How to Make the Best Chicken Salad
Chicken salad recipes are a summertime staple—and for good reason. Chicken salad recipes are versatile, and can be jazzed up to make adventurous versions like Thai Peanut Chicken Salad and Jalapeno Chicken Salad. Here we share with you all of the recipes we’ve created, and the tips and know-how you’ll need to prepare them.
Here’s information about whether you should rinse your chicken before you use it, how much meat you’ll get from roasted chicken (and how to break one down), and the test kitchen’s two favorite methods for cooking the chicken in our chicken salad recipes.
Should You Rinse Chicken Before You Use It?
Is it necessary to rinse chicken before you use it?
Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration advise against washing poultry. According to their research, while rinsing may remove some bacteria, the only way to ensure that all bacteria are killed is through proper cooking. Moreover, splashing bacteria around the sink can be dangerous, especially if water lands on food that is ready to be served. All the same, some people will argue that chicken should be rinsed for flavor—not safety—reasons. After sitting in its own blood and juices for days, they argue, chicken should be unwrapped and refreshed under running water. To find out if rinsing had any impact on flavor, we roasted four chickens—two rinsed, two unrinsed—and held a blind tasting. Tasters couldn't tell the difference. Our conclusion? Skip the rinsing.
Amount of Cooked Meat from Roasted Chicken
Here's how much meat you can expect to get from whole roasted chickens.
We roasted 3-, 4-, and 5-pound chickens and then picked them clean to find out how much meat we could get per pound. The birds averaged about 1 cup of cooked picked chicken per pound of raw chicken (the 3-pound raw chicken yielded about 3 cups cooked chicken), and the proportion of white meat to dark was about 2 to 1. If you're purchasing a cooked chicken from the market, remember that chickens lose about 25 percent of their weight when cooked, so plan on a 2 1/2-pound cooked chicken for 3 cups picked meat.
How to Cook Chicken for Chicken Salad: Our Two Favorite Methods
Even after the skin and bones are removed, the meat tastes roasted, and the resulting chicken salad is always superb. We’ve also determined that if you’re short on time, substituting a supermarket rotisserie chicken works just fine.
Sautéed boneless, skinless chicken breasts turn out every bit as tasty as roasted chicken—and require just a few minutes of cooking time. We get the best results when we leave ½ an inch of space between each breast.
Breaking Down a Chicken, Making Parts
It may seem intimidating, but carving a whole roasted chicken isn't difficult. Here are the step-by-step tips you'll need to make this task effortless every time.
Cut where the leg meets the breast, then pull the leg away. Separate the joint by pressing the leg out and pushing up on the join, then cut through the joint.
Cut through the joint that connects the drumstick to the thigh. Repeat on the second side to remove the other leg.
Cut down along one side of the breastbone, pulling the breast meat away from the bone as you cut.
Remove the wing from the breast by cutting through the wing joint. Slice the breast into attractive slices.
Essential Chicken Salad Equipment
The foundation of a great chicken salad recipe is perfectly cooked chicken, and the only reliable method of checking a chicken for doneness is by temping it with an instant-read thermometer. There are two types of instant-read thermometers: dial face and digital. Both models are accurate, but we found the digital models to be quicker to register and easier to read.
Most chicken salad recipes require cutting up chicken and vegetables, and mincing fresh herbs. A chef’s knife makes quick work of these tasks, helping you to get your chicken salad to the table (or picnic) quicker. But some knives will make this easier than others. We recommend looking for an 8-inch chef’s knife made from high-carbon stainless steel, which will hold an edge well and have enough chopping power without becoming unwieldy.
If you make a large batch of chicken salad and have leftovers, you’ll need a good plastic food storage container to keep the chicken salad fresh. After testing eight BPA-free products, we found many containers failed to seal properly, absorbed odors, or succumbed to abuse testing. Fortunately, we did find one that performed well before taking more than 50 trips to the dishwasher—and performed perfectly afterward.
A rubber spatula is our tool of choice when it comes to preparing our chicken salad recipes. It scrapes the bottom of the bowl and ensures there are no remaining pockets of mayonnaise or spices—or the good ones do, at least. After creating dozens of chicken salad recipes, we’ve formed a list of requirements for our rubber spatula: The head must be soft and flexible (but still stiff) and the edge of the head has to be flat, fairly rigid, and squared off. The edge of the tip and sides also have to be thin enough to maneuver into hard-to-reach corners and rounded bowls.
Buying a good cutting board starts with choosing the right material. Until recently, only two good options were available—wood and plastic—but now there are new composites and even eco-friendly boards made from bamboo. If you're willing to wash by hand and do occasional maintenance to keep your board in peak form, we preferred boards made of bamboo and maple. But we had two other preferences for those who rely on their dishwasher to do the cleaning.
Key Chicken Salad Ingredients
Good chicken salad starts with good chicken. But picking out a quality chicken at the supermarket is a guessing game. We found that genetic and environmental factors mattered very little when it came to flavor or texture. The biggest factor in flavor turned out to be salt.
While you can buy dozens of different varieties of salt, we stock the test kitchen with two: fine-grained table salt and coarse-grained kosher salt. For everyday cooking and baking, we use table salt, which dissolves easily and is inexpensive. We save kosher for seasoning dishes just before we eat them. But if you have one you like to use all the time, we’ve found that 1 teaspoon of table salt equals between 1 ½ and 2 teaspoons of kosher salt.
The difference between a great chicken salad and a so-so chicken salad may depend on what mayonnaise you use. But with so many options, and the recent surge in popularity of preservative-free, unsweetened, and “healthier” mayos, how do you choose? Let us help you narrow it down: We found two brands that our panel decided tasted like “what mayonnaise should taste like.”
Replacing your pepper shaker with a good pepper mill is one of the simplest ways to improve your cooking. Beyond its heat and sharp bite, black pepper enhances our ability to taste food and allows us to experience flavors more fully. But this effect only comes from freshly ground pepper. Once the hard, black shell of the peppercorn is cracked open, its aroma immediately starts to fade, and most of its flavor and scent disappear within a half hour.
The Best Chicken Salad Recipes
Traditional Cobb salads come together quickly with an easy vinaigrette and flavorful ingredients. Why not use these same components in a chicken salad recipe? We used the same ingredients, but swapped the lettuce for sautéed boneless, skinless chicken breasts to create a hearty version of one of our favorite green salads.
Mayonnaise is an important ingredient in chicken salad recipes, but too much of it can weigh the salad down. To avoid this, we replaced some of the mayo with a more flavorful creamy ingredient: peanut butter.
There’s nothing new about curried chicken salad, but our version takes this classic to a different level by including additional spices and ingredients like cumin and coriander.
When combined with the big flavors of cilantro, cheddar cheese, and hot sauce and wrapped in crisp tortillas, store-bought rotisserie chicken can be used to create a fast and flavorful chicken salad recipe.
Crisp vegetables, potent flavors, and some clever use of leftovers make for a simple summer salad in our Teriyaki Chicken Salad recipe. Using leftover Grilled Chicken Teriyaki gave us a headstart on a flavorful sauce, and some fresh lime juice and ginger enlivened the sauce with tartness and a bit of heat.
Chicken salad recipes are the perfect way to use up leftover cooked chicken, but it’s just as easy to roast some when you need it. For those occasions, we recommend this roasting method, which produces juicy chicken that makes great chicken salad.
This chicken salad recipe is a real showstopper thanks to its balanced flavors and simple preparation. A unique ingredient—pickled jalapenos—add a bright, spicy flavor and crunchy texture to the salad.
Waldorf salad is a classic combination of apples, celery, raisins, and nuts—the addition of chicken turns it into a main course chicken salad. The crunchy texture and slightly bitter flavor of walnuts is an integral part of our Waldorf chicken salad. For the best flavor, the nuts should be toasted in a skillet over medium heat.
To us, a jar of mayonnaise and some boiled chicken does not a chicken salad make. Sure, some recipes may throw in a rib of celery here or a hard-boiled egg there, but the result is always the same: a sloppy, stodgy mess. For our Buffalo and Blue Cheese Chicken Salad, we lessened the mayo and bumped up the seasonings with a creative spin.
With so many ways to kick up the flavor of chicken salad, why do recipes still produce a sloppy, heavy mess of mayo and underseasoned chicken? We found that using lemon juice lightened the texture of our dressing, resulting in a creatively flavored chicken salad that was worlds better than its deli case counterparts.