As with baseball, martini specs, and politics, people tend to have very strong opinions about chicken salad. In the South, nearly everyone has their version of “the best chicken salad” that almost always comes from a mother or grandmother. Heated debates over additions and mix-ins like fruit and nuts are commonplace. Screaming matches over the correct brand of mayonnaise happen more than you think. (Spoiler alert: the correct answer is Duke’s.)
The way we see it, there are two very distinct groups; traditional and modern. For the traditionalists among us, chicken salad is just chicken, mayonnaise, celery, spices, and seasonings. That’s it. Others enjoy having grapes or apples and walnuts or pecans in their chicken salad and that’s fine. We aren’t here to pass judgment. We’re here to give you the best-tasting chicken salad recipes we can find, from traditional and simple to more modern versions.
Before we get to the recipes, let’s take a look at what’s in a traditional chicken salad:
- Chicken (obviously): Poached, grilled, or roasted. Sometimes diced small and sometimes in larger chunks.
- Mayonnaise: If you aren’t using homemade mayo, Duke’s is the next best thing.
- Celery: Mainly for texture and crunch, diced celery is an essential component.
- Onions: Some recipes include onions and some don’t. Use scallions or shallots for less pronounced flavor.
- Spices & seasonings: salt, black pepper, dill, parsley, tarragon, paprika, and Old Bay are all commonly used.
1. Southern Living’s Classic Chicken Salad
If you were ever looking for the ideal version of chicken salad (that’s why you’re here, after all,) always go with one made by Southerners. Southern Living’s version hits all the right marks for the quintessential lunchtime option.
Their method of poaching the chicken in seasoned broth instead of water is a great way to add more flavor to the cooked chicken. Also, by simply boiling the meat for 15 minutes and letting the bird rest and cool in the warm broth, it ensures the meat will be incredibly tender.
This recipe is as simple as it gets, with a dressing of Duke’s mayo and lemon juice, chopped celery, and seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. Using this recipe as a base, it’s very easy to add other components like chopped bacon, dill, or other vegetables to make it your own.
Total: 1 hr 40 mins
Active: 15 mins
Yield: Serves 4-6
- Place chicken breasts in a large Dutch oven, then pour chicken broth over them and add thyme sprigs. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, and cook, 15 minutes, or until chicken is done and registers 160`F on a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest portion of the breast meat. Remove from heat and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Remove chicken breasts from broth and reserve broth for another use. Broth can be transferred to containers and frozen, if desired. Place chicken breasts on a work surface and remove, then discard skin and bones. Meat will shred easily with fingers, as it should be very tender. You will have 5 -6 cups of shredded chicken.
- In a medium bowl, combine celery, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and mayonnaise; stir to blend. Add shredded chicken to the bowl and fold it into the mayonnaise mixture. Refrigerate covered, until chilled, and then serve as desired.
2. Chicken Salad Contessa
Ina Garten, our queen of the “ladies who lunch” income bracket, has one of the most beloved chicken salad recipes out there. Evident by its 4.5 stars on the Food Network website, this recipe exploded during quarantine and continues to be a best-seller at Ina’s gourmet shop in the Hamptons.
Her choice to roast the chicken instead of poaching is also a personal favorite. Here at The Manual, we always talk about “layering of flavor” when it comes to cooking and choosing to roast (or grill) your chicken is an obvious good choice. The flavor of roasted chicken can add an entirely new depth of flavor to your chicken salad.
Splitting the dressing between mayonnaise and sour cream helps to lighten the dish and the grapes and roasted nuts add a subtle sweetness to the finished salad. Using fresh tarragon, mixed in at the end and sprinkled on top, add a beautiful, fresh note of anise that really does round the whole dish out in such a great way.
Yield: Serves 2
- 2 split (1 whole) chicken breasts, bone in, skin on (1 1/2 pounds)
- Good olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup pecan halves
- 1/2 cup walnuts halves
- 1/2 cup good mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves, divided
- 1 cup green grapes, cut in 1/2
- Lettuce leaves, for serving
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Place the chicken breasts, skin side up, on a baking sheet and rub them with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Set aside until cool.
- When the chicken is cool, remove meat from the bones and discard the skin and bones. Cut the chicken into 3/4-inch diced pieces.
- Meanwhile, place the pecans and walnuts on a separate sheet pan and toast in the oven for 7 to 8 minutes until golden. Set aside to cool.
- For the dressing, mix together the mayonnaise, sour cream, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Fold in half the chopped tarragon leaves.
- Place the diced chicken in a bowl, then add the pecans, walnuts, and grapes. Pour the dressing over the chicken and toss well. Sprinkle the remaining chopped tarragon leaves on top.
3. The Pioneer Woman
Whew, boy. This recipe from The Pioneer Woman is extra. A whole poached chicken, a dressing of mayo, yogurt, lemon juice, and brown sugar (!) along with grapes, nuts, onions, and celery. On first glance of the recipe, we were a little skeptical. But we were actually pleasantly surprised by this one. Sweet, savory, sour, crunchy, creamy, and full of herbs, this chicken salad hits pretty much every mark you could ask for.
Yield: Serves 6
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 1 hr
Total Time: 1 hr 20 mins
- 1 whole cut-up fryer chicken
- 2 stalks (to 3 stalks) celery, chopped
- 3 whole green onions, chopped
- 2 cups (to 3 cups) grapes, halved
- 1/2 cups mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup plain yogurt or sour cream
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 tablespoon (to 2 tablespoons) brown sugar
- Kosher salt to taste
- Fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Small handful of fresh dill, minced
- Cayenne pepper, to taste
- 1/2 cup slivered almonds
- Rinse chicken thoroughly and place in a large pot of water. Turn on the heat and bring it to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer until the chicken is done (about 45 minutes to an hour). When you are ready, remove the chicken from the pot and place it on a plate. With your fingers or a fork, pull all of the meat off the bones, chop it into bite-sized chunks, and then set them aside.
- Chop all of your fruits and veggies and place them in a bowl with the chicken.
- In another bowl mix mayonnaise, yogurt (or sour cream), lemon juice, brown sugar, and salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the dill (or oregano or cilantro…whatever makes your skirt fly up) and if you’re feeling a bit brazen throw in a dash of cayenne pepper!
- When the dressing tastes just right (you must taste test for appropriate saltiness especially), pour it over the chicken/veggie/fruit mixture and stir gently until everything is thoroughly mixed. Stir in the almonds. If you are feeling naughty, add a sprinkling of bacon bits.
- Allow the salad to chill for several hours (or even overnight). Serve on a bed of lettuce or in a sandwich or heck, eat it straight out of the bowl with a serving spoon. Try it soon — you’ll love it!
4. Feta Chicken Salad
This recipe from All Recipes is definitely not traditional but that’s exactly why we like it. Still relatively simple but with the addition of a few non-traditional ingredients like feta cheese and bell pepper, this chicken salad makes for a perfect addition to a summertime backyard grill-out.
The feta cheese adds a very refreshing tang alongside the creamy mayo-based dressing and is something we haven’t seen in a chicken salad before but it is absolutely a welcome addition. Fresh celery and bell pepper add the right amount of crunchy texture and a hefty pinch of dill adds a sweet, herbal note at the end.
Total: 20 mins
Prep: 20 mins
Yield: Serves 4
- Mix chicken, celery, and red onion together in a serving bowl.
- Stir mayonnaise, sour cream, feta cheese, and dill together in a separate bowl. Pour over the chicken mixture, and stir to blend. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.
- Serve immediately, or refrigerate until serving.
5. Southern-Style Chicken Salad
If this chicken salad recipe could talk, it would say “bless your heart” with the kindest, most Southern accent possible. What sets apart a “Southern-style” chicken salad from any others is usually the addition of hard-boiled eggs and relish. Combined with a heavy hand of Duke’s mayonnaise, celery, and a lot of seasonings and spices, this OG chicken salad will not disappoint.
Prep Time: 20 mins
Cook Time: 25 mins
Total Time: 45 mins
- 1 1/2 pounds of chicken breast
- 1-2 teaspoons olive oil (for brushing chicken)
- 1 tablespoon Old Bay seafood seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/4 teaspoon celery salt
- 1/2 cup celery (finely diced)
- 1/2 cup onions (finely diced)
- 5 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- 2 tablespoons sweet relish
- 1/4 teaspoon dill weed
- 3/4 cup Duke’s mayonnaise (may need more or less)
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- Fresh cracked black pepper (a sprinkling)
- Salt, pepper, plus extra seasonings, if desired (see notes)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a pan with aluminum foil. Set aside.
- Brush the chicken very lightly with a little olive oil.
- To season the chicken, mix together Old Bay Seasoning, garlic powder, onion powder, and celery salt.
- Sprinkle chicken generously with seasoning on top and bottom.
- Place chicken on prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes. (You may need more or less time depending on the thickness of your chicken)
- Once the chicken is done, let it cool and then dice it up into small chunks and place it in a large bowl.
- Add diced celery, diced onions, diced eggs, sweet relish, and dill weed to the large bowl. Stir to combine.
- Next, stir in the mayonnaise a little at a time until your desired creaminess is reached.
- Stir in parsley and black pepper
- Taste and adjust the seasonings if needed. (see note)
- Cover and refrigerate until chilled. (about 1 hour)
- Stir before serving. Serve with crackers or on buttered croissants.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking. (Use garlic powder, onion powder, seasoning salt, black pepper, dill weed, and a sprinkling of paprika, if desired)
- Want to add other add-ins? Try grapes, dried cranberries, apples, or walnuts.
A lunchtime staple in the South for generations, chicken salad is a go-to dish to utilize leftover chicken from the night before. The ideal chicken salad marries the creaminess of the dressing, the tender chicken, the must-have textural crunch of fresh celery, and a spice element that can range from simple salt and pepper to curry or Old Bay. The cooking method for the chicken can also be varied between grilling, roasting, or poaching. Chicken salad really is a dish where you can let your imagination run wild.
Delicious on a sandwich, as a dip with Saltines, on top of your favorite garden salad, or eaten with a spoon out of the container standing in front of your open refrigerator, chicken salad is the perfect snack to keep in your fridge. Thought of as a summertime dish when the weather is hot, a chicken salad sandwich is a refreshing meal for any season or time of day.
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