There comes a point in the summer when I start getting tired of all the goopy, mayonnaise-thick side salads that are standard fare at every cook-out and picnic. I wanted something a little different to bring to the table on a recent summer excursion, so I thought we'd perk up a bowl of traditional macaroni salad with barbecue sauce. Oh. My. Yes. Why haven't I tried this before?!
I first tried making this salad with just barbecue sauce by itself, but that was a bit overwhelming. I found that just a little mayo mixed with the barbecue sauce mellowed it out without tipping the salad into goopy heaviness. Start with a ratio of 1/4 cup mayo and 1/2 cup barbecue sauce, and then increase either of them based on your personal taste. Sour cream or even a whole-milk yogurt would also make great substitutes for the mayo if you're not in the mood
Let's talk about the chicken, too. Chicken has a tendency to get dry and tough, especially when served cold in a salad like this. That's why I like to give these boneless skinless chicken breasts a quick brine before cooking — this ensures moist and tender shreds of chicken even after some time in the fridge. Even a quick half-hour brine makes a big difference, but don't brine it for more than two hours or else the salt breaks down the muscle fibers too much.
If you've already got the grill on, go ahead and grill this chicken instead of cooking it under the broiler. This salad is also a great use for any barbecued chicken you have leftover from previous cook-outs.
"Oh. My. Yes." Yup, that just about sums it up. It had been a year or two since I last made this salad, and after two bites, I was kicking myself for forgetting about it for so long. It's tangy and creamy, chewy and crunchy — a superstar side dish that works with just about any outdoor menu. I also happen to know that it works surprisingly well as dinner, all on its own. Ahem.
I've made very few changes to the recipe below — a few tweaks to make instructions clearer or more streamlined. I also added a note to toss the pasta with a bit of the sauce while it's still warm. The warm pasta absorbs a bit of the sauce and becomes even more flavorful.
Not much more to say than that! I give this one two forks up — make it for your next cook-out and I promise the only thing you'll be bringing home is an empty bowl.
For the chicken: 1 quart warm water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 to 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (2 to 3 individual breasts)
1/2 cup barbecue sauce, store-bought or homemade
For the salad:
1/2 to 1/4 cup barbecue sauce, store-bought or homemade
1/4 to 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 pound elbow macaroni (about 2 cups)
1/2 red onion, diced and soaked in cold water until needed (See Recipe Note)
1 red or green pepper, diced
3 to 4 stalks celery, diced
Salt and pepper
For the chicken, combine the warm water, salt, and sugar in a shallow baking dish. Stir gently until the salt and the sugar are completely dissolved. Add the chicken to the brine. It should be completely submerged; add more warm water if necessary. Cover and brine the chicken for 1/2 - 2 hours, refrigerating if brining for more than 1/2 hour.
When ready to cook the chicken, turn on the oven broiler and position an oven rack 4 to 5 inches below the broiler element. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a wire rack on top.
Remove the chicken from the brine and discard the brining liquid. Pat the chicken dry and coat each side with a few tablespoons of barbecue sauce. Lay the chicken, spaced an inch or so apart, on the wire rack over the baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and broil for 6 minutes. Flip the breasts and broil for another 6 minutes. Check that the chicken is cooked through and register at least 165°F on an instant-read thermometer; broil in additional 2 minute intervals if necessary until the chicken is cooked. Remove the chicken from the oven and set aside to cool.
Whisk together 1/2 cup of the barbecue sauce, 1/4 cup of the mayo, and the cider vinegar in a small bowl. When the chicken is cool, shred or cube into bite-sized pieces. You should have 2 to 3 cups of shredded chicken.
Cook the macaroni in a large amount of salted, boiling water until it is cooked a little beyond al dente. Drain and immediately toss with about 1/4 cup of the dressing.
In a large bowl, combine the cooked macaroni, shredded chicken, drained red onions, pepper, and celery. Toss with the remaining dressing until evenly coated. Taste the salad and add salt, pepper, more mayo, more barbecue sauce, or a splash of cider vinegar to suit your taste.
Serve immediately or refrigerate until serving. This salad will keep unrefrigerated for 4 hours, or up to a week refrigerated.
Soaking the red onion in cold water removes some if its bite and makes it more pleasant when served raw in a cold salad like this. Soaking for 15 minutes is ideal, but even a short soak will help.
If the salad has been refrigerated for more than a few hours, it may lose its creaminess. Toss it with a little mayo or barbecue sauce until creamy again.
This recipe has been updated. Originally published August 2009.