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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell; Design: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Chicken Salad Recipes and Did Not Expect These Results

updated Sep 8, 2023
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People have very strong opinions when it comes to chicken salad. Some like sweet add-ins like grapes or dried fruit, while others despise them. Some crave a bit of heat, others want extra crunch, and everyone has an opinion about how much mayo there should be.

I’m not here to tell you that you are right or wrong in your preferences. But I am here to break down four of the most popular chicken salad recipes on the internet, so that if you decide to try one you’ll know exactly what to expect.

And since I’m the one tasting them, judging them, and ultimately declaring a winner, rest assured that I’m surprisingly flexible when it comes to my own preferences.

The Perfect Chicken Salad

For me, the perfect chicken salad falls somewhere squarely in the middle of savory and sweet. I’m open to plenty of mix-ins, but ultimately the chicken has to be the star, and it needs to be tender and well-seasoned. I also want my chicken salad to be versatile — great in a sandwich, on a bed of lettuce, or eaten straight from the fridge.

Here’s what happened when I put four popular chicken salad recipes to the test.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Meet Our 4 Chicken Salad Contenders

For this chicken salad showdown, I was interested in three primary factors: how the chicken is cooked, how the dressing is prepared, and what’s mixed in for crunch or flavor. How does roasting versus poaching affect the chicken’s flavor and texture? Does adding sour cream to the mayo make for a better dressing? Would I prefer my crunch in the form of celery or nuts?

With these questions in mind, I chose four recipes — from Ina Garten, The Pioneer Woman, Southern Living, and The New York Times — that varied greatly in their approaches.

The New York Times‘ recipe, which they claim to be “the best,” features a very specific cooking technique borrowed from a Chinese poaching method. The Pioneer Woman also poaches her chicken, but the similarities end there — she adds yogurt and half-and-half to her dressing base, as well as brown sugar (yes, I was skeptical).

Ina Garten, who says her Hamptons store Barefoot Contessa sold a lot of chicken salad, is the only one to pre-season and roast her chicken. And while Southern Living‘s recipe lacks the bells and whistles of the others, it’s the only one to poach the chicken in broth.

As is true for any salad, we prefer to toss these together in our largest mixing bowls.

How I Tested the Chicken Salad Recipes

These recipes were all tested and because of that, I was unable to source whole chickens and made adjustments as needed. I tested each recipe with the same brands of mayo, celery, nuts, etc., but I should mention that the only mayo I could get my hands on was Sir Kensington’s mayonnaise made with

avocado oil

My daughters, ages 9 and 21, helped me test each recipe, and we ate the chicken salads wrapped in bibb lettuce. By the way, chicken salad is a great thing to have around during quarantine.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

1. The Biggest Disappointment: The New York Times‘ Chicken Salad

I went into the showdown fully expecting this recipe to win. I was excited to try out the unique poaching method that yielded “plush” chicken, and the combination of scallions, herbs, and crunchy things like nuts and celery sounded delicious. Unfortunately, the method left my chicken pink after two hours, and after reheating it as instructed, the promised plushness was lost.

With that said, I did enjoy the add-ins, and I would make this recipe again using a different method for cooking the chicken.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

2. The Chicken Salad with the Very Best Chicken: Southern Living’s Chicken Salad

What this recipe lacks in ingredients (as written, this salad is very minimal) it makes up for in texture. The poaching method produced a very juicy and tender chicken, which really shone in the final salad. Next time, I’ll add some salt and a few extra aromatics to the poaching liquid, which would really enhance the chicken flavor.

The author does recommend adding any number of riffs to the salad, and I can see this recipe functioning as a good base for whatever salad you want to create.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

3. The Chicken Salad That’s Popular for a Reason: Ina Garten’s Chicken Salad

Going into this showdown, I didn’t think think this recipe would end up in my top two. I assumed the large chunks of chicken and un-chopped nuts would be too big and off-putting. But Ina is the only contender who seasons and roasts her chicken, which I felt really paid off in the final product. You get a deep, luscious chicken flavor with each bite. She also toasts her nuts, a detail The New York Times leaves out, rounding out a very well-balanced and tasty salad.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

4. The Chicken Salad That Proves There’s Nothing Wrong with Being Extra: The Pioneer Woman’s Chicken Salad

While I was by all means intrigued by The Pioneer Woman’s recipe, I certainly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. Her recipes don’t typically rank well in our showdowns, and I was sure I’d find some of her add-ins unnecessary (especially the brown sugar).

But this was a lesson in don’t knock it ’til you try it, because this chicken salad had everything I could ever want — savory, sweet, tangy, dilly, crunchy.

While I was enamored of Ina’s seasoning and Southern Living’s poaching, I found The Pioneer Woman’s chicken salad utterly irresistible. She even offers up ways to make it even better (peppered bacon bits? Yes, please!) She says she wouldn’t dare call her chicken salad  “the best,” but I’m here to tell her she should.

The Verdict

In a perfect world, I would combine all three of my top recipes to create one super salad. But we can’t take parts of our children to make one super-child now, can we? And so I hereby crown The Pioneer Woman the victor. It’s the chicken salad you simply can’t put down.

Do you have a favorite chicken salad recipe? Let us know in the comments!