14 Ways To Improve Vegan Chicken Salad

There's a new wave of veganism here in the United States, which has provoked inspiration for culinary mastery transforming everyday vegetables into mouth-watering main courses. A simple chickpea, for instance, can be anything from a salad topping to the base of a veggie burger. A grilled mushroom can become a steak, and even a banana peel can transform into barbecue pulled pork. A dish as simple as a chicken salad has endless vegan variations to satisfy any palate. If you find vegan food to be boring and restrictive, then we can assure you that you're not doing it right. Load up on spices and herbs, vary textures and flavors, and don't be afraid to experiment. For those who are new to the game, here are some top ways to improve a classic like vegan chicken salad so you'll enjoy it just as much as the real thing.

Like a regular chicken salad, there are plenty of variations to choose from, so be sure to select ingredients that make your taste buds sparkle. There are a few important components to be aware of, like choosing the chewy base, the creamy binder, crunchy veggies, and the added flavorings. It's time to put your apron on, grab a bunch of plant-based ingredients, and get cooking.

Use chickpeas

For a basic vegan chicken salad, you will most likely come across recipes featuring the chickpea, also known as a garbanzo bean. This makes for an incredible base for both a vegan tuna or chickpea salad because the flavor is rather mellow. In addition, mashed chickpeas are just chunky enough to resemble a finely ground chicken salad, and the color is spot on to a cooked chicken breast.

Start by mashing the chickpeas with a fork. You can also use a food processor, but be sure not to over-blend. You'll want to mash the beans enough so that they're broken down, but not so much so that the mixture resembles hummus. Chunks are good, so some full halves and quarters should be enough to add texture. Do this before adding any other ingredients, and then when you're ready, gently fold in your sauce, and then vegetables. This variation on the vegan chicken salad is quite popular because of its accessible and recognizable base ingredient, as well as the health benefits that chickpeas provide.

Make it with steamed tempeh

Tempeh is tofu's less-processed cousin, made from fermented soybeans. It's crumbly, chewy, and stiffer than tofu, but also more flavorful. This fermented soybean is a staple in Indonesian cuisine and is even considered a superfood in the United States. For those who've never tried tempeh and may have never even attempted its pronunciation, it may seem a bit intimidating to cook with. But in the end, it's no more difficult than any other meat or vegetable product. The key to making tempeh is to steam it first, which removes any bitterness.

When using tempeh as a base for chicken salad, consider pulsing it in a food processor like you would for chicken. This will help break up the beans and allow them to reach the consistency you're used to. Pulse it just a few times, as you don't want it to become a paste. It's also important to leave some chewy bits in the mix. At this point, you can begin to stir in the rest of your ingredients.

Experiment with soy curls

Not sure what soy curls are or how to cook with them? If so, you're not alone. Although not as common as tofu or tempeh, soy curls probably hold the most similar texture to chicken of any soy product on the market. They're simply made from dehydrated, defatted soybeans, and they even have the appearance of chicken strips. They're sold dried, so they must be rehydrated for consumption. Rehydrate soy curls with water, veggie broth, or any flavored water you think might resemble chicken. There are a few spice mixes out there that claim to have a chicken flavor, which could help to infuse your curls with that meaty, poultry-like familiarity.

Once the soy curls are rehydrated, squeeze them out to remove any excess liquid. At this point, they will entirely resemble chicken and can be processed as such. Consider adding them to a food processor and pulsing them until the bits are broken up. If you prefer a finer chop, continue to pulse the curls. Then add your sauce and mix until combined before including any other chopped vegetables or herbs.

Currently, soy curls are produced by Butler Foods and can be difficult to find if you test your luck at basic grocery stores. If they aren't carried at your local markets or specialty markets, try co-ops. When in doubt, order soy curls online. You can find them on vegan online marketplaces, as well as Amazon.

Choose the right vegan mayo

As vegan products become all the rage, businesses are battling to make the very best vegan versions of meat and dairy foods for eager consumers. Some have succeeded in making some pretty close replicas, while others have flopped hard, leaving people wondering if vegan food is really all that good. Luckily for mayo lovers, vegan mayonnaise isn't that difficult to make and actually tastes pretty close to the real thing. In fact, many people prefer the vegan version, which is essentially traditional aioli made from whipped oil.

Brands like Sir Kensington's and Follow Your Heart make delicious vegan mayonnaise with several variations, but you can also find vegan mayo produced by some of the condiment kings like Hellmann's. Vegan mayo is similar to the real thing but doesn't hold up as well when heated. If you plan on using toasted bread for your vegan chicken salad sandwich, consider letting it cool down slightly before dolloping on plant-based mayonnaise or adding your filling. If you're going to grill your sandwich, just be aware that it might become slightly oily as the vegan mayonnaise begins to melt.

Try cashew cream

While whipped oil makes for delicious vegan mayonnaise, there are healthier and heartier options out there. For instance, if you've never used cashew cream in your cooking, then it's time to get out the old blender. For those who haven't made it before, the process might seem daunting, but it's actually fairly easy if you have the right equipment on hand. Simply soak cashews overnight, or soak them in hot water for about 20 minutes. The goal is to make them soft enough so they split when pressed firmly between two fingers. At this point, they will be much easier to blend. 

For a basic recipe, strain and pour soaked cashews into your high-speed blender and add enough water to cover. Blend until creamy, and then blend again for an additional 30 seconds. You can regulate how thick the mixture is by how much water you add. Remember, you can always add more, but it's difficult to remove moisture, so start light with the liquids.

For an extra flavorful cashew cream that tastes more like mayonnaise, add Dijon mustard, lemon juice, garlic powder, sea salt, black pepper, a hint of sweetener, and a tiny pinch of black salt. Mix your homemade cashew cream mayo in just like you would the real thing, and enjoy a protein-packed, vegan chicken salad without all the added oil.

Stir in tahini

Another great alternative to vegan mayonnaise is tahini. Tahini is simply ground sesame seeds, and there are some pretty darn good store-bought tahini brands out there to choose from. You may have had tahini before in dressings, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean cuisine, or alongside falafel. It's a main ingredient in hummus and baba ganoush, which makes both dips extra creamy and dense. And it can do the same for your vegan chicken salad!

Simply whip your tahini with lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic powder, sea salt, black pepper, a sweetener of your choice, and enough water to reach the consistency you desire. When you first whip tahini with a liquid, you may notice it starts to clump up and separate. Keep whipping and you'll find that it becomes quite creamy and light-colored in the end. Because sesame seeds are high in protein and other important nutrients, tahini is a great option for those looking for a healthier sauce for their vegan chicken salad.

Don't skimp on the Dijon

Whether you're using vegan mayonnaise, making your own from scratch, or opting for an alternative like tahini or cashew cream, there's one ingredient that should never go overlooked. Dijon mustard is made from ground mustard seeds, vinegar, and salt. It has a punchy, tangy, and spicy flavor and has been a popular condiment since before the Middle Ages.

Dijon mustard is a staple for chicken salad, so why leave it out of the vegan version? When trying to recreate a plant-based version of a non-vegan classic, it's important to keep as many of the original vegan ingredients consistent as possible. Be sure to include Dijon in your dressing, whether you opt for a traditional "chicken" salad with celery and pickles, or one loaded with curry and raisins. As an alternative, feel free to use ground Dijon mustard seeds mixed with white wine vinegar to create your own liquid mustard. Enjoy the extra tangy, spicy pop.

Make it refreshing with dill

Fresh herbs are a staple of fine culinary dining but also make appearances in farm-to-table favorites. For those who own an herb garden, it's hard to enjoy a meal without those tender little green leafy pops of flavor sprinkled on fresh or cooked right into the recipe. Vegan chicken salad is no exception. Dill is a fantastic choice because of its citrusy, fresh, grassy undertones and delicate composition. It pairs especially well with vegan chicken salads that include dill pickles or pickle juice. Wash the dill in cold water and dry it before mincing it with a sharp kitchen knife. Fold it in gently as to not damage the herb, and use a sprig for garnish. You can also use pickled dill that's found in jars of homemade and fresh dill pickles.

Parsley is another great option for chicken-less salad. It's slightly more peppery and earthy than dill but has similar citrus undertones. The leaves are larger, so it's important to mince them finely before gently incorporating them into the recipe. Curley parsley is a bit more robust and may hold up better if you're planning on letting your vegan chicken salad sit overnight, or if you prefer a less delicate texture.

Go pickle crazy

Pickles are arguably one of the most important ingredients in chicken salad. Pickle lovers everywhere will agree and may even sneak in a few extra tablespoons of the good stuff. When it comes to choosing which pickles to add, consider a classic dill pickle. You'll want a crunchy variety to add crispness to the salad, so mincing whole pickles may be your best option instead of buying spears or slices. Dill pickle juice can also be used in your dressing to keep things consistent and tangy. If you have the time, consider making your own dill pickle recipe and using the homemade pickles in your vegan chicken salad.

Some opt for bread and butter pickles, which are quite a bit sweeter. This southern version is popular but produces an overall different flavor. If you take this route, we recommend opting out of your sweetener when making the dressing, but if you have a sweet tooth, then by all means, keep the sugar coming.

Consider adding other pickled vegetables to your vegan chicken salad, like minced pickled carrots or jalapeños. Even pickled beets can add an element of sweetness and a little flair of color. Marinated vegetables like olives and capers can add texture and a pop of salty flavoring as well.

Sweeten it with grapes or raisins

There's a wide variety of chicken salads out there. Every home cook claims that their version is the absolute best, but variety is the spice of life, so why not try them all? Yes, there are a few basic components that should remain the same to achieve that classic taste, but there are also some additions that can really make your vegan chicken salad unique. A sweet addition like raisins can help to break up the texture of chicken salad, while also adding a variety of flavors. Especially for a vegan version of chicken salad, which might have a softer texture than the meat version, a little chewiness can go a long way. Even Craisins, sunflower seeds, or chopped walnuts can elevate the recipe.

During summertime, it's nice to take advantage of fresh produce. Consider adding halved red grapes to your vegan chicken salad. This is a great option, especially if you plan on enjoying the salad the day you make it, as grapes can become mushy if cut and left for too long.

Throw in crunchy celery

Perhaps the best way to get a crispy crunch into your vegan chicken salad is by adding diced celery. Celery is just about the crunchiest vegetable around and can be cut in different ways to produce different textures and mouthfeels. Even minced, celery remains crunchy, so the size in which you cut it is entirely up to you. Some opt to slice the ribs into small "U" shapes, while others prefer to dice them into little uniform squares. The more you enjoy the flavor and texture of celery, the bigger you can chop it.

Because both chicken and vegan chicken salad are rather dense, it's nice to have a little break from all the fatty creaminess. Celery has a mild, salty, refreshing, grassy flavor that pairs perfectly with any ingredients you decide to add to your recipe. In addition, celery seed makes a flavorful spice addition. If you choose to use celery salt, be aware that it is loaded with sodium, so you should consider excluding additional salt from the dressing when you make it.

Include an acid

When choosing an acid to add to your vegan chicken salad dressing, there are plenty of options. Acid should be added to almost any dish you make in order to create a balanced mouthfeel. Often, acids are overlooked, leaving food bland and folks wondering what's missing. While Dijon mustard does have vinegar in it, a little extra splash of acid can do a lot for your recipe. Consider adding a classic like lemon juice. This pairs beautifully with any base of your choosing, and any dressing including that with a base of vegan mayo, tahini, or cashew cream.

Leftover pickle juice is another option that is sure to win. Not only are you using up an ingredient that might otherwise go to waste, but it's jam-packed with additional flavorings like dill and garlic. Be aware that pickle juice can be quite salty, so you may have to adapt your sauce recipe. Apple cider vinegar has a slightly sweet flavor and undertones of fruit. It incorporates well into vegan chicken salad, especially one with added fruit like grapes or raisins.

Balance it with a sweetener

Every sauce deserves an acid, something salty, a fatty element, and a sweetener. Even if you're creating a savory sauce, it's important to add a little element of sweetness so it tastes complete. There are no exceptions when it comes to chicken salad dressing, or vegan chicken salad dressing for that matter. Because the sauce is vegan, it's important to stay away from honey, which is not considered ethically vegan but is consumed by some folks on a plant-based diet.

Instead, opt for a sweeter like organic white sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, or agave. If you're trying to consume mostly whole foods then date sugar or date syrup are your best options. Note that non-organic white sugar produced in the United States isn't necessarily vegan, as it's often purified with bone char, so it's important to look into sweeteners for cooking that aren't sugar if you can't get your hands on the organic stuff. Don't go overboard with the sugar; just a small amount will help to balance the acids and give your recipe that complete flavor.

Black salt will give it an eggy flavor

It's no secret that eggs have a very distinct sulfur flavoring to them. Traditional mayonnaise carries subtle notes of that flavor. Although it doesn't sound terribly desirable as is, that eggy flavor holds quite a bit of power, and may actually be missed in a vegan version of a dish. Luckily, there is one ingredient that will change your vegan recipes forever, and that's black salt. It has sulfur-like undertones that become apparent the second you unscrew the jar and release the aroma into the air. Be sure to warn any kitchen mates when you're cooking with black salt!

Because the flavor and aroma are so intense, a little pinch of black salt will go a long way. The salt itself often isn't actually black, but pink, and it's harvested from Himalayan volcanic caves in areas like India and Pakistan.

Add a pinch to your egg-free mayonnaise and keep some on hand for your tofu scramble. Any vegan version of a dish that originally contains eggs like French toast or hollandaise sauce can benefit greatly from black salt.