Brown Sugar Is The Key To A More Balanced Chicken Salad

From airport kiosks to school lunches and church potlucks to picnics, chicken salad (especially in sandwich form) is a classic lunchtime staple. But while some people say "there's no such thing as bad pizza," we've never heard anyone claim the same of chicken salad, which often comes out dry, gloppy, and worst of all, bland. That doesn't have to be the case, though. It turns out that adding one simple ingredient can really wake up the flavors in your chicken salad: brown sugar.

At its most basic, chicken salad is made with diced or shredded chicken and mayonnaise. Most people add salt, and some include ingredients like chopped celery, mustard, lemon juice, and herbs. But if your go-to recipe usually tastes a little bland, and you've already added more salt, you might want to try adding brown sugar. Brown sugar helps to balance the acidity of the dressing, especially if you're making a recipe with lemon juice or tangy Greek yogurt in the mix. It's also less sweet than white sugar, according to Healthline, and has a more complex flavor thanks to its molasses content, which is why adding just a little bit can wake up a boring batch of chicken salad in such a big way without actually making it taste sweet.

Adding sweetness with fruits, nuts, and spice rubs

Another way to balance the flavors and add a complex molasses note to your chicken salad is to use a brown sugar spice rub on your chicken before cooking it, rather than adding brown sugar to the creamy salad dressing. Roast, pan-fry, or grill your spice-rubbed chicken, then let it cool before cutting it up and tossing it with your dressing and other ingredients. The slightly sweet brown sugar spice rub will help infuse the salad with flavor, without making it taste like dessert. Alternatively, if you like a chicken salad with some crunch, adding brown sugar spiced pecans or walnuts to the mix can also help balance out the rich creaminess of the dish, keeping things from tasting too bland.

Adding brown sugar to chicken salad can help balance the salty, tangy, and savory flavors in the dish, but it's not the only way to add some sweetness. If you don't want to add sugar to your recipe, one way to introduce a sweet element to chicken salad is by adding fruit. Some people add dried cranberries or raisins, while others include fresh chopped apples or halved grapes to their recipe. Or, if you don't want the added chunks of fruit in your recipe but don't want to use highly refined sugar, date sugar or coconut sugar can be used instead of brown sugar. 

Using different types of mayo

Another thing to consider when making chicken salad is what type of mayo or creamy dressing base you are using. Traditional mayonnaise contains a scant amount of sugar. It's made with white vinegar and has a savory, not sweet flavor. Greek yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream-based chicken salads are similarly un-sweet and thus could benefit from the addition of brown sugar. 

However, some mayo brands, do have a slightly sweet flavor. Kewpie doesn't contain added sugar but includes rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar, both of which add a light sweetness. Similarly, Miracle Whip, while marketed as a lighter version of mayo, has less fat than traditional brands but contains added sugar, giving it a sweet flavor. That means that if you're making chicken salad with Miracle Whip or Kewpie, you'll want to taste it first before deciding if a teaspoon or so of brown sugar could help liven things up. 

The key to great chicken salad is perfecting that balance of creamy, tangy, savory, salty, and sweet that makes it so crave-able when done right, without any one flavor overwhelming the others. A little brown sugar can go a long way toward achieving that harmonious balance. 

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