No matter the time of year or the weather outside, a bowl of macaroni salad is bound to evoke summer-y picnic vibes in a heartbeat! Macaroni salads are one classic comfort food, something you’d be wise to make extra of as there will surely be a great deal of post-party snacking.
Happen to find yourself with a bit too much excess when in the leftover macaroni salad department? That’s ok, we salute your ambition! But now you are perhaps wondering, "can you freeze macaroni salad?".
Freezing macaroni salad is definitely an option but must be done with careful consideration of all ingredients involved. By keeping these ingredients in mind, and modifying your recipe beforehand when possible, you can successfully freeze your macaroni salad and keep enjoying that quintessential summer staple for weeks to come!
What is Macaroni Salad?
In order to fully grasp the complexities that surround answering the question “can you freeze macaroni salad?”, we need to understand what macaroni salad actually IS in the first place!
This dish takes its name from the most prominent ingredient found in the mixture: macaroni pasta. The term macaroni refers to pasta which has been cut into a thin tube shape. These thin tubes may be straight (as are commonly seen in boxed macaroni and cheese) or curved and referred to as elbow macaroni.
While macaroni noodles are the classic pasta of choice for macaroni salad, it is plenty possible to use other shapes as well! After being cooked, the pasta is tossed with a variety of vegetables and seasonings (more on that in a moment), before being mixed with a delicious dressing to bring it all together.
Things to Consider When Freezing Macaroni Salad
The thing that makes freezing leftover macaroni salad such a complicated issue is that there is no one specific recipe. When it comes to a bowl of mac salad, the dish could be composed of many different ingredients, each of which has a different reaction to the freezing and defrosting process.
The most important concept to remember is that your frozen macaroni salad’s quality will only be as good as the least freezable ingredient within it. Meaning, one ingredient in your macaroni salad which freezes and defrosts poorly can truly ruin the taste of the whole dish. You know what they say about bad apples...
Nevertheless! You still have the option to freeze macaroni salad, so long as you take stock of your salad's unique composition beforehand.
Possible Macaroni Salad Ingredients
First things first, let’s think about what individual ingredients are in the macaroni salad itself and how viable they may be after a time in the freezer.
The most important part of any macaroni salad–the macaroni itself! As mentioned above, the most commonly used pasta shapes are either elbow or straight macaroni, but other shapes are used plenty often as well.
When freezing pasta, it’s not so much the shape that matters rather it is how it is cooked. Pasta that is already on the side of being soft (or overly soft!) will most likely turn to mush after it freezes and then defrosts. If the noodles in your macaroni salad are already quite cooked, then freezing it is not going to be a great move.
With this in mind, as you’re making your big batch of macaroni salad for the family barbecue and are thinking there might be leftovers to deal with afterwards, take care not to overcook your pasta! Just follow the package directions for al dente and you should be just fine to freeze some extra portions. Al dente translates to “to the tooth” in Italian, meaning you should feel a bit of resistance upon biting into the noodle. Better yet, cook the pasta just slightly less than al dente, if a slightly chewier textured mac salad doesn’t bother you.
Unfortunately, if you’re working with pasta that is made with gluten free or other alternative flours, freezing is not recommended. These types of pasta are made in a delicately balanced way so as to achieve a surprisingly gluten-like texture, and subjecting them to sub-zero temps will almost always have dire consequences.
One of the most beautiful aspects of macaroni salad is that you can add just about any type of vegetable you fancy! Chopped celery and onions are very common additions, which some folks might consider necessary to make a great mac salad, but you can also get creative and mix in shredded carrots, shelled peas, diced bell peppers, sliced cherry tomatoes, any type of pickle or olive–the list goes on!
Some of these options, such as shredded carrots, peas, minced red onion, and olives, retain their texture quite well when frozen. Others, like bell peppers and cherry tomatoes, tend to collapse upon defrosting, resulting in a loss of crunch.
Many macaroni salads contain chopped hard boiled eggs, which are a delicious addition and offer the added benefit of a protein boost to the overall dish!
The downside is that cooked eggs really don’t freeze very well. Cooked egg whites will take on a tough and rubbery texture after some freezer time, making the defrosted version of your macaroni and egg salad pretty darn unpleasant.
If you’d like to add eggs into your mac salad and think you might be freezing those leftovers, your best bet is to chop them very finely so that the textural oddities will be far less noticeable in the end. You can also opt to leave the chopped hard boiled eggs to the side and simply add them to each portion as desired. Any guests who have egg allergies or a distaste for them may appreciate this as well. Win-win!
Fresh herbs are always a good idea, especially when it comes to macaroni salad! Nothing punctuates a dish more, or can make it so uniquely yours, in quite the same way as a fresh herb.
The best herbs to use in an uncooked dish such as macaroni salad are those which have both a pleasant texture and taste in their raw state, such as dill and chives. Stronger herbs such as rosemary and oregano can be quite sharp on the taste buds and tough to chew if they aren’t cooked, so they're less commonly used in macaroni salads.
Luckily for our macaroni salad freezing dilemma currently at hand, minced fresh herbs freeze beautifully! Some herbs, such as basil, will turn dark brown as a result, but their flavor will remain nice and bright.
Types of Macaroni Salad Dressing
After all of the variations of pasta shape, vegetables, ingredients, and flavor profiles, at the end of the day, a bowl of macaroni salad will fall into either of two main camps: creamy macaroni salad or vinaigrette based macaroni salad. One of these dressing types freezes rather well, and the other, sadly, does not.
Creamy Macaroni Salad
Creamy macaroni salad is the type that comes to mind when you’re thinking of that classic macaroni salad that graces the tables of cookouts and holiday picnics everywhere, alongside other common sights such as potato salad and coleslaw.
Most often, the creamy texture is the result of mayonnaise which acts as a binder, causing the salad ingredients to stick to one another and giving the dish a wonderfully creamy texture across the board. Mayonnaise is unique in the sense that it is an emulsion, meaning the oil and water particles (and other ingredients for that matter) have been bound together in a way that makes them inseparable. You’ll notice that no matter how long a jar of mayonnaise sits in your refrigerator, it does not separate into its individual components in the same way that a salad dressing does.
However, mayonnaise is unfortunately not immune to separation when subjected to subzero temperatures. You can freeze mayonnaise dressed macaroni salad, but upon defrosting, it will become clumpy and grainy in texture as opposed to uniform and smooth. Some stirring would help return the macaroni salad to a reasonable consistency, but it will never be quite the same.
The same goes for alternative creamy dressing ingredients which may be present in macaroni salad such as sour cream, crème fraiche, yogurt, or cream cheese. The inclusion of these dairy ingredients is less common when it comes to macaroni salads, but they do make an appearance from time to time, and we don't recommend freezing macaroni salad which has any of them included.
Vinaigrette-Based Macaroni Salad
Vinaigrette based macaroni salad is perhaps less prevalent than creamy macaroni salad, but that also means there’s more room for creativity! Vinaigrette based salads can be tossed in any delicious vinegar based dressing, whether it be store bought Italian salad dressing or a homemade marinade!
You may find macaroni salads boasting an Italian flair, with red wine vinegar, marinated artichoke hearts, and chunks of salami. Or, try a Mediterranean style macaroni salad with apple cider vinegar, plenty of olive oil, dried oregano, and diced cucumbers!
The key differentiation is that these types of pasta salads do not contain any mayonnaise or dairy ingredients, making them much more likely to freeze and defrost successfully than creamy pasta salad. The oil particles in any vinaigrette will take on a clumpy appearance at cold temperatures, but once it returns to room temperature, the oil will return to a liquid state and be able to disperse evenly throughout your pasta salad. Good as new!
How to Freeze Macaroni Salad
Despite the wide range of macaroni salad ingredients and the difficulty they cause in the decision to freeze or not to freeze, the bottom line is that yes, you can indeed freeze your macaroni salad.
There are a couple different ways you can go about this, and your choice will depend largely on why you are freezing macaroni salad in the first place. If you’ve suddenly found yourself with an excess of mac salad and don’t want it to go to waste, use Option 1. On the other hand, if you’re looking to freeze macaroni salad as a means to get ahead on food prep for a big upcoming event or party, use Option 2.
Either way, you should eat frozen macaroni salad within about a month of freezing it, after which the quality may start to suffer.
If your dish is already made and mixed together, and you’re seeking a more long term way to store leftover macaroni salad, you can go ahead and freeze it as is!
We recommend portioning it into smaller sized containers, such as cup or pint sized storage containers, as this will make your life much easier when it comes time to defrost. Dividing your salad into small quantities prevents the macaroni salad from freezing into one giant clump and is an especially good method to use if your macaroni salad is vinaigrette based as opposed to mayonnaise or dairy based.
If your macaroni salad is already mixed with mayonnaise, contains very well-done pasta, or has sensitive vegetables such as bell peppers or tomatoes, freezing it may not yield great results.
If, on the other hand, your macaroni salad is not yet mixed and your aim is to get a head start on preparing a large batch of it for a future use, the best plan of attack is to freeze the individual components as opposed to mixing and then freezing.
This method works especially well if you’re working with a creamy macaroni salad which will be mixed with either mayonnaise or dairy ingredients. In order to make things easiest, you can essentially prepare and mix all of the solid ingredients, then place them in freezer bags or airtight containers, removing as much air as possible.
After you remove and defrost the mixture, mix it with any liquid ingredients of your choice, whether it be mayonnaise, dairy, or vinaigrette, from the refrigerator. In this case, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between that and freshly made macaroni salad!
Tips for Freezing Macaroni Salad
- Don’t attempt to freeze macaroni salad which has been sitting out for any length of time. If you’ve made the dish for a picnic or other gathering, try to keep the amount of mac salad in the serving bowl limited, replenishing it with more salad from the refrigerator as needed. Freezing food which has been at room temperature for more than even an hour can increase the risk of bacterial growth, and these bacteria will unfortunately survive in the freezer as well.
- Do not refreeze macaroni salad which has previously been frozen. Not only is it unlikely that the texture of the salad will be able to stand up to two rounds of freezing and defrosting, but defrosting and refreezing food of any type is generally advised against for food safety reasons.
- Toss the entire batch of macaroni salad (either fully dressed salad or just the pre-mixed ingredients!) in a bit of olive oil before freezing. This will help to prevent the pasta and other ingredients from sticking together during defrosting, as the starches within the pasta will have a tendency to clump together.
How to Defrost Frozen Macaroni Salad
If you’ve decided to freeze your macaroni salad, your next question is likely to be in regard to how to defrost the stuff!
No matter which way you defrost macaroni salad, keep in mind that some ingredients within the mixture may produce excess liquid as they defrost. You can go ahead and pour this liquid off as it will not taste very good to mix it back in.
As is the case with all frozen foods, the safest way to thaw frozen macaroni salad is in the refrigerator overnight. This requires a bit of planning ahead but is well worth it as then you don’t have any food safety issues to worry about!
If you forgot to pull the leftovers out and need them sooner rather than later, an alternative option is to place the container or freezer bag of macaroni salad in a large bowl of cold water. Leave this setup on the countertop at room temperature and replace the water with fresh cold water every 20-30 minutes until the salad is defrosted. This will safely thaw macaroni salad at a faster rate but requires a bit of attention to keep replacing that water.
If using the cold water method, be sure that your macaroni salad is in an airtight container which is also watertight! Since you'll be placing the leftovers in a bowl of cold water, you run the risk of water seeping into the container which would stand to ruin the salad as well.
Can You Freeze Macaroni Salad? Yes! But...
Here's the bottom line: yes, you can freeze your macaroni salad, but all things considered, this is one of the tougher dishes out there to freeze. If there were superlatives for the viability of foods in the freezer, macaroni salad would definitely be in the running for least likely to succeed.
The issue lies in the huge range of possible ingredients any given macaroni salad may contain and the unique issues each of them may pose when it comes to surviving in the freezer. Cooked pasta can be frozen, yes, but only if it is cooked al dente. Certain vegetables are perfect candidates for freezer storage while others are far more sensitive. And if your salad is dressed in either mayonnaise or dairy ingredients, you're bound to experience some textural problems upon defrosting.
Depending on what is in your macaroni salad and how it is prepared, you may have great success though! At the very least, give it a shot, and keep in mind that you can always use what you've learned here to adapt your recipe to be more freezer-friendly in the future.