Today’s Italian-inspired vegan macaroni salad recipe makes an easy vegan side dish perfect for summer BBQ parties, Memorial Day or 4th of July cookouts. It’s loaded with flavorful veggies, and finished with a simple, mayo-free dressing that can be made with or without oil.
Get ready to meet your new favorite vegan pasta salad recipe!
Few summertime cookouts can happen without a good macaroni salad. It’s a perfect comfort food that can offer quite a bit of variety in flavor and texture.
I’ve had some great and not-so-great macaroni salads over the years. The ones I liked best often shared one thing – they didn’t have a creamy dressing.
I mean, if you like creamy pasta salads, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I find that they can be too heavy when eaten at a BBQ party on a hot summer day. Especially when paired with such barbecue staples as hamburgers or hot dogs.
The only vegan pasta salad recipe I’ve posted here on the blog before is my veggie-loaded balsamic pasta. It makes a great pasta salad when served cold.
But today I’m sharing my new creation – deliciously tangy, vibrantly flavored vegan macaroni salad made without vegan mayo or its substitutes. It has a a simple, Italian-inspired homemade dressing that uses ingredients you probably have at home right now.
Better yet, this dressing can be made with or without oil. So if you’re following an oil-free diet, you’re in the right place!
Italian-style Vegan Macaroni Salad Ingredients
Elbow macaroni pasta. This type of pasta has a perfect size and shape for cold pasta-based salads. The important thing here is to avoid overcooking it, or the texture of your pasta salad will be off. If you’re following a gluten-free diet, feel free to use your favorite gluten-free pasta here.
I used 1.5 cups of uncooked macaroni pasta, which yields about 4 cups of cooked macaroni. (For other ingredient amounts, see the recipe card at the end of this post.)
Follow Useful Tips below to find out how to make this vegan macaroni salad taste its best.
Red bell pepper, roasted or fresh. I’m a big fan of using roasted red pepper in my Italian-style vegan pasta salad. Roasting red peppers brings out that complex combination of sweet and umami flavors that Italian cuisine is famous for.
Most grocery stores sell roasted red peppers in glass jars. But if you want to take things to the next level, I highly recommend roasting them yourself. It’s easier than you think – see instructions here.
Don’t want to roast peppers at home, or use the canned ones from the store? Fresh red peppers will work too.
Red onion. If you’re looking to add a delicious crunch with a spicy “bite” to a salad, red onions are your go-to ingredient. They taste good both fresh and roasted, although roasting mellows out the spiciness and brings out a sweeter flavor.
I wanted to keep both the crunch and the “bite” of red onions in my macaroni salad, so I’m using fresh ones in this recipe.
Black or kalamata olives. Either type of olives will work here. The taste of kalamata olives packs a whole lot more umami, which is a great way to boost flavors. But I know that a lot of people don’t like kalamata olives, so black olives make a good substitution.
Cherry tomatoes. Using cherry (or grape) tomatoes in this recipe adds a tangy component that’s so refreshing on a summer day. I’m cutting them in half here, but if you find really small cherry tomatoes, feel free to keep them whole.
Fresh herbs – basil and/or parsley. Fresh herbs are a welcome addition to any Italian-inspired dish. We’ve been enjoying a bumper crop of basil in our Aerogarden lately (check out this nifty planter – it’s great for effortlessly growing lots of veggies and herbs in your kitchen), so I’m adding basil to anything and everything I can.
Olive oil OR cooled pasta cooking water (use the latter for oil-free vesion). This is the base for the dressing of my macaroni salad. Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil works well as a combining agent for the rest of the dressing ingredients.
If you’re following an oil-free diet, save a bit of pasta cooking water just before you drain the pasta, and use it instead of oilve oil. You may need to use more of it than the amount I’ve listed for the oil (see the recipe card) because the macaroni will absorb a lot of liquid, especially if it’s fat-free.
By the way, check out my post with 10 easy oil-free vegan salad dressing recipes that are made without any special kitchen gadgets (i.e. a blender, food processor, etc.).
Red wine vinegar. I’m using it to add a vibrant, zesty flavor to my pasta salad dressing.
Red wine vinegar is my second favorite after balsamic vinegar for Italian-style dishes. However, balsamic vinegar makes pasta look darker. Red wine vinegar doesn’t do that – that’s why it’s my preference for this recipe.
Dijon mustard. Just a touch of Dijon mustard adds a light “bite” to the dressing. A little bit goes a long way, so use it sparingly – you don’t want to overpower the flavors.
Pure maple syrup. A perfect ingredient for adding sweetness. I prefer maple syrup to sugar in salad dressings because, unlike sugar, it doesn’t need any extra help to dissolve.
Dried oregano. Adds an extra touch of “Italian-ness” to the flavor. You can skip it if you want.
Salt, pepper. These go without saying. (I am saying though, as you can see 😄) Start with less – you can always sprinkle more straight into the salad if needed.
See also: 36+ vegan BBQ party recipes for summer cookouts and gatherings.
How to roast red bell peppers at home
Roasting red peppers at home is quite simple, but there are a few key points to keep in mind. Roast them until the skin starts getting blistered, then cover them with plastic wrap right away, and put them in the fridge until cool.
In more detail (see pictures for each step in the photo below):
Step 1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Lightly grease a small baking sheet.
Wash a red pepper and cut it in half or into quarters. Discard the seeds and soft inner membranes. Rub the inner and outer surface of each piece of pepper with high heat oil (I use avocado oil). Why cook with high-heat oil.
Step 2. Put the pepper pieces onto the prepared baking sheet inner side down. Roast in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges of each piece of pepper start getting bubbly, and a few blistered spots form. (If this doesn’t happen at 12-15 minutes, roast 3-5 minutes longer.)
Step 3. Remove the pepper pieces from the oven. Immediately put them in a glass or ceramic dish, and cover tightly with plastic wrap – not a lid because lids don’t fit as tightly as plastic wrap, which prevents peppers from “sweating” properly.
Put the plastic wrap-covered dish into the fridge for at least 10-15 minutes. You’ll see the plastic wrap get foggy with steam first.
Once the steam clears and water droplets form inside the wrap, take the peppers out of the fridge.
Step 4. Now we need to remove the film-like outer skin off of each piece of pepper. Start by picking a small bit of skin from the top, and pull it to remove. It might come off in one piece if the peppers were roasted long enough.
Continue peeling until all skin is removed. Discard the skin.
Once the peppers are completely peeled, feel free to use them in any recipe that calls for roasted red peppers.
If you’ve roasted peppers for use in this vegan macaroni salad recipe, you’ll need about 1/2 of a regular-sized pepper to yield the amount listed in the recipe card below.
How to Make Vegan Macaroni Salad
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add elbow macaroni pasta, and cook to al dente following the directions on the box.
(If making an oil-free version of this macaroni salad: reserve 1/4- 1/3 cup pasta cooking water before draining.)
Drain the pasta, and rinse under a stream of cold water to cool off. Set aside until needed.
While the pasta is cooking, chop roasted or fresh red pepper, red onion, olives, and cherry tomatoes.
Make the dressing. Add olive oil/pasta cooking water into a small bowl, and mix in red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, pure maple syrup, dried oregano, and salt and pepper. Whisk with a fork until well combined.
Mix cooled elbow macaroni pasta with prepped vegetables in a large bowl. Drizzle with the dressing, and stir well to incorporate.
Sprinkle with chopped basil and parsley. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
If you have time, allow the macaroni salad rest in the fridge for 1-2 hours to let the flavors blend together. Otherwise, serve right away.
TIP 1: How to make the pasta more flavorful.
Make sure to salt the pasta cooking water really well. This infuses macaroni with more flavor as it cooks, which will make your pasta salad even tastier.
TIP 2: How to keep cut cherry tomatoes from making the macaroni salad soggy.
Cut tomatoes can release lots of juice. That’s why I recommend adding them into your pasta salad shortly before serving. So if you’re bringing this salad to a cookout or a potluck, pack them in a separate small container, and toss them into the salad when you arrive.
Tip 3: How to “tame” the spiciness of fresh red onion.
If fresh chopped red onion tastes too strong to you, soak it in cool water for 10 minutes. Drain well, and add to the pasta salad along with the rest of the ingredients.
4. How to prevent the pasta salad from tasting bland.
The dressing needs to taste more bold and tangy than you’d expect: it will mellow out quite a bit after you mix it into the salad. So if it starts off just mildly tangy, then your macaroni salad will most likely come out bland.
Taste the dressing after you’ve mixed all of its ingredients together (olive oil through salt and pepper). To “perk up” the flavors, add more vinegar and/or mustard and/or salt.
How to Store Italian-style Vegan Pasta Salad
Refrigerate this pasta salad in an airtight container. This pasta salad will keep for up to 3-4 days. Give it a good stir just before you serve it, and drizzle it with 1-2 tsp olive oil if it looks dry.
Hope you enjoy my Italian-style vegan macaroni salad this summer!
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