Ready for an easy meal that you can enjoy during summer and beyond? Try this crunchy cranberry pecan chicken salad recipe with poppy seed dressing. Serve it to guests at a BBQ, or keep it hidden in your fridge to enjoy yourself!
One summer day, when the temperature was hovering somewhere between melted ice cream and the lava pit of doom (only in AZ), there was no way I was going near the oven.
With beads of sweat dotting my forehead, I opened the fridge to check out my options. Leftover chicken, crunchy celery, fresh apples… things looked good.
Throw in some sweet Craisins and crunchy pecans, and voila! Cranberry chicken salad was on the menu. The best kind of salad -- versatile enough for everyone.
You can eat it as a lettuce wrap, spread it on sandwich bread, or toss it with salad greens. Nothing better than a simple salad.
Get fantastic ideas for side dishes to serve with chicken salad.
This recipe features simple ingredients. But the star of the show is the homemade poppy seed dressing. With its deliciously sweet flavor, your great chicken salad transforms into unbelievably tasty.
Moist, Flavorful Chicken
Any cooked chicken that can be shredded or cubed is fair game. This recipe is a great option for leftover rotisserie chicken. Cuz you are always trying to find recipes to use up leftover chicken, am I right?
No leftovers? Costco canned chicken is easy and tasty. And chicken cooked in the slow cooker or Instant Pot will give you delicious results too.
A food processor is the perfect way to shred chicken breasts. Or chop the chicken with a sharp knife and cutting board.
Cubes of Crisp Apple
Granny Smith apples give the right sweet-sour crunch to this particular recipe. Really any sour green apple will do. The sourness contrasts with the sweet dressing perfectly.
Peel the apple or leave the skin on. Either way.
Slices of Crunchy Celery
Even the earliest healthy chicken salad recipes had celery in them. In fact, it is the one constant (besides chicken) in almost all recipes.
And why not? It’s healthy. It’s crisp. It adds a fresh green color. What’s not to like!
Minced Red Onion
If you want a kick, add red onion. If you want a milder flavor, use green onions instead. It will be a wonderful salad either way. So go with the onion variety you like. I’m sticking with red.
Sure, you could add raw pecans. That is the easy way.
But the delicious way? Toast them first. Its not hard and the results are well worth the effort. Try these sweet and spicy pecans (Trader Joe's copycat).
Sweet and tart, cranberries are a great choice for flavor and color. As a bonus, the bright color of Craisins makes a festive dish during the holidays.
Yes, that is when you swap out the chicken for leftover Thanksgiving turkey.
Poppy Seed Dressing
This homemade dressing adds the delicious twist you need for a terrific recipe. Maybe there are a few more ingredients in this dressing than in other simple recipes. But I promise the dressing makes this cranberry pecan chicken salad recipe the one you will turn to again and again.
A shallot, apple cider vinegar, sour cream, mayo, heavy cream, and poppy seeds blend together to produce great flavor. Don’t worry. The prep time is short.
You don’t need much equipment to make this recipe. Likely everything you need is already in your kitchen.
- Small skillet to toast the pecans
- Sharp knife and cutting board
- Vegetable peeler (if you don’t want skin on your apple)
- Large bowl for the chicken mixture
- Small bowl or liquid measuring cup for the poppy seed dressing
- Hand mixer with wire whip
- Optional: Food processor to blend the dressing (It takes less time to make the dressing with the right equipment.)
- Drain your chicken - To keep your chicken salad from getting too watery, make sure you drain your chicken. Whether you’re using canned chicken or chicken that you cooked yourself, try to remove any excess moisture before adding it to your other ingredients.
- Thoroughly mix - Be sure to thoroughly mix your chicken salad. And by thoroughly, I mean that everything is coated in poppy seed dressing, and there’s a bit of every ingredient in each bite. That makes for the best chicken salad.
I will assume that you have cooked chicken, either leftover or Costco canned chicken. If not, you can cook the chicken on a skillet, in the slow cooker, or in an Instant Pot.
Make the Poppy Seed Dressing
- Mince the shallot and pour it into a small bowl with the apple cider vinegar. Let the shallot soften in the vinegar for about 10 minutes.
- Pour the heavy cream into a medium bowl (or 4-cup liquid measuring cup). Using an electric hand mixer with a wire whip attachment, whip for about a minute or until the cream doubles in volume.
- Pour the sugar, mustard, sour cream, mayo, apple cider vinegar, and shallot into a food processor or blender and mix until combined. Alternately, you can mix it with a spoon if you don’t mind the size of the shallot pieces.
- Fold in the whipped cream.
- Add the poppy seeds. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
- Refrigerate until you are ready to stir the dressing into the salad.
Make the Salad
- Heat a skillet on the stovetop. You do not need butter or oil in the pan. Add the pecans to the hot pan. Stir them frequently so they do not burn. It takes about 5 to 8 minutes for the pecans to toast. Set aside the nuts to cool.
- Shred the cooked chicken. This can be done using two forks, an electric mixer, food processor, or blender (pulse in a blender). Set aside.
- Wash, peel, and dice the apple. Wash and dice the celery stalks. Dice the red onions.
- Chop the cooled pecans.
- Grab the large mixing bowl and add the shredded chicken, diced apple, celery, onions, cranberries, and pecans.
- Add the poppy seed dressing and stir the ingredients until they are thoroughly combined.
- Let the salad chill in the refrigerator for about an hour so the flavors mix.
- Serve and enjoy!
- Chicken – Got leftover turkey? This is a great way to use up your Thanksgiving bird. Swap out the chicken for turkey.
- Apple – I like using a Granny Smith apple because it’s tart and offers a nice balance to the sweetness from the dressing. But you can use a different variety if you’d like, such as a Golden Delicious or Gala.
- Poppy seed dressing – If the last thing you want to do is make a dressing, check out poppy seed or other sweet dressings in your local grocery store.
I recommend Brianna’s home-style poppy seed dressing. But whatever dressing you use, make sure it’s not too runny. I suggest avoiding vinaigrettes for that reason.
- Toppings – You can always substitute the toppings for what you prefer. If you’d rather swap out Craisins for grapes or pecans for almonds, feel free. Bacon is also a popular addition.
Check out my tips on how to cook bacon in the oven. You will love how effortless it is.
- Savory - Instead of poppy seed dressing, use a big dollop of mayo, some Dijon mustard, dill weed, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. Omit the cranberries, toasted pecans, and apples. Then add pine nuts for a savory alternative.
- Ranch - For complete ease, use mayo and a ranch seasoning packet for your dressing.
Now that you made your salad, how will you serve it? Get lots of creative ideas in the post on how to serve chicken salad at a party.
You can freeze some chicken salad recipes. This particular salad is not ideal for freezing because it has celery and apples. Check out my post about which kind of chicken salad you can freeze.
Chicken salad is traditionally served cold.
Chicken salad gets watery because it is made with ingredients that have a high water content, like celery, apples, and dressing.
You can combat this by waiting to mix the salad together until you are ready to serve it. You can also try adding something to the storage container that will absorb the water, like a slice of bread.
I also suggest using a slotted spoon to serve your chicken salad so that it drains some of the water.
What is the Best Way to Serve Chicken Salad?
Chicken salad can be served in a variety of ways. Everyone has a different opinion based on their taste buds. But here are a couple of my favorite ways to serve it.
- Over greens - Chicken salad is so fresh and tasty that it seems like a crime not to pair it with something fresh. To put the salad in chicken salad, place it over a bed of lettuce, spinach, or arugula for a healthy meal.
There are plenty of options besides bread to serve with chicken salad. Check them out.
- Bread - Possibly the most common way to serve a chicken salad is on a croissant. And while this is a fabulous way to do it, you can also just serve it on whatever sandwich bread you have at home. Honey whole wheat is a great bread for this salad.
Check out my other suggestions for the best bread for chicken salad.
- Crackers - If you want a carb with a crunch, serve your chicken salad as a dip and use crackers such as Wheat Thins or Triscuits to scoop it up.
Read up on all the other cracker varieties to serve with chicken salad. It's quite a list.
Looking for some topping suggestions? Check out my post on the best chicken salad sandwich toppings.
How to Store Leftovers
Store chicken salad leftovers in the fridge in an airtight container, such as a Pyrex bowl or Tupperware. Either one will keep your salad in good condition for two days.
However, you can still eat it for up to three or four days when stored in the refrigerator. But you may need to drain it if it is watery.
Learn even more information on the shelf-life of chicken salad and the warning signs that it has gone bad early.
How Early Can You Make Chicken Salad?
You can make your cranberry pecan chicken salad with poppy seed dressing one or two days in advance. However, don’t mix everything together until an hour or so before serving it.
Except for the apple, all the ingredients can be prepared in advance (chopped) and stored separately in the fridge. A cut apple will turn brown if it is cut and stored.
You can use a product like Fruit Fresh to help prevent oxidation. But the apple may turn brown after a day anyway.
See the best tips in my post on making chicken salad ahead.
What to Serve with Chicken Salad
- Potato, corn, or pita chips
- Veggie tray with hummus
- Fresh, seasonal fruit
Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing
Poppy Seed Dressing
- ½ of a shallot minced
- 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup of sour cream
- ¼ cup of mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
- 2½ teaspoons of granulated sugar
- ¼ cup of heavy cream
- ¾ teaspoon of salt
- ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
- 1½ tablespoons of poppy seeds
- 2 cups of cooked chicken shredded
- ⅓ cup of pecans
- ⅓ cup of red onions diced
- ⅓ cup of celery sliced (about 1 stalk)
- 1 Granny Smith apple seeded and diced (peeled if you want)
- ⅓ cup of dried cranberries like Craisins
- Make the Poppy Seed Dressing
- MINCE the shallot and pour it into a small bowl with the apple cider vinegar. Let the shallot soften in the vinegar for about 10 minutes.
- POUR the heavy cream into a medium bowl (or 4-cup liquid measuring cup). Using an electric hand mixer with a wire whip attachment, whip for about a minute or until the cream doubles in volume.
- ADD the sugar, mustard, sour cream, mayo, apple cider vinegar, and shallot into a food processor or blender and mix until combined. Alternately, you can mix it with a spoon if you don’t mind the shallot pieces.
- FOLD in the whipped cream.
- SPRINKLE IN the poppy seeds. Then add salt and pepper to taste.
- REFRIGERATE until you are ready to stir the dressing into the salad.
- Make the SaladThis recipe assumes that you already have cooked chicken. If not, cook and cool the chicken or use Costco canned chicken.
- HEAT a skillet on the stovetop. You do not need butter or oil in the pan. Add the pecans to the hot pan.
- STIR the pecans frequently so they do not burn. It takes about 5 to 8 minutes for the pecans to toast. Set aside the nuts to cool.
- SHRED the cooked chicken. This can be done using two forks, an electric mixer, food processor, or blender (pulse in a blender). Set aside.
- WASH, peel, and dice the apple. Wash and dice the celery stalks. Dice the red onions.
- CHOP the cooled pecans.
- ADD the shredded chicken, diced apple, celery, onions, cranberries, and pecans to a large mixing bowl.
- POUR in the poppy seed dressing and stir the ingredients until they are thoroughly combined.
- CHILL the salad in the refrigerator for about an hour so the flavors mix.
- SERVE with bread, crackers, or lettuce leaves.
- You don't have to chill the salad if you are in a hurry. However, chilling brings all the ingredients to the same cold temperature and lets the flavors mingle.