We all know what chicken salad can be when there’s mayonnaise in the mix. Cool and creamy. Lush, with delicate tang. Just cohesive enough to stay put in a sandwich or hold together on the end of a fork.
My question was: What could chicken salad be without mayonnaise? Not because I wanted to upend the bedrock of American deli salads; mayo binds up and moistens lean proteins such as cooked chicken, eggs, and solid white albacore in a way that nothing else can. But I wanted to try making chicken salad without it because when mayo is the baseline dressing, it makes everything it touches, well, mayonnaise-y, no matter how bold or distinct the other seasonings are.
So I flipped the script on the classic chicken salad formula to see what kinds of mayo-alternative dressings I could put together—and came away with some outside-the-box ideas. My strategy was to think about what mayo brings to the mix—richness, body, moisture, a hint of acidity—and then replace those qualities with ingredients that supplied their own distinct flavors and textures.
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Chicken Salad Dress Code
Mayonnaise is a miracle whip of sorts for binding up lean proteins and seasonings into a lush, cohesive salad because it’s an ideal cocktail of fat, viscosity, moisture, and subtle tang. But those qualities can be had—and even amplified—with other ingredients. Here are the dressing must-haves.
Richness and Body
Cultured dairy such as yogurt, sour cream, and crème fraîche offer viscosity and tang, and they work well with other sources of fat such as avocado and tahini.
A few tablespoons of liquid not only loosen up the fat’s thick body but also keep the dressing fluid when it’s tossed with lean chicken, which tends to soak up moisture quickly. Depending on the desired flavor profile, this can be anything from pickle brine to plain water.
Acidity is crucial for balancing and brightening the richness. Cultured dairy is a great start, but mustard, vinegar, pickle brine, and lemon juice all offer an extra jolt.
In each case, I leaned on cultured dairy (crème fraîche, Greek yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk) to provide a creamy, tangy, full-bodied base. Then, to give each dressing distinct character, I layered in alternative sources of richness (avocado, tahini) and acid (lemon juice, vinegar, pickle brine) before mixing it up with a few cups of chopped-up chicken so that the flavors could saturate the meat. When the chicken was well coated, I worked in bold seasonings and vegetables that complemented the dressings—everything from garlic, cucumbers, and dill (think: tzatziki) to jicama and banana peppers to mixed mustards, radishes, cornichons, and fistfuls of tarragon.
Behold, creamy chicken salad—refreshed.
Avocado Chicken Salad with Jicama and Banana Peppers, Mustardy Chicken Salad with Radishes and Cornichons