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 classic that can easily be adapted to all manner of delicious variations and additions. Perfect for picnics and potlucks, too!
Classic Chicken Salad: Watch the Video
Classic Creamy Chicken Salad
This recipe has been in my family for quite some time. 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.
Key Steps to Creamy Chicken Salad
1, Poach the chicken.
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. Poach the chicken breasts to keep them moist and tender, and add some aromatics like onions and fresh herbs to give 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.
2. Use a 50/50 dressing.
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.
3. Add crunch.
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.
Storing and Serving Chicken Salad
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.
How To Make Classic, Creamy Chicken Salad
Makes about 5 cups; serves 6
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:
thinly sliced scallions
finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
toasted walnuts, chopped (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Knife and cutting boards
Poach the chicken. Place the chicken and any aromatics in a large saucepan. Add a large pinch of salt and enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside fo 12 minutes. Cut into the thickest piece of chicken to check for doneness. If there is any pink, return to the saucepan, cover, and let sit for 5 minutes more. The chicken is ready when opaque and the thickest piece registers at least 165°F. Drain and set aside to cool.
Prep the vegetables. While the chicken is cooking and cooling, slice the scallions 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-inch cubes and place into large bowl. Add the scallions, celery, mayonnaise, yogurt, parsley, walnuts (if using) and a few grinds of pepper. Stir gently to combine. Taste and season with salt and pepper if needed.
Serve or store. The chicken salad can be served immediately or stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 2 to 3 days.
Variations, substitutions, and additions: Feel free to add 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 scallions. 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.