The secret to making perfect chicken salad, according to a golf-club chef

It's hard to mess up chicken salad, but there are still some best practices to keep in mind.

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Which came first: the chicken or the chicken salad? That one’s easy. The tougher question is: what are the keys to doing chicken salad right?

Marc Johnson is executive chef at Santa Lucia Preserve, a private club in the foothills of Carmel, Calif., where chicken salad is a comfort-station favorite. Johnson’s go-to version is studded with raisins and almonds, spiked with curry and tossed with aioli, but he says, “the best thing about chicken salad is that you can be as creative as you want.”

Still, it helps to have a blueprint, so we asked Johnson for five-point guide.

1. Start out whole

You can make chicken salad out of chicken parts. But a whole chicken is greater than the sum of those. Johnson suggests roasting the entire bird, because the fat rendered during cooking will seep into the meat, enhancing its juiciness and flavor. Let it cool, then get to work.

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2. Light or dark meat?

Each has its plusses, and Johnson’s personal preference is a mix of the two. But he finds that most people lean towards light meat, so that’s what he uses at the club. While dark meat tends to have more flavor, light meat is less fatty and contains less moisture, so it’s got that going for it. “The key to a good chicken salad is that you don’t want the consistency too loose and soupy.”

3. Hold the mayo

“Keep it light,” says Johnson, who recommends using aioli instead.

4. How to cut it

You can slice it or shred it. But a third option — dicing — is what Johnson suggests, as it produces what he says is the best texture.

5. Fruits and nuts

Speaking of texture, you can get great crunchy contrast — and terrific flavor — by adding fruits and nuts. Apples. Almonds. Pecans. Grapes. The only limit is your imagination. “Chicken is the universal canvas.” And a well-made chicken salad is a work of art.

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A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.