The best chicken salad ever (+ recipes)
How often have you bitten into a chicken breast and wondered if you're actually eating cardboard? In our paranoia to ensure we won't get food poisoning from undercooked chicken, we tend to cook it to death, so it's beyond dry and utterly tasteless.
The Chinese are masters of chicken cookery, and one of their famous recipes involves putting a whole chicken in a pot with a sprinkling of salt and a bunch of aromatics such as spring onions, star anise, slices of ginger or a couple of kaffir lime leaves. Water is added to the pot so it covers the chicken by about 5cm (about two finger-widths), the pot is covered and just brought to a boil, then dropped to a gentle simmer. The bird simmers for just 20 minutes before being taken off the heat and left to cool fully for a couple of hours in the cooking liquid.
"No way," I can hear you say. "It will still be raw. And it will be bland. Give me roast or fried or baked chicken any day." But I promise that when you follow this method, not only will the chicken be fully cooked (protein set, no longer clear, only very lightly pink close to the bone), but it will have an unsurpassed tender texture, juiciness and clean flavour.
The same technique can be applied to chicken breasts, and it takes less time. For Mediterranean flavours add aromatics such as thyme, bay leaves, slices of lemon and a few peppercorns; for Asian flavours use the aromatics I've mentioned above. Add a little salt, and water to cover the chicken by about 5cm, or two finger-widths. Cover, bring to a simmer, then simmer for 1 minute only. Remove from the heat and leave to cool, without uncovering, for at least 1½ hours. Take the chicken out of the liquid (strain it to use as stock), remove and discard the skin if necessary, and shred the flesh into chunky pieces or slice as you prefer.
Because it is never subjected to the high temperatures of boiling that cause toughening, the chicken will always be tender and juicy. And because the volume of water is sufficient it holds the heat for long enough to finish cooking through. Once you know this simple method, you will never cook chicken for salads, sandwiches and wraps any other way. And it's likely you won't even need to consult the recipe, it will just become a method you know off by heart.
Little techniques like this can transform your cooking and eating experiences, which is why I've included a bunch of "springboard" recipes throughout my new book, Essential. These road maps detail the "how to" of popular cooking methods, whether you're making a tender stew, a chicken salad, a noodle bowl, a creamy risotto, a frittata or a vegetarian grain bowl.
Understanding the road map of a recipe and where it is taking you allows you to focus on the things that actually matter in a recipe and means you can be creative with whatever other ingredients you have at hand. With your poached chicken ready to go, you're ready to springboard to all manner of wonderful chicken salads.
Leftover roast chicken or a store-bought roast chicken can also be used for chicken salad - just strip the meat off the bones and discard with the skin and any fat. Get the recipe
The trick with any chicken salad is to dress the chicken before you add other ingredients. The dressing flavours soak into the chicken and carry the flavours as well as keeping it moist. Get the recipe
Regardless of how it's cooked, you will get maximum tenderness and juiciness if you eat cooked chicken straight away or once it has cooled to room temperature, without chilling it (chicken, meat or seafood protein sets when it is chilled).
If using poached chicken more than 2 hours after it has cooled down, store it in its cooking liquid in the fridge until needed. It will keep for 4 or 5 days. Get the recipe
These are just three of the clever Springboard Recipes in Annabel's new book Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65), a beautiful compendium of more than 650 of her best-ever savoury recipes and cooking tips. Find out more at annabel-langbein.com or follow Annabel on Facebook or Instagram.