The secret ingredient you should be adding to your chicken salad

Sandwiches are a mainstay of lunchtime feasts, but some are better than others. There's a world of difference between a pasty chicken salad sandwich filled with flavorless mush and one you'll actually be proud to take to lunch, and that's because there's a secret ingredient you should be adding to it. 

The difficulty with making chicken salad is that most of the ingredients that go into the typical recipe are bland. Cooked chicken breast (or leftover rotisserie chicken), creamy mayo, celery, and salt make up a basic chicken salad, but what it's really missing is an acid, something that can break through the blandness so the chicken salad can stand up to whatever bread or roll you serve it on. 

How to make chicken salad taste better

The secret ingredient you should be adding to your chicken salad is pickle juice (via Cookies and Cups). You can (and should) add chopped pickles for extra tang and crunch, but if you like to keep things simple, just a splash or two of the pickle juice will do. 

The tangy, salty pickle brine cuts through the fatty mayo, bringing a zing to a chicken salad that is usually lacking in flavor. You might want to make sure you're using juice from pickles brined in a vinegar and salt solution, rather than ones that are fermented naturally, because that vinegary tang is the flavor you're looking for. 

If you've ever had chicken salad with grapes or nuts in it, then you get the general idea. All of that mayo and soft chicken just needs something different to liven things up. The bites of cool, crunchy pickle contrast with the creamy chicken in both flavor and texture, and it's that contrast that keeps you going back for more. 

How to brine chicken in pickle juice

If you're already sold on the idea of adding pickles and pickle juice to your chicken salad, there's yet another way you can boost the taste of the recipe with more tangy, salty flavor. Try brining your chicken in pickle juice before cooking it. 

Not only does a pickle juice brine tenderize and flavor your chicken, but it also helps keep notoriously dry chicken breast moist (via The Kitchn). All it takes is an hour. Brine your chicken breast in pickle juice, then remove it from the liquid and pat it dry before pan-roasting or baking it. 

Now the base of your chicken salad will be super flavorful, juicy, and will pair perfectly with the splash of pickle juice and crunchy chopped pickles you add to your chicken salad recipe. 

What are the health benefits to adding pickles to chicken salad?

If you're using store bought, shelf-stable pickles for your chicken salad, then you won't get the same probiotic benefits as you get from naturally fermented pickles (via Real Simple). The trade off is that you get a more vinegary, salty brine to add flavor to your recipe.

But are those shelf-stable pickles healthy? There's good news and bad news. 

Store bought pickles brined in a salt and vinegar solution are low in calories and fat. Some studies have shown that pickle juice can help relieve muscle cramps and can help increase hydration, while others show that the vinegar in pickle brine can help to regulate blood sugar.

The downside is that most pickles are high in sodium. Make sure you mix the pickles and pickle juice into your chicken salad recipe before adding additional salt. Then taste it and decide if it needs any extra — if the mix already tastes well-seasoned to you, you can skip the extra sodium. 

Pickle substitutes to use in chicken salad

If you don't have any pickles on hand but still want to add some extra zesty flavor to your chicken salad, there are a couple of alternatives. Pickle juice adds both tanginess and saltiness to your recipe. Ingredients like green olives and capers are also packed in a vinegary, salty brine that could be used instead of pickle juice if you don't have any on hand, and pepperoncini brine could be used if you want to add a spicy kick (via The Cook's Thesaurus). 

If you don't have any of those, either, you might be able to get away with just adding a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of vinegar to the chicken salad. It will add a much-needed acidity to the recipe, and while neither are as flavorful as pickle brine, which is usually infused with spices, it's still better than nothing at all. 

Trust us — once you've added pickle juice to your chicken salad, there's no going back to the bland and boring stuff.