It goes without saying that the most important ingredient in chicken salad is the chicken. But what about white versus dark meat? We did a taste test to find out: chicken breasts poached in salted water (a popular pick in recipes), next to chicken thighs roasted in the oven. Initially, the chef in me was rooting for the underdog—but most of our taste testers, including myself, preferred chicken breasts. White meat does a way better job of absorbing the dressing.
Beyond this, we experimented with different combinations of nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, cubed avocado, crumbled bacon… But in the end, we skipped most of these and kept it simple: thinly sliced scallions, diced celery, tarragon, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a pinch of smoked paprika. This balance of flavors is acidic from the lemon, earthy, and herbaceous. In other words, utterly enjoyable, enhancing the chicken without overshadowing it.
When it comes to technique, we’re all for shredding, versus cubing, the chicken. The torn, irregular pieces better absorb the dressing (and, in turn, better absorb all the flavors). Make sure you let the poached chicken chill completely before shredding it—this helps prevent moisture loss.
Of course, when it comes to add-ins, you should get creative. Feel free to substitute your favorite fresh herbs for the scallion and tarragon, and try experimenting with different dry spices in place of the smoked paprika. Just keep the ratio of chicken to mayo to lemon juice a constant and you’re guaranteed to end up with a chicken salad that you love. —Josh Cohen
- Prep time 30 minutes
- Cook time 25 minutes
- Makes about 1 quart
plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
freshly squeezed lemon juice
boneless skinless chicken breasts
diced celery (about ¼-inch dice)
roughly chopped tarragon leaves, loosely packed
freshly ground black pepper
- Fill a medium pot with water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Season with the 1 tablespoon of salt, then reduce the heat to medium and add the chicken. Gently poach for about 25 minutes, or until the thickest part of the breast has reached 165°F. Transfer the chicken to a mixing bowl and refrigerate until cool. Discard the poaching liquid.
- When the chicken is cool, shred it by hand, tearing into pieces that are between ½ inch and 1 inch in size. If they’re a bit ragged and uneven, good—all the better to absorb the dressing. Add to a big mixing bowl.
- Separate the scallions into two groups: green tops and white bottoms. Slice green parts on the bias into ¼-inch pieces. Slice the white parts as thin as possible into rings.
- Add the scallions, plus the remaining ingredients, to the bowl with the shredded chicken. Mix gently until all the ingredients are incorporated. Taste, and adjust with more salt, pepper, or lemon juice as necessary. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to 3 days.