15 Ways To Boost The Flavor Of Chicken Salad

Chicken salad is a popular year-round dish that originated in 1863 at a Rhode Island butcher shop called Town Meats. The owner, Liam Gray, mixed leftover chicken with mayonnaise, tarragon, and grapes, served it to his customers, and just like that, a classic American dish was born. The concoction was so popular that Gray eventually converted his butcher shop into a deli.

Many have enjoyed some version of Gray's original 1863 chicken salad, and every home cook seems to have a back-pocket recipe for this picnic staple. With just a handful of ingredients and a short amount of time, you can whip up a batch of this cold, creamy salad that's great in sandwiches or over a green salad.

Sometimes, homemade (or store-bought) chicken salad misses the mark, leaving you underwhelmed and craving more. Thankfully, there are simple add-ins you can use to jazz up a chicken salad — everything from citrus juice and hot sauce to raw onions and salty meats. Here are 15 easy ways to transform chicken salad from bland to delightfully tasty.

Citrus juice and zest

Citrus juice does wonders to brighten the flavor of foods — including lackluster chicken salad. The acidity in citrus juice balances out the fat in the mayonnaise dressing while adding a tangy pop of flavor. The extra moisture from the juice can also help to make the salad tastier.

For an even brighter flavor, add grated citrus zest to your chicken salad, too. The fragrant oils in citrus peels will add zing to every bite. Just make sure to stop grating when you reach the white pith underneath the peel, or your salad will have notes of bitterness.

While lemon and lime are the usual citrus go-to's, don't forget about orange. Its bright, sweet flavor pairs well with chicken (think orange chicken) and takes the dish up a notch. If you plan to add fresh fruit — like grapes or apples — to your chicken salad, orange juice or zest will add complementary aroma and sweetness.

Raw onions

Adding raw onions is a terrific way to perk up even the most boring chicken salad. The onions should be cut up into small bite-sized pieces, as large chunks will overpower each bite with onion flavor. And make sure to add a little onion at a time, checking to taste after each addition, as just a tiny amount can pack a punch.

There are several types of onions you can choose from. Depending on your taste preferences, you can use any popular cooking onion — red, white, or yellow. Red onions boast a peppery, spicy flavor with low acidity, some sweetness, and a gorgeous deep purple color. Raw white onions have a nice crunch with a sharp flavor and should be used sparingly as they can have a potent aftertaste. Yellow onions are not as strong as white and have a tinge of sweetness.

If you're a fan of sweet onions, go ahead and use them. Popular varieties include Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Maui. They have a mild onion flavor with a delicious hint of sweetness. Scallions are another great choice, with a slightly peppery flavor similar to white onions. Plus, their pretty, two-tone color blends beautifully into chicken salad.

Hard-boiled eggs

If you love egg salad and chicken salad, then why not combine the two? Hard-boiled eggs are a popular ingredient in Southern-style chicken salad — and for a good reason. Adding hard-boiled eggs turns a chicken salad into a protein-packed meal with a rich, savory flavor. Another reason to mix in chopped eggs? Adding eggs helps you stretch the salad further to feed more people — and ensure leftovers for a quick and easy lunch the next day.

Make sure to use hard-boiled eggs; any softer, and you'll miss out on the extra creamy texture of firm yolks. The yolks will also contribute a rich, pretty yellow hue to your salad. For the best hard-boiled eggs, boil a large pot of water, then reduce the heat to medium. Stir in some white vinegar and salt (this makes them easier to peel), then carefully lower your eggs into the boiling water and let them cook for 14 minutes. Chill the cooked eggs completely in ice water before peeling and chopping them into bite-sized pieces. After folding in the chopped eggs, you may need to add more moisture to the salad — a little citrus juice or more mayonnaise should do the trick.

Salty meats

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard that bacon makes everything taste better. Well, it's certainly the case with chicken salad. Salty bacon holds a treasure trove of umami flavors that are sweet, savory, and smoky. These irresistible flavors pair perfectly with the creamy tanginess of the mayonnaise dressing for a mouthwatering experience. Bacon can be easily cooked in the oven, on the stovetop, or in a microwave, but store-bought bacon bits are perfectly fine if you're short on time.

Bacon isn't the only salty meat you can use to add savory umami to chicken salad. Try including chopped smoked meats like kielbasa or andouille. Or go with flavor-packed Italian salami, a cured sausage spiced with pepper and seasoned with garlic and salt. And remember, pepperoni isn't just for pizza. This dried, spiced sausage adds a tremendously sweet and smoky flavor when mixed into chicken salad. Pro tip: Pan-fry the pepperoni first to release the oils, intensify its flavor, and give it texture, then cut it into tiny bits and add to your chicken salad.


If your chicken salad has the flavor, crunch, and consistency you want, but lacks a little pizzazz, splash in some vinegar. Sometimes all your taste buds need is just a little zing from vinegar to make them happy. However, we recommend steering clear of dark Balsamic (or at least treading carefully) as its rich, complex flavors can be overwhelming, and its dark color can turn the salad brown.

Our three favorite kinds of vinegar to use in chicken salad are basic pantry staples. Rice vinegar made from fermented rice wine has a sweet, delicate flavor that won't overshadow the other salad flavors. Apple cider vinegar, made from fermented apple juice, has a unique sweet and sour flavor that adds a delightful tang to chicken salad. Lastly, white wine vinegar, made from fermented white wine, is slightly milder than apple cider vinegar and often used in salad dressings and sauces.

You could also use champagne vinegar if you prefer a lighter, more floral flavor with less acidity. Made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, champagne vinegar has a pale gold color, delicate fruity flavor, and mild acidity that livens up food without overpowering it.


Chutney is a flavorful condiment served as a dipping sauce or relish that originated in India. This sweet, spicy spread is made by cooking fruit with vinegar, sugar, and spices until thick, syrupy, and chunky. Some chutneys made with chili pepper are spicy and earthy, while some are sweet and tangy. Mixing chutney into chicken salad allows you to change its flavor profile — and color — depending on the type used. Chutney adds depth of flavor to chicken salad and a kick that often leaves eaters wondering what it could be.

There are many types of chutneys to choose from. Peach chutney and apple chutney are delicious choices, but mango chutney is a favorite of many. Whichever one you choose, your chicken salad will benefit from the chutney's sweet, vinegary flavor. You'll likely find mango chutney in the pickle or condiment aisle at supermarkets. But for a wider selection of chutneys, we recommend shopping for them at Indian grocery stores or international food markets.


Add some fresh garlic to your chicken salad for a serious flavor boost. Fresh garlic is extremely pungent in its raw form and has a sweet, delectable flavor that's hard to beat. We like to use pressed or minced garlic to ensure its intriguing flavor spreads throughout the chicken salad.

If you have time to roast some garlic, it's worth it. Roasted garlic adds a dimension of flavor that's deep, nutty, and rich. If you've never roasted garlic, it's incredibly easy — and for the most part, hands-off. First, use a sharp knife to cut 1/2 inch off the top of the garlic head, exposing the individual garlic cloves. Drizzle olive oil over the exposed cloves, then wrap the head entirely in aluminum foil. Bake in a 400 degrees F oven until the cloves are lightly browned, soft, and fragrant, about 30 to 45 minutes. To use, pop out the cloves, mash them, and mix them into your salad.

Garlic provides a ton of flavor to dishes and some real health benefits. This tiny root vegetable has been shown to help prevent and reduce the severity of illnesses like the flu and common cold. And the active compounds in garlic can reduce blood pressure for those with hypertension and lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Fresh herbs

Fresh herbs add a punch of flavor that could be precisely what your chicken salad needs. Choosing which fresh herbs to use can be daunting, so focus on the flavor profile you're going for. For example, choose pungent tarragon or basil if you like anise. If looking for mellower notes, go with dill or thyme. Deeper flavors can be achieved with rosemary or sage, while bright notes can be achieved with parsley or cilantro.

You don't have to go with just one herb, either. Instead, use a combination of fresh herbs for even more flavor and complexity. Remember to add a little at a time and taste after each addition. Some fresh herbs are more pungent than you expect when added to dishes. You can also reserve some herbs for garnishing the salad before serving.

Dried herbs are more convenient and budget-friendly; you probably have a bunch in your pantry right now. But when adding herbs to chicken salad, fresh herbs beat out dried by a mile because fresh herbs have tastier and brighter flavors. 

Pro tip: Finely chop fresh herbs before mixing them into your salad. There's nothing worse than having a sprig of parsley caught in one's teeth.

Seasoning blends

Store-bought seasoning blends are a quick and easy way to take your chicken salad from drab to fab. Since these seasoning blends are pre-made, they save you a boatload of time and reduce any anxiety you may have about how to inject flavor into a bland batch of chicken salad. Sure, you could make a homemade spice blend, but store-bought blends are a lifesaver when you're hungry.

Scan your pantry for your favorite spice mixes, and they'll likely go great in chicken salad. Our favorite store-bought blends include Old Bay, Cajun, and Italian dressing mix. There's a seasoning blend out there for every taste — everything from taco and herbs de Provence to ranch and everything bagel.

Pro tip: Some store-bought seasoning blends are high in sodium, so hold off on adding salt to your chicken salad when making it. If you've already added salt to your salad, try offsetting the saltiness with some citrus juice or brown sugar.


Fresh grapes provide a sweet twist, lovely texture, and a juicy upgrade to chicken salad. There are many types of grapes to choose from. Common grape varieties include red globe, cotton candy, and black muscat, to name a few. Go with the one that you enjoy eating the most. Make sure to choose a seedless variety, wash them well, and slice them in half to allow their sweet juices to mix into the salad. They'll also be easier to eat this way.

When buying grapes at the market, you'll want to taste them to ensure they're good. If tasting isn't a viable option, there are other things you can do to determine ripeness. First, look for grapes with tight skins that aren't wrinkled. Then squeeze the grapes gently; they should be plump and firm. Next, grab the bunch of grapes by the stem and check to see that the stem is vibrant green and bendable. While holding the bunch, shake the bunch slightly. Ripe grapes will be firmly attached to the stem and not fall away.

Pickle juice

Pickle juice is a salty, vinegar-rich liquid with unique flavor notes and accents that result from fermentation. Flavored with spices, fermented pickling brine has a distinctive piquant taste that can perk up bland chicken salad in three distinct ways. The first benefit of adding pickle juice to your chicken salad is moisture (pretty obvious, we know). The second is the addition of another layer of flavor that's complex and far superior to other types of acids, like lemon juice, which can be overly tart and tangy. The third benefit of pickle juice in chicken salad stems from its acidity. Because of its low pH, pickle juice tenderizes the chicken in the salad, making it even more succulent.

If you enjoy the twang of pickle juice in chicken salad, try using it in salad dressings, meat brines, sauces, deviled eggs, and marinades. Once you start using pickle juice in the kitchen, you may find yourself running out of it before you finish eating all the pickles.

Pro tip: No two pickle brines are the same, and flavors will depend on the types of herbs or pickling spices used. Try out different brines to find the one that pleases your palette.

Rotisserie chicken

Store-bought rotisserie chickens are inexpensive, convenient, and ready to eat. And you know what else they are? Delicious. Rotisserie chickens are generously seasoned, then cooked on a long skewer (called a spit), which rotates the birds in a hot oven until all sides are evenly cooked. Because they are cooked with their bones and skins intact, rotisserie chickens are super flavorful and juicy. 

To prep a rotisserie chicken for chicken salad, remove the meat from the bones and tear away the skin. Chop the meat into small bite-sized pieces, then mix them into the mayonnaise dressing. Be bold and use the dark meat, too. That's some of the most tender, flavorful meat of a chicken.

Alternatively, you could roast a whole chicken at home. If you do, take a few minutes to make some flavored butter to smear on the chicken before cooking. It takes just minutes to whip up a batch of herb butter that will add tremendous flavor to the chicken as it cooks. Mash soft, salted butter in a bowl with your choice of finely chopped herbs until well combined, then spread it under — and over — the skin of the chicken before roasting.

Hot sauce

Here's a simple way to inject some seriously bold flavor into basic chicken salad: hot sauce. This spicy condiment, typically made from a base of vinegar and peppers, is a popular sauce for chicken wings and tacos. But we've found that hot sauce also makes a mouthwatering addition to chicken salad by adding moisture and a hot kick.

The intensity of flavor and heat will depend on the amount and type of hot sauce used. Your safest bet is to choose your favorite store-bought hot sauce and add it to the wet ingredients of your chicken salad a little at a time. Taste the salad after each addition, keeping in mind that the chicken will absorb some of the flavor and heat. You could also add more heat by splashing hot sauce directly on top of the chicken salad before serving.

While there are many hot sauces to choose from, some of our favorites include Frank's RedHot, Sriracha, Cholula, and Louisiana. Each has its own flavor and spice levels, so take the time to try some out and choose the one that suits your tastes.

Brown sugar

We've shared numerous savory additions that can help boost the flavor of chicken salad. So we thought we'd mix it up and mention a sweet ingredient to elevate your next batch of chicken salad. You may relate brown sugar more to baking, but as it turns out, this soft blend of white sugar and molasses can be the key to a tasty chicken salad.

When you add brown sugar to chicken salad, it tones down any overly tangy, salty, or sour flavors in the dish. Regarding how much brown sugar to add, the answer is to let your palette guide you. Start with a small amount and check to see how the overall flavor profile of the salad changes. Remember that you're trying to make a chicken salad with balanced flavors of sweet and savory — not a sweet chicken salad.

Pro tip: If your salad includes other sweet ingredients like grapes and raisins, you may want to add brown sugar conservatively.


Sometimes all your chicken salad needs is a little crunch — nuts are the perfect ingredient to deliver it. The texture of nuts makes every bite interesting, keeping you coming back for more. Use your preferred snacking nut or a mix of your favorites. Some of our top choices include walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. Or, get a little adventurous in your kitchen and try some more obscure, underrated nuts, like Brazil and pine nuts.

Whichever nuts you choose, toast them before adding them to your chicken salad. When heated, nuts develop a darker color and richer, pronounced flavor, unlike raw nuts, which can be bitter, tasteless, and chewy.

When you add nuts to chicken salad, you also increase the dish's nutritional benefits. Nuts like pecans and walnuts have healthy fats that lower cholesterol in the blood, reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Nuts also contain numerous minerals and nutrients that help reduce inflammation in our bodies.

Static Media owns and operates Mashed and Daily Meal.