12 Tips You Need To Make The Best Chicken Salad

Cold, creamy, satisfying chicken salad is a classic deli staple and easy addition to a garden salad to boost protein. It's a great way to use up leftovers, but it's also good enough to roast a bird for the express purpose of making a large batch all on its own. Chicken salad is versatile and endlessly customizable. Whether you like a traditional recipe or want something more complex, like Ina Garten's dressed-up Waldorf salad, it's hard to go wrong with chicken salad.

While chicken salad seems like a simple dish (after all, at its heart, all you need is chicken and mayonnaise), you can take many easy steps to elevate your sandwich. Turning a basic mixture into a lunch that really shines doesn't take much. Experimenting with different additions and preparation methods will ensure that you'll never be stuck with a blah sandwich again.

Marinate your chicken before cooking it

If you're familiar with cooking chicken, you know that marinating the meat is an important step in cooking. Marinating the meat not only adds flavor throughout the whole piece of chicken but it keeps the meat tender and moist during the cooking process. Before roasting your chicken, you want to make sure that you let it rest in a marinade for at least a couple of hours to make sure it's as flavorful as possible before it hits the heat.

A marinade can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. At its base, all a marinade needs is acid, flavoring, and oil. To that end, you can use bottled Italian salad dressing, a premade marinade mixture, or a blend that you create yourself. The easiest marinade, though, is probably right at your fingertips: pickle juice! Acidic and herby, pickle juice adds a ton of flavor. All you need to do is place your chicken into a Ziploc bag and cover it with pickle juice. Seal the bag tightly and allow it to marinate for at least an hour in your fridge.

Another excellent and easy marinade is one that people who love fried chicken probably already know: buttermilk. Buttermilk is acidic enough to penetrate the meat and adds lots of moisture. Even if you're not frying the chicken, it still adds a delicious, tangy note that will carry through into your chicken salad.

Poach your chicken to keep it tender

How you cook your chicken is just as important as how you flavor it. Normally, chicken is roasted or fried, but if you want the absolute most tender chicken for your salad, you'll want to try a slightly more unconventional cooking method. Poaching chicken ensures that the meat will be succulently juicy and that it will practically fall off the bone. It's a little off the beaten path as far as chicken preparation, but taking the extra time makes a huge difference.

Poaching isn't the first cooking method that comes to mind with chicken. However, the "low and slow" philosophy of poaching results in perfectly tender and juicy meat. The best part of poaching is that you can use a variety of liquids and ingredients to infuse the most flavor into the chicken while it's cooking. Poaching chicken in buttermilk before frying it is a popular technique. Much like marinating, the poaching process seals in all the moisture of the chicken, and it also allows the chicken to be easily shredded afterward for perfect bites of chicken salad.

Break out the appliances for the best shred

Once your chicken is cooked and flavorful, then you'll want to shred it so that it's good and bite-sized for your future sandwiches. There are lots of ways to approach the shredding process, and it really comes down to what equipment you have on hand. You could keep it old school, allow the chicken to cool down from cooking, and shred it by hand, pulling it apart with your finds. Or you could get a little more high-tech.

You can shred your chicken using a stand mixer, which has been a popular kitchen trick for years. All you need to do is drop your still-warm chicken into the bowl of your stand mixer and use the paddle attachment to tear up the chicken into perfect shreds. Similarly, you can use a hand mixer to shred chicken, a technique that blew up on TikTok and is a lifesaver for anyone who doesn't have a bulky stand mixer in their kitchen. Again, you want to ensure your chicken is still warm when you put it in a bowl and use the hand mixer to work the chicken into strands. Warm chicken is easier to pull apart than cold, and it will make the job much easier. If your chicken has already been chilled, you can bust out the big guns and load it into a food processor, letting the powerful motor and blades do the hard work for you.

Make sure the chicken you're using is moist and tender

In a perfect world, all the chicken used for chicken salad would be marinated for a few hours in a tasty mixture and then slowly poached to perfection. But we live in the real world, and sometimes you're just looking to use up leftovers before they need to be tossed out. You might find that the rotisserie chicken that looked so tempting in the store is a lot drier than you thought it would be, and you're just trying to salvage something for dinner.

If you're stuck with dried-out chicken, don't despair. You can rescue dry chicken easily and make it moist enough to make your chicken salad more palatable. All you need to do is shred the chicken and pour a few tablespoons of stock over it while you warm it up. The stock will add enough moisture to revitalize the meat; then, once it cools off, you can coat everything in mayonnaise to make it nice and creamy. Fortunately, chicken salad is the ultimate solution for dry chicken.

Add a pinch of brown sugar for balance

It might sound counterintuitive at first to add the proverbial spoonful of sugar to your chicken salad but trust us. Cultivating good flavors is all about finding balance. Brown sugar in chicken salad creates a rich note of sweet molasses under the tang of mayonnaise and onion, bringing amazing harmony to the dish.

When you hit multiple flavor notes in a single dish, you create depth in the overall taste. The best dishes don't taste like just one thing. You want layers of flavor built up to hit all the satiating centers of your brain. Savory cooked chicken, tangy mayonnaise, bitter celery, and a sweet sprinkle of brown sugar make for a much more complete-tasting meal than if you only struck a single flavor note. You can experiment with different sweet elements as well! Maple syrup or honey has the same richness as brown sugar; you just need a tiny swizzle to bring the salad together. A bit of sweet barbeque sauce added to your mayonnaise can also work a charm to add dimension to your chicken salad.

Use avocado instead of mayo for extra creaminess

Mayonnaise can be a divisive ingredient in a dish. There's something about its flavor and texture that some people just can't get behind. But even if you're not a mayo fan, you can still enjoy chicken salad. Using smashed avocado instead of mayonnaise in your chicken salad is a rich and creamy substitution.

Avocado is naturally high in fat, mimicking the composition of mayonnaise, which is simply an emulsion of eggs, oil, mustard, and vinegar. Mashing avocado until it's almost smooth will give you the perfect base for adding shredded chicken and crunchy vegetables like onions and celery. The mild flavor of avocado will also allow you to season up your chicken salad in any way you would like.

Using avocado is also a fantastic way of adding additional healthy fats and fiber to your diet. They also contain a good amount of potassium, a mineral often underserved in most diets. Its creamy texture and high fiber content will also promote feelings of satiety, meaning your chicken salad sandwich will satisfy you well past lunchtime.

Try yogurt instead of mayo.

Another healthy swap that you often find is to switch out the mayo for either Greek or regular yogurt when you mix up your chicken salad. Greek yogurt has a texture that is almost identical to mayonnaise, and it brings out a similar tangy flavor. Yogurt also is lower in cholesterol than mayo, which makes for a heart-healthy dish.

Greek yogurt is often the more popular choice as a mayonnaise replacement. However, you should also consider using regular yogurt in your chicken salad. While Greek yogurt has a thicker texture, regular yogurt has all the nutritional benefits but with a much lighter mouth feel. That's because Greek yogurt has less liquid content than regular yogurt, meaning it has a bulkier volume and mouthfeel. Both regular and Greek yogurt will give you an extra boost of calcium and protein to your chicken salad.

One caveat with the yogurt substitutions: Be sure your chicken is fully cool before mixing it with the yogurt. Mayonnaise is more tolerant of heat than its dairy-based cousin, and you risk the yogurt breaking and looking curdled if you add it to hot chicken. Once the chicken is chilled, dollop on that creamy goodness.

Curry will give your chicken salad the royal treatment

When someone mentions curried chicken, what do you imagine? The first thought that often comes to mind is a steaming plate of chicken masala on fluffy jasmine rice with a side of pillow naan bread. Curry is a unique blend of many spices that come together to create an intense, well-balanced flavor. And it isn't just for your hot dishes. Curried chicken salad is a dish that's been popular for decades!

The original recipe for coronation chicken is credited to Le Cordon Bleu culinary school founder Constance Spry, who was given the task of crafting a dish that was to be served at a banquet celebrating the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The curry flavor paid homage to the colonial history between England and India. While the recipe has been modified over the years, the basic structure of coronation chicken is still popular seventy years later.

You don't need to follow the original recipe exactly to enjoy this royal treat of a salad. Just mix some curry powder in with the mayonnaise or yogurt you're using as the binder for your chicken. The creaminess of the mayonnaise and the warming flavors of the curry blend is a match made in heaven.

Make sure you add plenty of crunch

There are lots of crunchy additions that can really add textural interest to your chicken salad. Adding fresh vegetables is the easiest way to give your sandwich a toothsome bite, plus it bumps up the fiber and vitamin value of the overall meal to mix in those veggies. The great thing about chicken salad is that it's such a versatile flavor that almost any vegetable can be included!

The usual suspect that you'll find is chopped celery. Fibrous and snappy, it's hard to go wrong with celery, but don't limit yourself to just one option. Red onion, diced small, brings both crunch and a nice sharp flavor to the mix. Cucumbers, leeks, and chives are all attractive options that add both a pop of green color and some subtle flavors. Water chestnuts are a unique option that is extra crunchy and absorbs the flavors of the chicken salad. Diced bell peppers will add a bit of sweetness, but if you want some heat, you can throw in some jalapeƱo, either fresh or pickled. Speaking of pickles, chopping up a few dill pickles is a great way to add the puckery vinegar flavor that makes pickles so irresistible.

Nuts add texture and nutrition to chicken salad

Nuts are one of those powerhouse foods that almost all experts agree should be incorporated into a healthy diet. They contain healthy fats and protein and keep you feeling energized and full throughout the day. Chopping up a handful of nuts to mix into your chicken salad is a great way to boost the nutritional value of the dish as well as add fantastic flavor and texture.

You can incorporate many different nuts into chicken salad, and each brings its flavor profile to the meal. Apple and pecan chicken salad is a delightful sweet take on the classic dish. Walnuts are another popular choice that plays nicely with chicken. However, you can stray off the beaten path with nuts to create your twists and takes on chicken salad. Try chopped pistachios or decadent macadamia nuts to bring a fun new nutty flavor to your sandwich or salad.

Fruits, fresh or dried, add dimension

Nuts aren't the only sweet addition that can really elevate your chicken salad. Either dried or fresh fruit can bring big-time flavor to the table. Depending on what sort of profile you're going for, you can take a lot of different directions when you start adding fruit to the mix. Some are more traditional additions than others, but however you play it, you'll be adding amazing depth of flavor to your chicken salad.

Fresh grapes and apples are often found in chicken salads, and both fruits run the gamut from very sweet to quite tart, depending on which variety you choose. Dried cranberries bring an autumnal vibe and a pleasantly sour zing. Curried chicken salad, with its amazing spiced profile, can be boosted with chopped apricots or even some unsweetened dried coconut.

Don't be afraid to experiment with the fruits that you add, though be aware that if you add overly acidic fruits, like citrus, you might run the risk of the yogurt or mayo looking curdled due to the extra acid.

Allow the flavors to develop overnight

Of all the ingredients that you can add to chicken salad to make it really amazing, though, the best one is time. Once your chicken salad is mixed, cover it and allow it to sit for at least a couple of hours, but ideally overnight. Once it's allowed to chill out in the fridge for a while, the flavors of the chicken, mayo, vegetables, and other additions begin to meld together into a harmonious balance.

Many dishes benefit from an overnight stay in the fridge. The flavors are given a chance to develop naturally when the food can rest. The mayonnaise or yogurt that you use as a binder will have an opportunity to absorb the flavors of the other ingredients. It also allows flavors that might be too strong, like onions and garlic, to mellow out a bit. Patience is a virtue, and the wait is worth it when all the flavors have a chance to come together exactly the way you want.