~ This showstopper 7-Layer Chicken Taco Salad takes those potluck-classic layered salad recipes to whole new heights (literally!). Piled high in a trifle bowl, it’ll be the “Oooooh … who made that?” hit of the picnic, but we’ve got shortcuts and make-ahead tips to ensure that it’s quick and simple, too! So simple that you can even make it for weeknight dinners! (Won’t your family be impressed?!?) ~
This is the crossroads where “unassuming taco salad” meets “wow-factor presentation.”
Where you show up at the party holding a trifle bowl filled with the showstopper recipe … and you still had time to swipe some fresh polish on your piggies before you dashed out the door.
Everybody loves the classic layered salad. It’s an absolute must-have at summer picnics and church potlucks.
You know the one – a layer of lettuce, topped with other pretty layers of things like hard-boiled eggs, peas, chopped bacon and cheese, then finished with a thick spread of dressing that normally involves large quantities of mayo (ummmmm … did you just do that to a healthy salad???).
“Why mess with a classic?” you may be thinking.
Trust us … one bite and you’ll know why!
Our kicked-up version takes that classic layered salad and mashes it with all the flavors you love in a Mexican 7-layer dip, or in your favorite taco salad.
It’s really versatile, too! A perfect side dish on a picnic buffet, but definitely also hearty enough to serve as a main dish. It’s just right on a hot summer evening!
Plus, it’s much more than just a pretty face (all piled in a trifle bowl to show off its virtues). With so many great veggies and those big Mexican flavors, it’s also plum-crazy-full of deliciously nutritious ingredients (no thick schmear of mayo here, friends!).
And it’s so much easier than it looks!
We’ve got the cheats, tips, and make-ahead ideas to ensure this is a total breeze! So easy, in fact, that you may just find yourself making this salad for weeknight family meals, and not just saving it for special, dress-to-impress potluck suppers!
So let’s build this salad!
Choosing Your Bowl
A straight-sided trifle bowl or glass salad bowl is the perfect way to present this layered taco salad, so other partygoers can oooooh and aaaaaah at your culinary prowess and the eye candy of all those pretty layers you built.
But not to worry if you don’t have a clear trifle bowl. You’ll lose a few style points on presentation, but this salad tastes every bit as delicious no matter what type of bowl you serve it in.
No glass bowl? No matter! Just make this anyway! (And put a trifle bowl on your Christmas list.)
The Perfect Chicken Taco Salad Dressing
Dressings for layered salad recipes are typically thicker than normal salad dressings. After all, you don’t want the dressing to be so thin that it seeps down the side of the bowl, obscuring the other colorful layers!
Our Mexican-inspired dressing is thick enough to work beautifully as soon as it’s mixed up, but if you make it ahead and refrigerate it prior to building the salad, it’ll be even thicker by the time you spread it on the salad before serving.
Either way, you should be drip-free and presentation-perfect!
The Right Chicken for This Salad
To be honest, we normally just grab a rotisserie chicken at the store if we realize at the last minute that we want to make this salad. It’s a super quick and easy solution!
If you’re more of a planner, then you can also just cook up a couple of extra chicken breasts earlier in the week, and keep them in the fridge until you’re ready to layer up this salad.
Building the Layers
We once saw a fabulous tip from the all-knowing P-Dub (Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman!). In building her classic Layered Salad, she suggests concentrating the pretty ingredients around the perimeter of the bowl, and piling a bit more lettuce up through the center, as needed, to fill up each layer.
Placing more of the colorful ingredients toward the glass bowl helps really show off all those lovely layers. Brilliant!
Just be sure not to go overboard with this idea – you don’t want the center to be ALL lettuce with no toppings in there. The poor fella who takes a scoop from the middle of your salad will end up with an awfully boring spoonful! (Notice in the string of salad-building photos above how we clustered just a bit more of the toppings toward the outside of the glass bowl, while still sprinkling a few toppings in the middle, too.)
Some “classic” layered salad recipes tell you to seal the top of the salad with the thick dressing, and then refrigerate the whole thing for several hours to allow the flavors to blend.
That idea doesn’t work with this taco salad, simply because our layers of delicious Mexican flavors are way, way too heavy. They’ll weigh down the lettuce at the bottom, losing some of the glorious height you just built, and also making the lettuce compress and sog out.
The solution for those of us who love make-aheads? Simply prep all the layers, refrigerate them in separate containers, and pile them up in just moments, before serving! So easy!
And don’t worry if you can’t serve the salad immediately after you put it together – you’ve got time enough to drive to the potluck or your friend’s backyard BBQ. The lettuce can hold its own there on the bottom of the bowl for an hour or so, but much longer than that and it’ll start to get bogged down under the scrumptious layers above it.
Serving Your Gorgeous Layered Picnic Salad
Some layered salad recipes will suggest that you can toss the whole salad together before serving, to mix the ingredients. We really prefer leaving it layered, just as it is, and serving it with a long-handled serving spoon so people can scoop all the way to the bottom to get a bit of all the different layers and flavors.
Why mess up your beautiful salad-scape by pre-mixing it into a jumbled mess?
Just 7 layers … 7 gorgeous, showstopping, hit-of-the-party layers. And so easy, too! This taco salad is truly picnic perfect, every time!
- 1 1/2 cups diced tomatoes (from about 2 medium tomatoes)
- 1 16-ounce jar thick and chunky salsa, divided (we use mild)
- 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onions
- 2 cups diced, cooked, boneless, skinless chicken breast (see note)
- 1 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 8 cups of chopped Romaine lettuce, tough stems removed
- 1 cup cubed, reduced-fat, sharp cheddar cheese (see note)
- 1 15-ounce can black beans (preferably organic or reduced-sodium), rinsed and drained
- 1 1/2 cups corn (fresh or thawed, frozen kernels)
- 1 cup lightly crushed whole grain tortilla chips
- additional cilantro for garnish, if desired
- In a medium bowl, stir together tomatoes, 1¼ cups salsa, cilantro, and green onions.
- In a second medium bowl, combine chicken, Greek yogurt, remaining ½ cup salsa, onion powder, salt, and garlic powder.
- In a large bowl (preferably a straight-sided, clear glass salad bowl or trifle bowl), layer the salad in the following order:
3) Black beans
4) Salsa mixture
6) Chicken and dressing mixture
7) Just before serving, sprinkle salad with crushed tortilla chips and additional cilantro (if desired).
- Serve immediately.
- Alternately, you can cover the taco salad with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to an hour (see note on make-ahead tips in the text of this post), adding topping of chips and optional cilantro after refrigeration, just before serving. Serve with a long-handled spoon to scoop up all the different layers.
Chicken: Nearly any boneless, skinless chicken breasts will work in this recipe, as long as they’re not overly flavorful from spices or marinades. As we recommend in the post, you can simply plan on cooking a couple of extra chicken breasts whenever you’re making chicken, so you have extra cooked chicken for this recipe without any extra work. Alternately, store-bought rotisserie chicken is another easy option if you're short on time.
Cheese: If you don't want to purchase a whole block of reduced-fat, sharp cheddar cheese for this recipe, check to see if your store carries individually wrapped cheese sticks (we use Sargento). It's really easy to quickly chop about 6 or 7 of those cheese sticks for this salad, and you'll have the rest of the cheese sticks for grab-n-go snacking.