We all know that chicken meals are a freezer staple. So, what’s different about chicken salad? Why can’t it be a no-brainer to toss the leftover deli container or even your own leftovers into the freezer? As it turns out, a traditional summer chicken salad and the freezer definitely don’t mix, so it takes some preplanning to preserve that creamy classic.
What’s So Dicey About Chicken Salad?
The main difference between traditional chicken salad and other chicken-based meals? Mayo. Like all emulsified condiments, mayonnaise won’t defrost into anything resembling its former creamy glory. Instead, your chicken pieces will be covered in unappetizing chunks.
So, what should you do when you want to save the leftovers or if you want to create a make-ahead meal of chicken salad? Use a mayonnaise substitute like Miracle Whip or another whipped salad dressing. It may not taste exactly like mom used to make it, but it will lend moisture to the chicken and act as a tangy binder for the other ingredients.
Additional Tweaks That Ensure Success
Along with mayonnaise, some other iconic summer chicken salad ingredients don’t always come out of the freezer tasting their best. Fresh celery, onions and tomatoes tend to turn soft and watery upon thawing, as do pickles.
Your best option for a make-ahead meal is to either substitute ingredients that freeze well or add them after defrosting. Cold, roasted veggies can add some interesting depth to chicken salad. Instead of pickles, opt for freezer-friendly sweet relish. If you’re after crunch, consider chopping and blanching green beans or even broccoli heads.
On the other hand, if your favorite summer chicken salad recipe just has to have halved grapes, minced dill or diced celery, add them after the defrosting stage. To freeze chicken salad for later additions, cube or shred your cooked chicken, mix it with its nonmayo binder and freeze. Add the fresh ingredients after thawing the prepped chicken salad base.
Freeze Chicken Salad the Right Way
When you’re ready to freeze chicken salad, spoon it into a freezer bag, laying it flat once it’s nearly full. Press as much air as possible out of the bag before sealing. It can help to remove that last bit of air by sucking it through a straw if you have one handy.
Even if you’re not going to store the chicken salad horizontally in the freezer, it’s best to let it lay flat until it’s a solid block. Once that happens, you can stand it vertically or tuck it into any spare corner. It should go without saying that labeling the bag with the contents and the current date will be a big help in a few months.
Speed Things Up
Want an even quicker start to your next gathering or morning routine? If your chicken salad is destined for a party platter or even your brown bag, consider making and freezing chicken salad sandwiches ahead of time.
Obviously, for this method you need to have a chicken salad recipe that doesn’t need fresh ingredients added after thawing. Use a firm roll or day-old bread for these freezer sandwiches rather than flimsy slices.
Spreading a thin layer of butter or margarine on one side will help keep the chicken salad from oversoftening the bread or roll. If you want to make individual servings to take to work, place each sandwich in a regular sandwich bag and then set the individual bags into a freezer bag before placing them in the freezer.
Don’t Ruin Your Hard Work
The only real trick to defrosting your chicken salad spread or sandwiches is not to leave it to the last minute. Thawing it in hot water can dry out the cooked chicken. Even well-wrapped food can potentially become soggy when plunged into a bowl of water.
Most importantly, you don’t want to risk any foodborne illnesses that can happen with rapid defrosting. Instead, defrost your chicken salad spread or sandwiches in the refrigerator the night before.
With a focus on food, nutrition, cocktails and the latest dining trends, Melissa J. has been a freelance writer for more than 15 years. Her specialties include articles for such publications as SF Chronicle and National Geographic Green Living, as well as blog posts for the hospitality industry. Her previous positions include newspaper staff reporter and communications specialist for a nonprofit agency.