(Not) Recipes

How to Make Chicken Salad Without a Recipe

September 15, 2014

Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Managing Editor Kenzi Wilbur continues on her mayonnaise crusade -- this time with chicken salad. Make this week’s lunches better.

chicken salad

Shop the Story

I spent years thinking of foods like chicken salad and egg salad as the proverbial black sheep of lunchtime, and thus I would become a black sheep myself if I were to pull something resembling either one out of my lunchbox. These were sandwiches your grandmother ate in her nursing home -- they weren’t in vogue and they smelled weird and all of these things were childhood lunchroom suicide.

But, as I grew out of the stretch pants and over-sized horse T-shirts I wore during this discerning phase, I likewise grew out of my hatred for things unabashedly slathered in mayo. The thing is: Foods unabashedly slathered in mayo are good. Really good.

And so I add chicken salad to my bland-foods-with-mayonnaise canon (see also: Sauce Gribiche, deviled eggs without a recipe, potato salad). It’s the same principle (bland thing, brighteners, hella herbs, and mayo), this time applied to last night’s roasted chicken.

Here’s how to be proud of your chicken salad, without a recipe:

1. Style your mise en place. I'm kidding -- do not do this. Throw haphazardly on your kitchen counter the following: your leftover chicken, mayonnaise (homemade is best but not mandatory), and a bunch of brighteners. For two smallish chicken breasts, I use about 1/4 cup mayo, a few tablespoons of chopped cornichons, a heaping spoonful of stone ground mustard, a bit of lemon zest, and a mess of chopped herbs. The latter usually amounts to a scant handful -- I like tarragon, parsley, and chives -- but that amount is flexible, much like the rest of these ingredients are. This is a Not Recipe! Let your tastes be your guide.  

chicken salad ingredients


2. Skin your chicken, if it isn't already, and pull it apart into long, wispy pieces. You can use two forks if you really want to, but hands are best. Get in there.

how to make chicken salad

More: Try our co-founder Merrill's favorite roast chicken with garlic and herb pan sauce.


3. To your pile of freshly-pulled chicken, add the rest of your ingredients, starting with 1/4 cup of mayo. (You can always add more later.) Zest about a half a lemon over the top -- I find this to be something like a secret weapon, but if it's not your thing, leave it out. 

how to make chicken salad


4. Sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over the top, and mix. Taste, and adjust: Is it a bit dry? Add more mayo. Not bright enough? More lemon. Is it perfect because you're an ace in the kitchen? As you were.  

how to make chicken salad


5. Toast a thick slice of bread, track down an especially crunchy leaf of romaine, and pile your chicken salad on top of it all. Scarf it down proudly. 

how to make chicken salad

Photos by James Ransom

Order Now

The Dynamite Chicken cookbook is here! Get ready for 60 brand-new ways to love your favorite bird. Inside this clever collection by Food52 and chef Tyler Kord, you'll find everything from lightning-quick weeknight dinners to the coziest of comfort foods.

Order Now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sexyLAMBCHOPx
  • Willam Jacobsen
    Willam Jacobsen
  • Matt Libling
    Matt Libling
  • theflamingwench79
  • Melina Hammer
    Melina Hammer
Kenzi Wilbur

Written by: Kenzi Wilbur

I have a thing for most foods topped with a fried egg, a strange disdain for overly soupy tomato sauce, and I can never make it home without ripping off the end of a newly-bought baguette. I like spoons very much.


sexyLAMBCHOPx May 28, 2016
I love a smooth chicken salad. The food Processor sffors me that with celery, carrots & mayo. My total comfort food on crackers.
Willam J. June 10, 2015
Great article! Place your salad in a hot croissant and top it with a little raspberry jalapeno jelly or even mandarin oranges if you really want something special!
Matt L. May 21, 2015
I grew up thinking this was my mum's invention because no-one else in Australia made it. Nowadays I make it all the time with either leftover or freshly made chicken and homemade mayonnaise and lots of coriander and chives. I find rapeseed oil makes all the difference to the mayonnaise giving it a nuttiness. Here's the recipe for my chicken salad - hope you like it. http://timedeating.co.uk/?p=699
theflamingwench79 October 15, 2014
I always use lemon zest in my chicken salad! It really gives a bright flavor! Also, and I know this might sound a bit strange, but I use a trio of basil, parsley, and thyme. My mother grows her own herbs, and I had no tarragon, so I used what was handy. Family approved!
Melina H. September 17, 2014
yum and YUM. congrats kenzi on your new role!!! looking forward to more magic together, albeit perhaps less direct for the time being. :)
Kenzi W. September 18, 2014
Thank you! Always look forward to your magic. xo
daisybrain September 17, 2014
For me the question is... Who actually uses a recipe for chicken salad?
CJ September 17, 2014
I worship at the altar of chicken salad and, quite the opposite of Kenzi, always found it somehow glamorous and tres chic for lunch since I was usually eating white American cheese with mustard on Wonder bread! Love it with apples, nuts, grapes or even craisins, and I agree mayo is essential. Look forward to trying the lemon zest idea - mmmmm - how 'bout right now??
Kenzi W. September 17, 2014
Tres chic! Love that.
Mike T. September 17, 2014
I use dill cubes from the jar (a downgrade from the cornichons), celery and chopped bell pepper. The lemon zest seems like an interesting idea. I also use a chopped, hard-boiled egg (mother and child reunion?), salt and my secret weapon is lemon pepper.
Ellen M. September 17, 2014
mayo, celery, halved red grapes or diced apple, chopped pecans, and don't forget to season. I use crushed tarragon and a splash of balsamic vinegar.
landseergirl September 17, 2014
I don't have a recipe for chicken salad, pasta salad etc....I check out my refrigerator and pick out goodies. I always split my mayo w Sour Cream....half and half...it just makes things cleaner to me. And lemon zested is a must.
CQ September 15, 2014
You've just reminded me how much I miss doing this! My old favorite was artichokes and dill, and I'm trying to remember if I used to add slivered almonds for crunch.
Melinda F. September 15, 2014
Celery, celery, celery. I find that pickles alone (or even added nuts) don't give enough crunch for me. Also: shredding meat vs. cutting it in chunks? Discuss.
Lynn R. September 15, 2014
We find it appears to dry out overnight as sauce gets absorbed, and often refesh with a dollop yogurt, mayo, or sout cream. Choppd toasted nuts are a favorite add in, and/or halved grapes, chopped apple or dried cranberries/cherries/blueberries. These sometimes get softened in a bath of wine/sherry/hot water.
Celery was a revelation to me in chix salad when my husband started leaving it super chunky.
Sharmela M. September 17, 2014
That sounds delicious! I don't like mayonnaise, so I'm going to try with some Greek yogurt instead. Might chuck in the nuts as well.
Pegeen September 15, 2014
I also like to make chicken salad using vinaigrette instead of mayo and adding some bell peppers or raw veg like red onion, celery or broccoli for crunch. A pinch of red pepper flakes.

It’s probably very 1980s but my favorite is half sour cream and half mayo, nutmeg, salt and pepper, walnuts, celery and dried cherries or dried cranberries.

If bringing to work, always good to keep the salad in a separate container away from the bread or pita pockets to avoid the Terror of Soggy bread.