Chicken salad, while delicious, can only last so long before it begins to spoil and get gross. If you made more chicken salad than you can eat in a meal—and want to enjoy it for a couple of days or more—you need to know how to store it and when to eat it.
Whether we’re talking traditional Caesar salad, summer chicken salad with leafy greens and cherries, or a hearty shredded chicken salad with mayo, lemon juice, and black pepper, chicken salad is a perishable food best eaten shortly after preparation.
For the reasons that I’m about to share with you in the rest of this blog post, you don’t want to keep it in your fridge for too long. Before we get into it, here’s the long story short:
Stored in an airtight container (a food storage container on which the lid fits so tightly, no air can get in or out), chicken salad will last for 3 to 5 days in your fridge.
The best indicator for unopened store-bought salad, whether it comes in a bag or box, is the best-by date. If you’ve opened the salad and you just can’t reseal it, transfer it to a food storage container of your own before putting it in the fridge.
Some of us make the mistake of covering our salad bowls in saran wrap. The problem with this technique is that it’s really hard to make the wrapping airtight.
Since your fridge works by constantly circulating air to draw the warmth out of the box, it might as well end up smelling like the ingredients in your salad or, worse, your salad could catch odors from other smelly foods in your fridge.
Use a large, spacious container and avoid ziploc bags or mason jars. That way, the chicken, as well as the rest of your salad’s ingredients, won’t get crammed together like a bunch of sardines.
To preserve the crispness of your salad, add the sauce first (if you don’t do it, that’s where it will end up anyway), then pack the chicken and any other firm ingredients like parmesan cheese or hard-boiled eggs on top of it, followed by the greens and the veggies. Keeping the greens and veggies for last keeps them from getting soggy in the sauce.
Food writer and show host Alex Delany recommends dressing only as much salad as you’re planning to eat at Bon Appétit. “Dressing, more specifically the acid in dressing, makes greens wilt in a hurry,” Delany writes.
“The vinegar or citrus juice you used in your dressing breaks down the cell structure of the leaves, releasing water trapped in the greens. Which is why your 18-hour-old leftover salad is all wet and deflated.”
Croutons or breadcrumbs, unless you like yours soft instead of crunch (and who does?!), should be stored separately in a plastic bag, not refrigerated, and added to your salad right before serving.
Don’t leave chicken salad out on the counter for a prolonged period of time, and don’t keep it there for longer than 2 hours. Bacteria known to cause foodborne illness thrive at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F (4.4°C-60°C), which is why leaving the salad out can quickly make it unsafe to eat.
If you left chicken salad or any leftovers, for that matter, out for more than that time unrefrigerated, the right thing to do with it is to throw it in the bin.
How to Tell If Chicken Salad Is Bad
As a general rule of thumb, chicken salad that’s been left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours should always be discarded, no matter if it seems spoiled or not.
The tell-tale signs that chicken salad has gone bad are mold, sticky chicken, or an off smell. In case you notice any of these signs, you should discard of the salad and not eat it.
Watery sauce means that the mayo has separated and is, therefore, a few days old. While that’s hinting to you that it’s time to eat the salad or have to throw it away soon, it’s not necessarily a sign of spoilage.
Can You Freeze Chicken Salad?
Suppose you’re looking for a delicious and nutritious meal that can last for months in your freezer. Here’s why chicken salad shouldn’t be on top of your list.
If your chicken salad contains mayo, it will look normal when frozen, but the mayo will break during thawing and get watery, leaving you with the liquid and acids separating from the yolks and floating freely. In other words, your salad will come out anything but appetizing.
As anyone who’s had their fridge work on overdrive will tell you, leafy greens like arugula, kale, romaine lettuce, Swiss lettuce, and others don’t freeze well, especially if you plan to eat them in a salad.
So make salad only when you plan to eat it immediately or within a few days.