Why It Works
- A cold-water start and slow-poaching at a gentle heat keeps chicken breasts tender and juicy.
- Combining punchy pesto with mayonnaise and lemon juice creates a creamy, bright dressing for coating the shredded chicken.
This chicken salad gets its vibrant flavor from bright basil pesto. Speckled with chopped sun-dried tomatoes, every bite is pleasantly tangy, and it makes for a great easy lunch or mid-afternoon snack.
For his Best Chicken Salad, Kenji cooked the chicken sous-vide. I wanted the same tender and juicy results, but without the special equipment, so I followed Daniel’s method for cold-start poaching, which only requires a saucepan and some patience. The method is simple: add chicken to a pot of cold water, bring the water up to 150°F (65°C) on the stovetop and then keep it at that temperature. The chicken gently cooks, and it’s ready once the internal temperature at the thickest point reaches 150 degrees as well. The only downside to this method is that it's quite slow, so to speed up the process I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead of split bone-in breasts.
Once the chicken is cooked, I let it cool slightly before shredding it into pieces and tossing it with basil pesto, mayonnaise, and lemon juice. For the pesto, you can go all-out and make Daniel’s classic pesto alla Genovese, or just use store-bought. I also like to stir in chopped sun-dried tomatoes for extra flavor and texture. They’re sweet, tart, and chewy, and they complement the pungency of the pesto. Sharp and fresh, this pesto chicken salad goes great in a sandwich, on a salad, with crackers, or even straight from the fridge.
- 2 quarts (2L) cold water
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon (15g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste; for table salt use half as much by volume or an equal amount by weight
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170g each)
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces; 115g) basil pesto, homemade or store-bought
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces; 115g) mayonnaise, homemade or store-bought
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) fresh lemon juice from 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup (4 ounces; 115g) oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained, blotted dry, and roughly chopped
- Freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan, combine water and salt, and stir to dissolve salt. Add chicken and set over medium-high heat until water temperature registers between 150 and 160°F (65.5 to 71°C) on an instant-read thermometer; adjust heat to maintain water temperature in the 150–160°F range. (It's okay if the temperature bounces around a little, but try to keep it above 150 and below 170°F.) Cook until thickest part of chicken registers 150°F (65.5°C) on an instant-read thermometer, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove chicken and let rest until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Using two forks or clean hands, shred chicken into bite-size pieces and set aside.
In a large bowl, stir together mayonnaise, pesto, and lemon juice until well combined. Add reserved shredded chicken and sun-dried tomatoes and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve.
Large saucepan, instant-read thermometer.
Make-Ahead and Storage
If using homemade pesto, the pesto can be made in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days with a thin layer of extra-virgin olive oil on top to prevent pesto from oxidizing. The finished chicken salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.