Mayonnaise can disguise a wide variety of sins, but dry chicken is not one of them. You know what I'm talking about. Those deli or potluck chicken salads made with stringy leftover chicken meat and enough gloppy store-bought mayonnaise to make it palatable. Is anyone really fooled by any of that? Yeah, didn't think so.
Sous-vide often gets touted as a technique to guarantee moist and tender pan-roasted chicken, since it allows you to safely cook the chicken to a lower temperature, guaranteeing better juice retention. But the other day when I had a few chicken breasts in my precision cooker bath, a thought occurred to me: why limit sous-vide to hot applications? Doesn't cold chicken deserve to be just as juicy and flavorful as hot chicken?
A couple dozen chicken breasts and a few days of tinkering later and I had the tastiest, juiciest, most flavor-packed chicken salad I'd ever had. Here's how it works.
Skin and Bones
From past experience, I knew that I didn't want to cook my chicken any hotter than 150°F, after which it starts to become irretrievably dry. (For the record, so long as you are cooking sous-vide and hold the chicken at 150°F for long enough, there are no safety concerns. Check out my sous vide chicken guide for more details).
With standard roasted, poached, or grilled chicken, it's a good idea to cook the breasts with the skin and bones attached, whether or not you intend on eating that skin in the end. That's because with traditional cooking methods, where the temperature regularly exceeds 300°F, you end up overcooking a lot of the exterior layers of the chicken. Skin and bones act as a buffer, insulating the delicate breast meat.
With sous-vide cooking, you don't expose any of the chicken to temperatures higher than its final target temperature, so I figured that it shouldn't make much difference whether or not I cooked it with the skin and bones attached. I cooked three breast halves side-by-side to confirm: one boneless and skinless, one with skin only, and one with skin and bones still attached, allowing each to come to 150°F and holding them there for identical time periods.
As far as juiciness was concerned, all three came out extremely moist. However, the chicken cooked with skin and bones was more flavorful.
Seems like with the aid of a sealed bag, the juices extracted from the skin and bones in the chicken make a small but noticeable difference in the finished dish (and it helps that bone-in, skin-on breasts are cheaper than boneless skinless).
Flavor? It's in the Bag
That got me thinking: typically, chicken salad is made with chicken cooked on its own that subsequently gets dressed and flavored. But what if I were to add the flavorings directly to the bag before cooking the chicken? Even if it's only a superficial layer of flavoring, it should still be an improvement.
In this case, I went with the classic chicken salad flavor combo of lemon and tarragon, adding slices of whole lemon and large sprigs of tarragon directly to the bag. From my experience with steak, I knew that adding excess fat to the bag only serves to dilute any aromatics you add, so I left that out.
With sous-vide chicken served hot, I'll usually cook to around 145°F, a temperature which is extremely moist and juicy. With the cold chicken, however, It felt almost too moist and tender, giving the chicken a texture that almost seemed raw (despite being fully cooked and safe to eat). I decided to increase the temperature to 150°F, a range in which the chicken is still plenty moist, but has a firmness closer to that of traditional roasted or poached chicken. Whether you cook the chicken in a precision cooker or use the hacked beer cooler method, you'll want to chill it right after cooking (which takes at least an hour, though you can hold chicken for up to four hours at temperature without any major adverse affects on texture).
Once cooked, I chilled the chicken directly in its bag in an ice bath. Chilling the chicken before removing it from the bag helps it retain more moisture, as fewer juices will leak out of the chicken when you cut it once they've had a chance to chill and thicken a bit.
Then, I carefully peeled off the skin and underlying membrane and removed the bones. The bones, by the way, pull right out without any need for a knife. I was a little worried that the flavorings I added to the bag wouldn't penetrate through the skin and bones, but even the underlying meat was fragrant with lemon and tarragon aroma—it must sneak its way in from around the edges.
I'm going to have to remember this technique for other cold chicken dishes in the future.
Slicing open that 150°F chicken revealed tender, glistening flesh with a level of juiciness that you simply cannot get with any other traditional cooking method. I mean, just look at that!
I tried both shredding and dicing the chicken. While the shreds were nice, it just didn't feel like a classic chicken salad with anything but cubes of chicken.
Mayo May Not
With perfectly cooked, already flavor-packed chicken, I though for a moment that I might be able to get away with using no mayo at all. After all, I no longer had any sins that needed covering, and in fact, a chicken salad made with a lighter vinaigrette is quite delicious in its own way (so delicious that I may even develop it into a recipe on its own), but for classic chicken salad, it just needs that dash of creaminess from mayo. I was, fortunately, able to cut back on the standard amount of mayo by quite a bit—about a quarter cup for two large chicken breasts was plenty.
One of the downsides of sous-vide cooking is that it can take considerably longer than traditional cooking methods. One of the best things is also that it can take considerably longer than traditional cooking methods, which leaves ample time for side projects like making your own mayo.
There are many things in this world that are much better from home than from the shop. Birthday cards, erotic massages, and mayonnaise top that list (not necessarily in that order). Once you've taken the plunge and discovered how fantastically easy and how infinitely better it is to make mayonnaise at home, you'll never settle for the jiggly, quivery, store-bought stuff again.
Using just a hand blender and a jar, you can make incredible homemade mayonnaise in under 2 minutes, which leaves you ample time to water the lawn or perhaps reorganize the tool shed before the chicken is finished cooking and cooling.
With the mayo made, my chicken salad was almost finished. All it needed was some aromatics. I decided to keep things fairly classic this time, adding some diced celery and red onion for crunch, parsley, chives, and tarragon for aroma (any one of the three on their own would also taste great), along with some extra Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and plenty of lemon zest to punch it up.
This is the kind of chicken salad that's so damn good you'll happily eat it straight out of the bowl (or if you're like me, with your fingers by the light of the fridge in the middle of the night).
Okay, fine, a sandwich will work as well. Now for the real mystery: Bibb lettuce on the bottom of a chicken salad sandwich. Is it essential because it keeps the bottom bun from getting soggy with juices and mayonnaise, or should it never be there because it causes the loose chunks of chicken to slip and slide out the back and sides of the sandwich? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night.