The Secret Herbaceous Ingredient Ina Garten Adds To Chicken Salad

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There's the chicken salad we grew up eating as children, and Ina Garten's chicken salad. While the chef includes the classic ingredients you expect, her version is so much more flavorful that the two recipes should probably have different names. Although there are several ways that Garten puts her signature twist and upgrades her chicken salad, it's an herb from her garden, tarragon, that she calls her 'secret ingredient.'  

In Garten's cookbook, "Barefoot Contessa at Home," she prepares a chicken salad sandwich by combining white meat chicken, "good" mayonnaise (though you can also use heavy cream as a secret ingredient for creamy chicken salad), diced celery, and fresh tarragon. This recipe is an excellent example of how Garten layers flavor by deconstructing the dish to determine how each component can be improved. Tarragon is a floppy green herb with long, slender leaves used in many dishes, including Béarnaise sauce. Although woodsy like rosemary, it has a subtle flavor reminiscent of licorice or fennel that won't overpower the dish.

The perennial herb is widely used in French cuisine and is included in one of its commonly used mixes, fines herbes, which also includes parsley, chervil, and chives. Like many chefs, Garten uses fresh tarragon in her chicken salad recipe since its delicate nature becomes highly concentrated once dried. Home cooks trying to substitute dried tarragon in a recipe should note that roughly one teaspoon of dried tarragon equals one tablespoon of fresh, making it three times more potent.

Tips for preparing flavorful chicken salad

Ina Garten is known for her ability to take simple recipes and make them extraordinary. Garten's chicken salad brings simple yet surprising nuance — whether assembling a sandwich or adding a scoop to avocados

Citrusy, subtly spicy, tarragon adds the light scent of anise or licorice, which may not be everyone's favorite flavor, but tarragon is much subtler. So don't let your dislike of black licorice stop you from trying this herb. Tarragon adds a bright taste and aroma to the dish. If you can't find fresh tarragon, fennel fronds are a solid substitute. Diced celery's subtle flavor is also added to the dish and provides a contrasting texture. However, diced red onions can also be used if you prefer something more piquant — or dried fruit for sweetness.

Rather than poaching or boiling, which can dilute its flavor, Garten roasts bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts for the salad to keep the meat moist — though there are other ways to cook chicken for the tastiest salads. While Garten's chicken roasts, the bone radiates heat, enabling it to cook evenly. If the bones are removed, the juices leak out of the meat via the incision. Cooking chicken with the skin on provides an additional moisture shield and flavors the meat as the fat melts. It's also worth noting that bone-in, skin-on meat is cheaper than more processed cuts. It can last up to four days in the refrigerator, so make enough for leftovers.