How To Add A Smoky Twist To Your Chicken Salad This Grilling Season

While some of us think a basic chicken salad is perfect, others might find it boring, especially when it's served at a barbecue alongside smoky steaks and ribs. If you're looking for a way to help your side dish stand out, why not smoke your chicken, too? Beyond adding a delicious hint of rich flavor, a slow smoking session helps the chicken to remain moist and tender — no more dry chunks of meat covered up by tons of mayo. Plus, you can choose different types of wood to impart a flavor that goes with your recipe.

For a slight sweetness with undertones of fruit, try using applewood in the smoker. Pecan wood is sweet, too, and also imparts a nutty flavor, making it a great option if your chicken salad has walnuts. And if you want even more smoky flavor, opt for oak. As for the chicken itself, you can cook a whole bird or smoke it in pieces. Chicken salad purists might say the breasts are the only option, but you can also use legs, thighs, and drumsticks. After a while in the smoker, dark meat tends to come out more tender and full of flavor. 

There are numerous types of smokers that can work here, but if you don't have one, this amped-up chicken salad isn't out of reach. Try turning your gas grill into a smoker, or if you don't have a space that's ideal for outdoor cooking, you can also invest in an indoor smoker.

Tips for the best smoked chicken

Smoking can be an intimidating cooking method, and timing is everything. Make sure that you leave enough time for the meat to be prepped, cooked, and in the case of making chicken salad, to cool as well. If you're choosing to use a brine to incorporate more flavor and moisture into the chicken, take the soaking time into account, as well — you'll have to keep it submerged in the refrigerator for anywhere between one hour to one day.

If you're preparing a whole bird, the preparation process can be as simple as taking a few minutes to truss it up, but you may want to spatchcock it for more even cooking. Once you've turned on the smoker and brought the temperature up to 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, pop the chicken in and cook until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This can take up to four hours for a whole bird, but may take as little as an hour if you cut the chicken into pieces.

Outside of timing the process right, there are a few other things to keep in mind while smoking. Be sure to keep an eye on the chicken and check for parts that are cooking more quickly or slowly, and adjust the cooking time as needed. Also, avoid one of the biggest chicken-smoking mistakes and don't over-smoke it, or it could wind up tasting scorched and dry.

How to make smoky chicken salad

Once you've perfectly smoked your chicken and allowed it to cool, it's time to get to salad-making. The smoked meat will lend plenty of nuance to a basic chicken salad recipe, but if you want to add even more smoky flavor, crumble up pieces of bacon to fold in, or stir some BBQ sauce into the mayo dressing. You can also add a sprinkle of smoked paprika or a few dashes of liquid smoke. If you're using the latter, be sure to look for a high-quality version, like the one Alton Brown swears by.

If you think the smoke level in your dish is perfect already, there are loads of other ways to take your chicken salad to the next level. For an acidic addition that will act as a bright contrast to the smoky chicken and rich mayo, squeeze in a bit of lime juice or lemon juice. A dash of red wine vinegar will work as well. Plus, you can add fresh flavor with herbs — try dill, cilantro, tarragon, or basil.

Finally, classic chicken salad recipes often use celery for a crisp contrast to the tender chicken. However, there are a number of other options for adding crunchiness. Diced dill pickles, capers, and grated carrots all add a crisp texture as well as a pop of color. For sweeter add-ins, try halved grapes or diced apples or pears.