Chicken salad is one of the most deceptively tricky foods in the world. It seems like a simple sort of thing — like it's just a utilitarian recipe to use up leftover chicken, or something to buy from the deli counter and keep around for the kids' lunch boxes — but there is a world of difference between good chicken salad and bad chicken salad, and probably the vast majority of chicken salads in the world could best be described as just OK.
But a good chicken salad is transcendent. I remember the first time I had a chicken salad that was more than just dry, flavorless chicken in mayonnaise, and I said, "Oh! I finally understand why chicken salad exists." When done well, chicken salad is everything from a fancy dish you can serve guests and take to picnics, to a kitchen staple to eat with crackers while standing in front of the refrigerator door. And it's still an easy go-to sandwich for the kids' lunch boxes.
Ina Garten's chicken salad is one of those recipes, which makes sense because she got her start in food when she bought her Hamptons gourmet food store, The Barefoot Contessa, in 1978. And if you own a gourmet prepared-foods store in the Hamptons, you're going to be selling a lot of chicken salad.
"I had no idea how much chicken salad I'd be making," Ina laughed as she demonstrated her chicken salad on her Food Network show years later.
Ina's key to getting the best-tasting chicken salad is to start with roasted chicken breasts, not boiled chicken meat. According to Ina, boiling the chicken sucks a lot of the flavor out of the meat. And on top of that, you're stuck wrangling some giant pots of boiling water around the kitchen.
Instead Ina says she starts with bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts and roasts them in the oven so they are moist and flavorful. Then, when she takes the skin and bones off, the resulting chicken salad has a better flavor and actually tastes like it's made from chicken.
"I've found if you roast chicken breasts with the skin on, and then take off the bones and the skin when it's done, you end up with really delicious, well-flavored chicken for chicken salad," she said in an interview with Epicurious. "It's a much easier process, and the chicken tastes better."
How do you like your chicken salad?