This is an apple chicken salad made with cubes of oven-baked chicken breast, crisp apples, celery, and pecans that gets a flavorful pop from seasoned vinegar in the dressing. Easy to make, it serves up as a delicious lunch or a summer dinner when it’s too hot to cook. If you like apples and you like chicken, then you’ll definitely want to make this apple chicken salad.
A Chicken Salad Even a Red Meat Man Likes
I’m excited to share this recipe for apple chicken salad. The reason I’m excited is because my husband, Mr. Why-Can’t-We-Have-Beef-Tonight, likes to eat this chicken salad when I make it for lunch. This is the man who will literally sigh and make “that” face in the middle of the grocery store when he asks what’s for dinner and I suggest something made with chicken. If my Red Meat Man endorses this chicken salad, that says something.
My Journey With Chicken Salad
My experience with chicken salad started out with the very sweet, pre-made chicken salads that were sold in small tubs in the grocery store. It was more like sweetened chicken spread because there were hardly any pieces of chicken large enough to identify as chicken. I do remember my least favorite part were the pieces of celery or pickle in it — I didn’t like the contrasting textures of the pulverized chicken and the occasional crunch of some vegetable-like food. Writing about it I now realize how unappealing it actually was and it’s surprising I didn’t swear off chicken salad forever as an adult.
When I had something labeled as “Chicken Salad Alexander” for the first time twenty years ago, it was like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from sepia tone to technicolor. This was the chicken salad I’d waited my whole life for! I could not eat enough of it and, because I didn’t want to pay deli prices, I learned to make it at home.
Lemon Almond Chicken Salad was my next discovery and at this point the wheels started turning in my head. If chicken salad tasted good with grapes and lemon, what other fruit would work? Apples were an obvious choice and that’s how apple chicken salad first appeared in my kitchen.
What Apples to Use
I’ve made apple chicken salad with whatever apples I’ve had on hand — Red Delicious, Granny Smith, and many varieties in between those two. Each apple brings its own distinct nuance to the chicken salad, but they are all quite good.
What I found to be most important is that the apple should be very flavorful — it’s less about whether it’s tart, sweet, or in the middle. The apple flavor should be strong enough to be noticed in the salad, so taste your apples in advance to make sure they will work.
I was excited because I had a bag of an unfamiliar apple variety in my pantry that I planned to use for this recipe. The apples looked great, but when I cut a piece to sample, I found it to be bland. Because I’ve never tried that kind of apple before, I’m not blaming the variety itself because it could just be a “blah” bag I happened to get. Eh, it happens. (I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld saying “Fruit’s a gamble.”)
Luckily I have a few other bags to choose from and I decided to go with Fuji for this recipe.
Personal Preference Plays a Key Role
Chicken salad is one of those foods where personal preference plays into how it’s made. Some people like the ingredients to be large for a very chunky salad, whereas other people want a chicken salad made of finely diced ingredients. I like my apple chicken salad to have enough texture so that I taste all the major flavors in each bite, but not for the pieces to be so large that the salad falls out of my sandwich as I’m eating it.
To allow for personal preference, I offer only basic guidelines for prepping the ingredients: cube, chop, dice, etc. You know what you like, so create the apple chicken salad that makes you happy!
Apple Chicken Salad, Step by Step
Whenever I make chicken salad with any kind of fruit in it, I bake boneless, skinless chicken breasts to use. There is a specific size and texture I want the cubes of chicken to have and I’ve only gotten that when I bake the chicken myself. Canned chicken falls apart too easily during the mixing steps and store-bought rotisserie chickens aren’t an option because I prefer only breast meat for homemade chicken salads that contain fruit.
I put 3 chicken breasts in a glass baking dish, cover them with foil, and bake at 325 degrees for 35-45 minutes, turning them over halfway through to keep the meat from drying out.
After the breasts are done, I turn them over once more, re-cover with the foil I used earlier, and place the baking dish on a rack to cool the chicken. Once the meat is cooled, I cut the chicken into small cubes and set aside.
Next, wash and trim the ends from 3 stalks of celery.
Dice the celery.
Empty a 2.25 ounce bag of pecans into a plastic resealable sandwich bag, pressing out as much air as you can before sealing it up (shown in the photo). Use a rolling pin to crush the pecans into small pieces.
Wash, core, and chop an apple. Because I don’t have an apple corer, I core apples by cutting them into quarters and then cutting the core off at an angle.
I don’t peel apples when I use them for apple chicken salad. Not only does it speed up my prep time, but the nutrients in the apple peel make for a healthier chicken salad.
When I first made this chicken salad I thought I would need 2 or 3 apples. I was wrong. It turns out one medium-to-large-size apple is enough for this amount of chicken salad.
Creating the Mix
Put the chicken in a large mixing bowl (you want to give yourself plenty of room for mixing and stirring).
Add enough apple, celery, and pecans until you have the proportions you like. In this step, I mix the ingredients by hand to evenly distribute everything.
The Dressing Ingredients
At this point you could just mix in some mayo and call it good. It would be a perfectly fine apple chicken salad if you did that. I did it that way for a while after I began making this recipe. Eventually I began adding a little sugar for some sweetness. Don’t ask me why I thought to add vinegar to the dressing, but I’m glad I did,
My first choice of vinegar for this salad is apple cider vinegar and it would have been great if there had been some in my pantry. But I had the next best thing — seasoned rice vinegar. Like apple cider vinegar, it has a very strong, tangy flavor that provides a pop of flavor in the dressing.
Once you mix in the mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar (I use a spatula and not my hand in this step), all that’s left to do is salt and pepper to taste.
I’ve eaten chicken salad right after making it — usually because I waited until almost lunchtime to make it and I was HUNGRY. But chicken salad tastes best when it has some time to chill and let all the flavors marry. I’ve learned to make this apple chicken salad a few hours in advance of when I plan to serve it so I can cover and chill it for at least 1-2 hours.
How to Serve Apple Chicken Salad
I’ve always eaten apple chicken salad as sandwiches. It’s wonderful on all sorts of breads (especially hearty grain breads). But my absolute favorite baked goods to put any chicken salad on are croissants.
Seriously, these are incredible!
Another way I’ve eaten apple chicken salad is in tortillas/wraps. Pita bread is another option.
I’m sure this apple chicken salad would make a nice topping for a bed of leafy greens. I just love bread too much to go that route, myself.
A Little Something Extra
You know what else goes great with chicken and apples? Bacon. Add a layer of crispy bacon (applewood smoked, of course) and enjoy how it takes your apple chicken salad up a notch.
I hope I’ve sold you on this apple chicken salad because it really is such a delicious meal.
- 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
- 3 stalk of celery
- 1 medium-to-large-size apple
- 1 2.25 ounce bag of pecan pieces
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- ¼ teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1 ½ tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar OR apple cider vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste`
- Place the chicken breasts in a baking dish. Cover with foil.
- Bake at 325 degrees for 35-45 minutes, depending on the size of the breasts. Turn them over halfway through baking to prevent the meat from drying out.
- Remove the baking dish from the oven, turn the breast over once more, re-cover with the foil, and place the baking dish on a rack to cool the chicken.
- Once the breasts are cool, cut into cubes and set aside.
- Wash and trim the ends of 3 stalks of celery. Dice the celery and set aside.
- Open the bag of pecans and pour into a resealable sandwich bag. Squeeze the air out of the bag before sealing it. Use a rolling pin to crush the pecans to the desired size.
- Wash, core, and cut the apple into pieces.
- Add the chicken to a large mixing bowl.
- Add enough celery, pecans, and apples to create the desired proportions -- mix by hand to evenly distribute the ingredients.
- Using a spatula, gently stir in the mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar. Taste and make any adjustments you feel are needed.
- Salt and pepper to taste and mix well.
- Cover the bowl and chill for at least 2 hours before serving.