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Loaded with colorful veggies and a creamy dressing, Macaroni Salad with Peas is a quick and easy make-ahead side dish that’s perfect for your Easter meal, backyard cookouts, or potluck dinners.

macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

Toss together tender pasta and sweet baby peas with diced onion, red bell pepper, and plenty of sharp cheddar cheese. Mix it all up with a creamy Parmesan dressing and garnish with fresh thyme to create what I think is the best ever macaroni salad.

For today’s cold macaroni salad, I added minced garlic, white wine vinegar and Parmesan cheese to the mayonnaise to make a tangy dressing that compliments the sweetness of the green peas in the salad.

Looking for more picnic salad ideas? Roasted Red Potato Salad and this BLT Pasta Salad are two of my personal favorites. Or, you may enjoy my Broccoli Bacon Salad with bacon, sweet golden raisins, and toasted pecans.

ingredients for macaroni salad with peas on a table.

Key ingredients & substitutions for Macaroni Salad with Peas

  • Pasta — Although it’s technically called macaroni salad, any shorter firm pasta like macaroni, rotini, or even ditalini pasta works. I had extra rotini noodles in the pantry, so that’s what I used.
  • Frozen baby peas — If you can find them, baby peas are preferred over the larger frozen peas.
  • Ham — This is a great recipe for leftover Easter ham or you can use deli ham, too.
  • Red onion — be sure to see my tip below for toning down strong onions.
  • Red bell pepper — I like to add red bell pepper for the sweet flavor and the color it adds to the dish. You can use any color bell pepper, or leave it out completely.
  • Fresh thyme leaves — for garnishing and a little freshness!
  • Sharp cheddar cheese — I like to use New York cheddar and dice it into small cubes. You can always use shredded sharp cheddar cheese.
  • Mayonnaise — the base of the dressing. If you don’t like mayo, substitute Greek yogurt or sour cream instead.
  • White wine vinegar — adds acidity to the dressing (hint: you may substitute lemon juice in a pinch)
  • Parmesan cheese — in the dressing, but if you like sprinkle some on top of the salad when serving as well.
  • Garlic — adds flavor to the dressing

How to make Creamy Macaroni Salad with Peas and Ham

rotini macaroni pasta with peas in a glass bowl on a table.

STEP 1 | Cook the pasta

Cook the macaroni or rotini pasta per the package directions. During the last minute of cooking, add the frozen peas.

Drain the pasta and rinse under cool water, then drain well and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and toss to coat.

rotini macaroni pasta with sharp cheddar cheese in a glass bowl on a table.

STEP 2 | Add salad ingredients

Add the diced ham cheddar cheese, red onion, and bell pepper to the bowl with the pasta.

Toss gently with a rubber spatula to combine. For best results chill the ingredients and pasta for a few minutes before adding the dressing.

tips

  • I recommend sharp cheddar over mild for the best flavor in this salad.
  • Dice or shred cheese from a block. Pre-shredded cheese has potato starch and other additives, plus a block of cheese is actually more economical.
  • Blanch the red onions in boiling water — just pour the hot water over them in a colander. This will make the onions a little milder and sweeter.

stirring dressing into macaroni salad with peas in a glass bowl.

STEP 3 | Whip up the dressing

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and minced garlic. If the dressing seems too thick, you may add a bit more vinegar or milk to thin it out slightly.

Pour the dressing over the pasta and stir until well coated. Garnish with fresh thyme leaves and more Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Always give the salad a quick stir before serving.

The secret to CREAMY macaroni salad with ham and cheese

The biggest problem you can have when making any type of macaroni or summer pasta salad is that the pasta soaks up all the dressing and the salad gets too dry. Here are 3 steps to help prevent that from happening:

  1. Drain the cooked pasta in a colander and rinse under a stream of cool running water to stop the cooking.
  2. Toss the drained pasta with a tablespoon of olive oil to give it a little barrier from absorbing too much dressing.
  3. Last, chill the pasta and other ingredients before tossing with the dressing.

Frequently asked questions

Can you freeze macaroni salad?

Technically, you can freeze macaroni salad, but after thawing the taste and texture may be altered. My recommendation is to just make it fresh!

How long does macaroni salad last?

Macaroni salad (without eggs) may be stored in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days.

Why is my macaroni salad dry?

Pasta is made of starch which will absorb some of the cooking water as well as the dressing you toss it in. The pasta may have been undercooked or too warm when you added the dressing.

How do you moisten macaroni salad?

If your leftover macaroni salad does get too dry, you can stir in a little milk or add more mayo until it is creamy again.

macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

What goes with macaroni salad with peas and ham?

Behind the recipe: Macaroni Salad with Peas

Macaroni Salad with Peas is a classic Southern recipe some think was originally modeled after potato salad. Instead of mixing potatoes and fixings with mayo, one genius cook had the idea to try the recipe with pasta instead.

Obviously, it was a hit! Macaroni Salad with Peas has been gracing church potluck dinner tables ever since.

The classic macaroni salad my Mom used to whip up in our kitchen was tossed with a sweetened mayonnaise dressing. Although it was delicious, my preference is something a bit more savory.

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macaroni salad with peas in a white bowl on a white countertop with a green napkin.

Classic Macaroni Salad with Peas

Loaded with colorful veggies and a creamy dressing, Macaroni Salad with Peas is a quick and easy make-ahead side dish.
4.50 from 4 votes
Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 11 mins
Additional Time 30 mins
Total Time 56 mins
Course Pasta
Cuisine American
Servings 8 servings
Calories 254 kcal

Ingredients
  

  • 8 oz. rotini or macaroni pasta
  • 1 cup frozen baby peas
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup diced deli ham
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese diced (4 oz.)
  • 1/4 cup red onion diced
  • 1/2 cup red bell pepper diced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Dressing

  • 2/3 cup low-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions
 

  • Bring 4 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil in a large pasta pot over high heat. Add the pasta and cook per the package directions, until al dente. During the last minute of cooking, add the frozen peas.
  • Drain the pasta and rinse under cool water to stop the cooking and cool off the pasta. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil and toss to coat.
  • To the bowl, add the diced ham cheddar cheese, red onion, and bell pepper. Toss gently with a rubber spatula to combine. (Note: After this step, it is best to refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, or until completely chilled, before adding the dressing.)
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, Parmesan cheese, and minced garlic. If the dressing seems too thick, you may add a bit more vinegar or milk to thin it out slightly.
  • Pour the dressing over the salad ingredients and stir until well coated. Garnish the top with fresh thyme leaves and more Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Video

Notes

  • Macaroni salad may be made up to 2 days in advance. Stir before serving.
  • Although it is perfectly fine to freeze macaroni salad, it is not recommended as the texture and taste may be altered once thawed.
Tips for preventing dry macaroni salad:
  • Drain the cooked pasta in a colander and rinse under a stream of cool running water to stop the cooking.
  • Toss the drained pasta with a tablespoon of olive oil to give it a little barrier from absorbing too much dressing.
  • Last, chill the pasta and other ingredients before tossing with the dressing.

Nutrition

Serving: 1gCalories: 254kcalCarbohydrates: 21gProtein: 13gFat: 13gSaturated Fat: 4gPolyunsaturated Fat: 7gCholesterol: 32mgSodium: 942mgFiber: 2gSugar: 3g
Keyword macaroni, Parmesan cheese, pasta salad, rotini pasta
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was.
sheila thigpen in her kitchen

About Sheila Thigpen

Recipe Developer, Food Photographer, Food Writer

Sheila Thigpen is the publisher of Life, Love, and Good Food — a Southern food blog — and the author of Easy Chicken Cookbook and The 5-Ingredient Fresh and Easy Cookbook. After 20+ years in the publishing industry, she retired in 2018 to focus on her own creative endeavors full time. She and her husband live near the beautiful Smoky Mountains and have a precious little granddaughter who has stolen their hearts. As an influencer, Sheila has collaborated with brands like Creamette, Kroger, HERSHEY’S, Hamilton Beach, Garafalo Pasta, OXO, Smithfield, Valley Fig Growers, and more.

2 Comments

    1. Thanks for the head’s up! I’ve added the tip, but the secret is to blanch the onions in boiling water — just pour the hot water over them in a colander. This will make the onions a little milder and sweeter.

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