nice and cold. It does firm up a bit in the fridge, but the pasta should hold up for a couple days.
- Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 4-5 days. Note that GF pasta sometimes doesn’t hold up as long--I get the best results with the brown rice and quinoa type GF pasta, but use what you know you like. I’m not personally gluten-free so I normally cook with regular flour pasta (or whole wheat), but sometimes I cook for gluten-free people.
Frequently Asked Questions
I find that this recipe keeps quite well for 4-5 days when stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If using gluten-free pasta, sometimes that doesn’t last quite as well, though I’ve had pretty good results with pasta that’s made from brown rice and quinoa rather than legume based pasta.
I used one pound of pasta and about 4-5 cups of add-ins. For this amount of dry ingredients, I find that about 2 cups of dressing is perfect, but of course you can adjust this to your preference. Keep in mind that the pasta may soak up a bit of the liquid.
Tips for Success
- Use a fairly fine dice for all add-ins: I recommend no more than ¼ - inch dice for all your veggies. They tend to mix better when smaller, and once the salad is chilled, it will all stick together a bit better.
- You can use any type of pasta: I think short pastas (elbows, shells, bow-ties, orzo, etc.) work best.
- Cool just-cooked pasta under running water: Cool down your just-cooked and drained pasta by rinsing it cold water. I know this is somewhat of a no-no but to be fair, it’s the best way to stop the cooking process and ensure that the pasta does not become sticky or mushy.You can also cool it down by refrigerating it, though sometimes it may stick together so you may want to toss it with a small amount of olive oil. If your pasta is too hot when you toss it with the other ingredients, it can wilt delicate veggies like the dill and possibly melt the cheese.
- Use whatever add-ins you like: It’s your vegan macaroni salad--you can just follow my recipe as a guideline and try your own add-ins. Just don’t mess with the ratios! Or if you do, don’t come at me when it doesn’t work out, haha! But seriously, a lot of folks do tend to blame me when they completely change the recipe and it doesn’t work out. My recipes are developed with thought and care, tested and retested, and carefully written out so you have a good experience. Change it at your own risk! :)
More Recipes Like This
Love simple pasta recipes? I’ve got tons. You’re bound to find something else you like in this list.
- Vegan Ranch Pasta Salad
- Vegan Pasta Primavera
- Sheet Pan Roasted Vegetable Pasta with Lemon Miso Tahini Dressing
- Vegan Garlic Noodles
- Baked Vegan Brie Pasta
- Vegan Tahini Pasta (like peanut noodles)
- Creamy Lemon Tahini Fettuccine with Broccolini
- Baked Vegan Feta Pasta
- Vegan Chickpea Florentine Pasta
- Vegan Pasta Puttanesca
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