10 Secrets Celebrity Chefs Use To Amp Up Chicken Salad
Chicken salad is a classic staple in the world of cuisine. Let’s be real, though — how often does the traditional recipe leave you underwhelmed and craving something more?
Fortunately, it has been getting a major taste upgrade, thanks to the creativity of a few celebrity chefs. Gone are the days of dry chicken, plain mayonnaise, and bland chopped greens: Some of the most popular culinary masterminds out there have added some truly mouth-watering twists on the basic backyard barbecue recipe. From surprise spices to obscure fruits and vegetables, these unexpected add-ons will transform your average chicken salad into anything but boring.
Whether you’re a fan of bold and spicy, in search of something sweet and tangy, or simply looking for a fresh taste, you can elevate your next bowl of chicken salad with unconventional ingredients that some of the best culinary professionals use themselves. And if anyone asks what’s in it, just tell them, "It’s a secret."
Mark Bittman: Plums
In addition to being a food journalist, Mark Bittman has written numerous books on cooking including "How to Cook Everything" and "The Food Matters Cookbook." With his background as a certified foodie, it’s no surprise that he also has a unique take on the classic chicken recipe. Bittman makes it with plums, incorporating their sweetness and tanginess into the salad.
Plums are a summer fruit that are at their peak in July and August. According to MasterClass, elephant heart is the kind that’s most common in grocery stores. Other varieties of plum include Santa Rosa, black ruby, and black amber. Before adding any of them to the recipe, you will want to properly remove the pit in the center of each one. Pitting a plum is simple, and can be done with a knife or spoon.
Once the fruit is washed and diced, Bittman recommends tossing the pieces in balsamic vinegar and letting them rest for at least 15 minutes in the refrigerator. When incorporating these two ingredients together, the vinegar’s acidity can enhance the flavor of the plums by counteracting the sweetness. Cooked chicken combined with scallions, celery, almonds, and other seasonings complete the dish.
Ina Garten: Roast chicken
With her approachable and effortless cooking style, celebrity chef Ina Garten, the beloved Barefoot Contessa, has captured the hearts of food lovers around the world. Her dishes are not only delicious but also comforting, making her a go-to source for home-style cooking. This includes her spin on the classic chicken salad recipe. For this culinary expert, the not-so-secret "secret" component is a juicy, flavorful roast chicken.
"Instead of boiling chicken for chicken salad – which takes the flavor out of the chicken, and then you have to deal with all these big pots of boiling water – 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. It’s a much easier process, and the chicken tastes better," Garten told Epicurious.
What also helps set Garten’s roast chicken apart from the rest is the combination of herbs and spices she uses to season it. She mixes classic herbs, like thyme and rosemary, with spices like paprika and garlic, to create a blend of flavors that’s both bold and aromatic. Once the chicken is roasted, properly cooled, and shredded, the celebrity chef adds other ingredients like mayonnaise, celery, and red onion to finish the dish.
Jeff Mauro: Dried cherries
Podcast host and Food Network star Jeff Mauro is known for his unique and flavorful recipes, inspired by his travels and his love for bold flavors and fresh ingredients. It should be no surprise that his chicken salad’s secret ingredient matches his diverse cooking style. According to Mauro, dried cherries add a sweet and tangy flavor to the otherwise plain plate-filler. The tart taste of the fruit balances the savory notes in the classic recipe.
Start by finding dried cherries at your local grocery store (or DIY some in your kitchen). To make dried cherries at home, after properly cleaning and halving them, add some sugar and lemon juice to help prevent discoloration. Next, spread the covered cherries out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and pop them in the oven on the lowest heat setting. Allow the cherries several hours to dry out completely before cooking with them.
When ready, simply fold a handful of the dried cherries into the mayonnaise mixture, then combine the chicken. The dried cherries add a bright pop of flavor to the creamy chicken salad, and are a good source of fiber and antioxidants, too.
Ree Drummond: Jarred pesto
Bestselling author and television personality Ree Drummond (a.k.a. the Pioneer Woman) shares her signature style of whipping up fast and tasty dishes on her hit show on the Food Network. Her tip for making a scrumptious chicken salad involves a secret ingredient that should always be in your pantry: jarred pesto.
Pesto is a flavorful, bright green sauce made from fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil. The blended ingredients originated in an Italian town of Genoa, per Insider. Simply mix shredded rotisserie chicken with a spoonful of pesto, a squeeze of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Whether you’re spreading it on toast or sandwiching it in a croissant, basil pesto is a creative twist on the classic dish that’s full of fun, color, and flavor.
Pesto is a healthy source of fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds that can provide numerous health benefits, including reducing inflammation, boosting immune function, and improving heart health.
Giada De Laurentiis: Capers
Italian-American chef, television personality, and cookbook author Giada De Laurentiis definitely knows a thing or two about adding a little zing to even the simplest of dishes, and her secret ingredient for taking chicken salad to the next level is no exception. The queen of Italian cuisine adds capers to her recipe to give the dish a briny flavor (via YouTube).
Capers are small, tangy, pickled buds that are known for their sharp, vinegary flavor and for pairing well with anything from steak to seafood. You can add a handful of capers to your typical mayonnaise-and-lemon-juice dressing, giving the dish a burst of saltiness. It’s important to note that capers are already salty, so be careful not to over-season the chicken salad with extra salt.
If you prefer a milder flavor, you can rinse the capers before adding them to the salad to remove some of the saltiness. Simply rinse the capers under running water in a fine-mesh strainer or colander until the water runs clear.
Alton Brown: Greek yogurt
Cooking show host and cookbook author Alton Brown has definitely left his mark on many well-known dishes, including the classic chicken salad. His twist on the recipe — Greek yogurt — amps up the creaminess and tanginess of its traditional ingredients, while also making it more gut-friendly.
Greek yogurt gives the dish a delicious silky texture and thick consistency, perfect for serving in a sandwich or as a topping for greens. Simply mix a spoonful or two into your dressing in place of the mayonnaise. Remember, though, that when using Greek yogurt in your chicken salad, unflavored is the way to go, as sweetened or flavored yogurt can be too sweet or overpowering.
Aside from being an excellent substitute for mayo, it also gives your salad a decent protein boost. In addition, it offers a slew of other health benefits, including being an abundant source of both probiotics and calcium.
Rachael Ray: Buffalo sauce
If you are pressed on time, take a cue from the queen of 30-minute meals, Rachael Ray. Her secret ingredient dresses up the basic chicken salad dish in a bold and spicy way. While the ingredient is commonly found on chicken wings or used as a dipping sauce, the celebrity chef adds a kick of heat to her recipe by including buffalo sauce. Not only does the sauce add intense flavor, but it also helps to increase moisture in the dish, making the chicken salad more tender, more flavorful, and juicier.
Choose your favorite store-bought hot sauce variety (at a heat level you and your tastebuds can handle, of course). Bring the heat with a healthy drizzle of spicy, tangy buffalo sauce right on top of the chicken salad, or mix it in with the other wet ingredients. Either way, this combination of hot sauce, butter, and vinegar will certainly add some excitement to your chicken salad lunch or dinner.
Arnold Myint: Thai-inspired dressing
Arnold Myint, Top Chef contestant and mastermind behind several acclaimed restaurants, brings a Thai-inspired twist to the traditional chicken salad recipe. In lieu of a mayonnaise-based dressing or vinaigrette, this culinary star opts for a spicy and tangy dressing that anyone can make at home (per News Channel 5).
What makes the zesty dressing so special is that it’s packed with bold and flavorful ingredients like garlic, chili flakes, fish sauce, and lime juice, all of which are blended together to create an aromatic mixture. Plus, there’s also a touch of sweetness courtesy of sugar, which helps to balance out the heat and acidity of the other ingredients perfectly.
The best thing about using a homemade dressing is that the seasonings can be adjusted to your liking. If the mixture is too spicy or salty, you can simply add more lime juice, brown sugar, or water as needed.
Guy Fieri: Grapes
Who says chicken salad can’t have a little sweetness? Certainly not celebrity chef Guy Fieri, as the king of Flavortown is not afraid to throw a little extra flavor into the mix. Of the 18 ingredients in Fieri’s chicken salad, grapes are arguably the main attraction. The recipe is inspired by Waldorf salad, a simple but elegant appetizer that dates back to the late 1800s when it was first served at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City (per The New York Times).
This combination of fruit and chicken brings a delicate sweetness and a new level of texture to the salad. There are many types of grapes for you to choose from, but plump, seedless ones are ideal. The green variety is perfect for those looking for a tangier taste. Mix together your choice of mayonnaise and other seasonings with about a cup of grapes. Make sure that the fruit is properly washed and cut in halves before being combined with the ingredients, though.
Bobby Flay: Fresh herbs
Celebrity chef Bobby Flay is no stranger to adding creative twists to signature dishes. The Food Network star’s secret ingredient is a combination of fresh herbs.
Admittedly, dried herbs are quite convenient to have at home, on top of being budget-friendly. However, fresh ingredients are worth the splurge at the grocery store or farmers’ market, as they add a degree of flavor to any recipe that simply can’t be achieved with dried ingredients. In addition, they’re packed with a host of health benefits, from aiding in digestion to providing a much-needed dose of vitamins and minerals to your diet.
You can add any combination of fresh herbs (such as parsley, time, basil, or oregano) to your chicken salad by incorporating them into the mayonnaise or dressing mixture. Just be sure that the herbs you’ll use are finely chopped. You can also sprinkle some on top of the finished salad as a garnish before serving.