How to turn the humble chicken salad into a gourmet offering

A.V. Club Most Read

How to turn the humble chicken salad into a gourmet offering

Photo: Scott Suchman for the Washington Post via Getty Images
Photo: Scott Suchman for the Washington Post via Getty Images

In How Do You Take Yours?, The A.V. Club solicits staff and outside expertise for their secret tips on improving a dish.

That chicken salad has the cajones to call itself “a salad” is rather bold, but we’ll turn a blind eye because the combination is so ingenious. Poached chicken + mayo + crunchy element = a versatile dish that works on a lettuce bed, in a sandwich, atop crackers, or by its lonesome.

However excellent your chicken salad may currently be, we here at Supper Club believe there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few ideas.

Andrew Zimmern, host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods

The biggest problem with chicken salad is dried chicken. People compensate by putting too much mayo. I cook a whole chicken in parts, because white meat takes less time to cook than dark. I poach them in seasoned chicken stock, which then becomes broth I could freeze and use later. And I take the bone-in breast out—when it’s about 145 degrees on a meat thermometer, or just about to get firm—you can let it rest and let thermal momentum cook the rest of the way. The point is to cook it just to the point of being done.

Second tip: acid, acid, acid. To me that’s citrus and salt. So if you’re using mayo or yogurt or tahini, I like adding lemon juice or grapefruit vinegar (I love Pharaoh’s heirloom lemon vinegar).

Third tip: texture, texture, texture. Mayo is soft and greasy. So you balance that out with acidity. Chicken salad is soft texturally, so I like lots of finely minced celery, radish, fennel, or whatever vegetables that could give it a lot of crunch.

Robert Phalen, chef of One Eared Stag, Atlanta

In my opinion the superior chicken salads are the simple ones. Always try to use the best ingredients you can find. There are three major rules I follow when making chicken salad:

  1. Bacon is key to the perfect chicken salad. Save the bacon fat too—you will use it.
  2. Make your own mayonnaise (use the bacon fat to make this).
  3. After poaching the chicken, mix everything while it’s still hot.
Photo: Fernando Salazar/Wichita Eagle/MCT via Getty Images

Kevin Pang, The A.V. Club food editor

If I am known for one contribution to the culinary arts, it’s this junky, obscene, utterly delicious chicken salad starring leftover KFC. This came together in my bachelor days, when during some hallucinogenic fog I cobbled together my favorite—and most intensely flavorful—ingredients. There’s zero subtlety to this dish. Essentially you take leftover KFC chicken, dice it up alongside green apples and scallions, and mix in a dressing of Kewpie mayonnaise, sriracha, and lime juice. The end. I might even sprinkle in some powdered MSG if I’m feeling lucky. Lucky Peach magazine was the first to publish this, and there you can find a more exacting recipe.

Jason Alley, chef of Pasture and Comfort, Richmond, Virginia

I love really simple chicken salad; think of a delicious version of convenience store pre-wrapped sandwiches. First, and most important, roast whole, bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts until just cooked. Once cooled, remove the skin, take the meat off of the bone, and shred with your hands. Now you have delicious chicken bones for stock as well! Combine the chicken, minced sweet onion, celery, pickle relish, salt and black pepper, and Duke’s mayo in a food processor and process until smooth and creamy. Now all you need is some soft white bread and a piece of iceberg lettuce, and you are good to go.

Joy Crump, chef of Foode and Mercantile, Fredericksburg, Virginia

We’ve had chicken salad on our menu since day one—which is about six years now. And it’s consistently been a top seller. What we do is simple: First, we always start with grilled chicken. That little touch of char and smoke really elevates the chicken salad and helps balance out the rich creaminess of mayo (assuming you’re using that). Next, we add a good quality madras curry powder, a squeeze of fresh orange, a few shavings of orange zest and some golden raisins for a nice curry chicken salad. We top it with pickled red onions for a snappy sandwich with great color, texture and flavor.

Photo: Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Sarah Grueneberg, chef of Monteverde, Chicago

The key is the chicken—it has to be really tender. Use the whole chicken if you can, but bone-in skin-on thigh is great too. As soon as you use skinless boneless pieces, that chicken has no chance. One tip is after you poach the chicken, don’t take it out of the liquid right away. Let it chill in the liquid, or it can get too dry. Then when you’re mixing the ingredients together, a pinch of toasted fennel seed is good. A drizzle of honey gives the chicken salad a little sweetness.

Brett Anderson, New Orleans Times-Picayune food writer

Celery and green onion diced super small; I make it a personal challenge. You get a crunch, but the source is hard to see—I like that sensation. I also like a lot of pieces of the meat to still have some skin on them. Plus assertive Dijon mustard smuggled home from Burgundy.

Gwen Ihnat, The A.V. Club assistant editor

Ever since a Savory Spice store opened up in our neighborhood, it’s safe to say that my husband has developed a spice substance-abuse problem. I’m not even sure how many curry powders overpower our measly little spice rack, but now whenever he makes chicken salad, it becomes more of a curry culinary journey than anything else. His current favorite is a combination of taram masala and madras curries, with turmeric for color. The spices are so strong that the other additions are meager: a shallot, some diced celery, maybe a little pickled jalapeño for some heat. Garnish with cilantro. But you really don’t need much else to turn chicken salad into a taste explosion.