Chicken salad is not usually perceived as “sexy.” It is a potluck food, a church supper food, an uninspired baby or wedding shower option, often under-seasoned and over-dressed. Bad chicken salad can put you off the category entirely. But good chicken salad? Good chicken salad can be transcendent.
I eat a lot of chicken salad because I find it is a good use for leftover chicken of any kind, but also because I love an excuse to toss a protein with pickles, mayonnaise and crunchy things. Throughout my chicken salad pursuits, I have developed a lot of thoughts, opinions and rules—enough to write a manifesto of sorts, which I will share with you now.
Seek to expand your chicken consciousness. Break free from the idea that only poached chicken is appropriate
Poached chicken can be very good—especially if you poach it like this—but roasted chicken works just as well (and you can fry the skin and sprinkle it on top of your salad to add texture and flavour). But the real underrated chicken salad choice is cold, leftover fried chicken. Unlike flabby roasted chicken skin, which needs to be cooked again to be serviceable in a chicken salad, battered, fried chicken skin keeps a fair amount of its crunch even after it has cooled, and those fried and breaded bits punctuate your chicken salad in a manner I can only describe as “intoxicating.” Fast food chicken is your best choice here, because many chains season their chicken with MSG.
Leave celery behind in favour a more flavourful crunch
I don’t know how celery became the official crunch bringer for all deli salads, but I know that I don’t like it. Even if you like celery—an emotion I have never experienced—you owe it to yourself to explore other highly-textured fruits and vegetables. Fennel is fun, as is tart green apple or even a nice mild onion or scallion. A diced pickle—not relish—brings brightness, saltiness and texture, in direct contrast to celery, which brings nothing but stringy, acetone-scented sadness. (Chopped pickled ginger is good too.) Plus, like, have you heard of potato chips? A salt and vinegar potato chip (or even a plain salted) is far more exciting than a stalk of the pale green sadness maker, and I do believe chicken salad should be exciting.
Think about the message you’re sending with your mayonnaise
I love mayonnaise, but even I think there is such a thing as “too much.” Mayo should be added in small spoonfuls until there is just enough to lightly coat the chicken and its friends, and it should be good mayo. Store-bought is fine, but feel free to doctor uninspired generics with a drop of sesame oil, squeeze of lemons or shake of fish sauce. Duke’s and Kewpie are my two favourite store-bought options, but a true chicken salad connoisseur makes their own from time to time. (We have a good Duke’s dupe, but I dare you to try chicken salad made with duck fat mayo.) Also, please add a little mustard in there; chicken salad should be a study in contrasts, and mayo’s creamy nature cannot shine without a little acidic opposition.
Embrace fish and eggs
It will come to no surprise that I sometimes add MSG to my chicken salad, but you may be shocked to know that I don’t do it that often. Instead, I lean on anchovy paste, fish sauce and cured egg yolk to bring the much needed umami.
If you want to branch out even further, you can even use shrimp paste, crumbled blue cheese, preserved lemons or a bit of Chinese olive vegetable, but you want something that is intensely salty and funky. That is the key that keeps folks coming back for more. (“Funky” chicken is not really a thing, and don’t let a dance craze tell you any differently.)
You have nothing to lose but your knives
I can’t remember the last time I used a knife to prep a chicken salad. Chicken is torn from the bone, and everything—even whole pickles!—is thrown into a big bowl and chopped with a pair of kitchen shears. It does not result in the most uniform salad, but it is uniform enough. If you need a finer texture, you can mash it all up with a pastry cutter. There’s no need to get a knife and cutting board involved.