Chicken salad is a favorite treat in my household. Even though it's a simple recipe with easy to find ingredients, there's still something fancy about it. So while it makes a nice lunch for guests — either in a sandwich or served on a bed of lettuce — I sometimes make up a batch for when it's just me and I need a pick-me-up. This recipe is an old favorite, a real a classic that can easily be adapted to all manner of delicious variations and additions. Perfect for picnics and pot lucks, too!
This recipe has been in my family for quite sometime. The only real change I've made is to substitute plain yogurt for half of the mayo because I like the tanginess and brightness the yogurt brings. The chicken is cubed, which means it has a real presence in the salad as you bite into and chew the larger pieces. You can cut the cubes smaller or even shred the chicken for a more subtle effect.
Part of what makes this recipe classic is that calls for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but you can certainly use bone-on, skin on if you wish. I like to poach the chicken breasts to keep them moist and tender, and adding some aromatics like onions and fresh herbs gives the chicken a little extra flavor. Chicken thighs have also become a popular breast alternative in my household as they tend to have a little more flavor, and these days I often use them over the breasts. This recipe also works really well if you have leftover chicken from a roast.
I prefer using store bought mayonnaise in my chicken salad and Hellman's/Best Foods is the only brand I will let though my kitchen door. But of course you should use the brand you prefer. I have not tried to substitute yogurt for all the mayo (I suspect it will be too tangy and runny), but it's worth a shot if mayo is on your yuck list.
The walnuts are optional, but I really like them for their crunchy texture and slightly bitter taste. Be sure to toast them before adding them to the salad to bring out their nutty flavor and crunch. Other optional additions and variations are listed in the notes, but adding 1/2 of a crisp apple is an especially favorite riff.
Be sure to keep the salad chilled, especially when transporting it to a picnic or party. I usually tuck a few freezer packs around the bowl.
Cover the chicken and optional aromatics with water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let sit for 12 minutes. Check that the center is opaque and registers 165°F - return to the water for another 5 minutes if it does not.
How To Make Classic, Creamy Chicken Salad
Makes about 5 cups to serve 5 to 6 people
What You Need
For the chicken: 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or thighs)
Optional aromatics: 1/2 red onion, sliced in half, 1 whole garlic clove, a few sprigs of fresh thyme
For the salad: 3/4 cup of sliced green onion
3/4 cup of small chopped celery
1/4 cup fine chopped parsley
1/2 cup of mayonnaise
1/2 cup of plain yogurt
3/4 cup of toasted walnuts, optional
Salt and pepper
Equipment 2- or 3-quart sauce pan
Knife and cutting boards
Spoon for stirring
Poach chicken breasts. Fill a 2- to 3-quart sauce pan full of water. Add the chicken breasts and optional aromatics. Bring to a full boil and then turn off the heat and cover the pot. After 12 minutes, remove one of the breasts and cut into the thickest part to check for doneness. If there is any pink, return to the pot for another 5 minutes. The breasts are done when they are uniformly white and opaque and register at least 165°F in the middle on an instant-read thermometer. Remove to a colandar to drain and cool.
Prep the vegetables. While the chicken is cooking and cooling, slice the green onions and chop the celery and parsley, and measure out the mayonnaise and yogurt.
Cut the chicken. When the chicken is cool, cut into 1/2" cubes and place into mixing bowl, followed by the green onion, celery, mayonnaise, yogurt, parsley, walnuts (if using) and a few grinds of pepper. Stir gently to combine. Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed.
Serve or store. Chicken salad can be served immediately or stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 2 to 3 days.
Chicken thighs work equally as well (in fact, they're my preference.)
If you don't like the texture of cubed chicken, shred the chicken instead.
Cut celery can release water, so if your chicken salad looks a little watery, just add a dab more mayo and give it a stir. You can also hold the celery until you are ready to serve the chicken salad and stir it in last minute.
If practical, save the poaching water and reuse to cook grains, or as the liquid in soups and strews.
Variations, substitutions, and additions: sliced apples, sliced grapes, avocado, mango, dried cranberries or raisins. You can substitute the walnuts with pecans or almonds or leave the nuts out all together. Red onion or chives can stand in for green onion. A famous variation is to add a teaspoon or so of curry powder, swap the walnuts with pistachios, add a dollop of chutney, and about 1 cup of sliced grapes.