Two (Easy) Ways to Make Savory Chicken Salad

Chicken salad sandwich on whole wheat bread
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I can't tell you how often I find myself going about my business in the kitchen, not really thinking about what I'm doing, my hands working unconsciously, from memory or by instinct, when suddenly I think: I should be writing this down.

This exact thing happened today when I was making (drumroll) chicken salad.

There's a couple of ways I make chicken salad. Sometimes I make it intentionally, in which case I poach a couple of chicken breasts specifically for chicken salad.

Poached chicken breasts make lovely chicken salad, and you can dice the meat up nicely.

Other times it's a way of using leftovers, usually from a roasted chicken. In this case it's a matter of pulling the meat off the carcass, which is good fun, though it can be difficult to resist eating half of what you pull off the carcass.

The leftovers technique obviously means that you are limited by how much meat is actually left over, which will vary. But if you have half a chicken left over, and your chicken was originally 5 pounds, you probably have about 1½ to 1¾ pounds of meat. Which is plenty. My standard chicken salad recipe calls for a pound of chicken meat.

In addition to different sources of meat (poached breast vs leftover chicken), there are also two different styles of chicken salad I like to make. For sandwiches, I like to use a mayonnaise-based dressing, but for a plated salad I prefer a vinaigrette.

The advantage here is that for anyone who has an aversion to mayonnaise-based chicken salad, even for sandwiches, you can use the vinaigrette formula. And vice-versa.

Both recipes call for a few tablespoons of stock for the dressing. What that really means is that if you're poaching your chicken, set aside some of your poaching liquid.

(As a matter of fact, save all of your poaching liquid. It's loaded with rich chicken flavor.)

If you've roasted your chicken, your job is a bit more involved, but also more rewarding. Drain off any pan drippings and reserve them. Deglaze your roasting pan and add it to your drippings. Skim the fat off the top and then reduce down to 3–4 tablespoons. It'll be intense with roasty chicken flavor.

Now, keep in mind that as a general rule, a plated salad looks nicer with more uniform pieces of chicken. And that's what you'll get if you poach your chicken breasts. If you're using leftover meat plucked off the carcass, the pieces will be more irregular and thus potentially better suited for a sandwich, since you're not going to see the pieces.

Remember also that you can slice the breasts into strips, but the tradeoff is that with larger pieces, you have less overall surface area for the dressing to adhere to. And with breast meat, which tends to be dry, this might not be ideal. It's true that poaching chicken breasts doesn't dry them out as much as grilling or roasting, but the breasts are naturally lean which means less overall moisture. So you take your choice. In general, I find that a nice uniform dice is fine.

Speaking of drying out, you can also poach a whole chicken, or slow-cook a chicken in a heavy-lidded Dutch oven or a crockpot. Either of these techniques will give you a moister chicken than roasting it. I'm just saying. I know at the beginning I talked about using the leftovers from a roasted chicken. But there are other ways of cooking a chicken. I'll leave it at that.

All right, to begin with, you're going to try to get all the meat off your chicken. That means from the breast area, from the thigh and back, around and between the wings, from the wishbone, everywhere. And most likely you're going to wind up with a mix of light and dark meat, which is also an advantage of this technique. This happens to work well if you're planning to make sandwiches rather than a plated salad, because the dark meat is not always the most presentable.

And this should go without saying, but once you have stripped it of every last bit of meat, save the carcass! It will make a rich, heavenly chicken stock. You can even wrap it up in foil, then seal it in a ziploc bag and freeze it. 

Here Are The Recipes

Here are the two recipes. Remember, each one can be made using either leftover or freshly cooked chicken, so instead of merely two recipes, you have four. This isn't just a clever word trick. Each method will produce a slightly different result. As I said above, leftovers might work better for a sandwich.

(Turkey will work equally well in the recipes below.)

The first version is held together with a simple raspberry vinaigrette. You can use fresh or frozen raspberries (although for the garnish, stick with fresh).

In a large glass mixing bowl, combine 1 pound of diced cooked chicken meat with:

  • 3 Tbsp chicken stock (see above)
  • 3 Tbsp raspberry vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp pureed raspberries
  • 1/4 cup salad oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 tsp sugar

Mix thoroughly and marinate in the fridge for 45 minutes. Then drain and serve on plates on a bed of crisp, cold Bibb lettuce. Garnish with fresh mint leaves and raspberries. (Makes four servings)

The second recipe is mayonnaise-based rather than vinaigrette. 

In a large glass mixing bowl, combine 1 pound of diced cooked chicken meat with:

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup mustard
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 Tbsp chopped cucumber
  • 2 Tbsp chopped red bell pepper
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Serve on beds of crisp, cold lettuce, or in sandwiches (makes four servings).

Also see: The Best Way to Store Lettuce to Keep it Fresh and Crisp