Pecan Chicken Salad

by Shelley · May contain affiliate links

Published Updated January 31, 2024

~ If I had to pick the #1 salad my family makes ALLLLL the time on constant repeat, it would have to be this Pecan Chicken Salad with apples, cranberries and goat cheese. Mmmm … and the real magic is in the quick Maple-Balsamic Dressing. It’s all a breeze to throw together and is completely adaptable … and CRAAAAZY delicious, every single time! ~

This Recipe Is:     Ready in 30 Minutes or Less    Includes Make-Ahead Steps  

Overhead of salad arranged in serving bowl, with two lines of chicken fanned across; bowl of extra pecans nearby.

My family has given our hearts to lots of salads through the years, but this one truly is the go-to, gold standard that we make over and over and over again.

Especially when my daughter Amy is home from college.

She’s crowned this as absolutely her all-time most favorite salad ever.

So you’d better believe I have it on the meal plan to make my girl happy, whenever she manages to make time to come home for a visit! (Miss you, baby girl!!!)

This Chicken Pecan Apple Salad recipe evolved out of our {also beloved} “Thanksgiving Salad” – that’s the salad with goat cheese, pears and candied pecans we first shared with you back in 2014, almost 10 years ago. We were so hooked on that one, that I started looking for ways to turn it into more of a main course salad … and this recipe is the deliciously addictive result!

Flatlay of Salad in large dinner bowl with fork, two more bowls of salad, goat cheese, napkin and forks nearby.

(Can a salad actually be addictive, you may ask. I’m here to say YES … yes it can! And Amy will back me up. 😉 )

Why This Chicken Pecan Salad Is THAT Good!

Let’s look at what we’ve got going on here:

  • Tender slices of juicy chicken
  • Crunchy pecans (you can toast ’em or candy them, if you want!)
  • Juicy, crisp apples
  • Sweet-tart dried cranberries
  • Crumbles of creamy, tangy goat cheese
  • And the most wonderful Maple-Balsamic Dressing to bring it all together!
Flatlay of ingredients with labels: Salad Greens, Balsamic Dressing, Dried Cranberries, Chicken, Pecans, Apple, Goat Cheese.

It’s got such a fabulous range of flavors and textures, all perfectly working together to equal so, so very much more than each individual ingredient.

And it’s ultra-fast, ultra-quick and easy, ultra-adaptable! Here’s what I mean about adaptable …

Tips for Adapting Your Pecan Apple Chicken Salad

You do need to measure ingredients to get the right flavor balance in the dressing. But as far as the rest of the main salad ingredients go, you honestly don’t have to measure at all. I never do. Just eyeball it and toss in what you’d like.

EASY!

There are so many ways you can riff on this and customize it, depending on what you happen to have on hand.

• Chicken Options (Lots of Ways … or Even NOT Chicken)

You can use warm or chilled chicken for this – either is totally great.

In the summer we’ll typically grill up some boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But, I also often use the breast meat from a rotisserie chicken I grab at the grocery store for an extra-fast dinner option.

Truly, however you’d like to cook your chicken will work beautifully. Grilled, roasted, baked, poached, pan-seared … or store-bought!

Overhead closeup of the sliced chicken fanned on the greens with pecans, cheese and fruit sprinkled on top.

And, this is a perfect way to use up leftover chicken from other meals. Be sure, though, that it’s only very simply seasoned – maybe with a bit of salt and pepper, at most. Avoid any strong flavors or marinades that would conflict with the other flavors in the salad.

You don’t even have to use chicken at all!

Try leftover Thanksgiving turkey, salmon, grilled flank steak … or even go vegetarian and leave the meat off altogether. No wrong choices here!

• Apple Options

We like to use juicy, firm, sweet-tart apples like Honeycrisp. Grab whichever apple you like best … just make sure it’s a really terrific apple, since “meh” apples will equal a “meh” salad.

Alternately, you can sub pears for the apples when they’re in season. (Remember, we use pears in our original “inspiration” salad, and they’re great here, too – but only when they’re at their peak).

• Pecan Options

You can use plain ol’ pecans, toasted pecans, candied pecans (again, like in our “inspiration” salad). I never take the extra time to toast mine, tbh. But when we’re feeling extra-fun (like when Amy rolls home from college!) I do sometimes upgrade to candied pecans.

Your choice!

And, while I know I’m calling this a Pecan Chicken Salad, you don’t absolutely have to go with pecans.

This would be great with walnuts, too. Or try slivered almonds if that’s all you happen to have on hand.

• Cranberry Options

Amy LOVES dried cranberries, and I often have a giant, Costco-sized bag in the pantry when she’s home. So, that’s an easy pantry staple for me to toss in here.

But instead of dried cranberries, you can get a little fancy and use dried cherries instead (yet again … like we do in our “inspiration” holiday salad).

• The {Ahhhh-Mazing Maple-Balsamic Dressing}

This is the one thing I’m gonna tell you NOT to mess with. Don’t be tempted to sub in a bottled dressing from the store. Disappointment awaits you along that path.

Trust me – the vinaigrette dressing is too good to miss.

It’s what really sets this salad apart from the pack.

Hand pouring dressing our of glass cruet onto salad in serving bowl below.

The proportions in my recipe card will probably make more vinaigrette than you’ll actually need for the amount of salad. Maybe almost twice as much.

But it’s good to have a little extra, if someone in your family is a dressing hog and pours with a heavy hand. And you’ll be happy to have some vinaigrette left over, for some other lucky salad later in the week.

• And What About Other “Extras”?

Sure, I can envision that you might wanna toss in some thinly sliced red onion or flecks of green onion, or maybe some crunchy celery.

And I can imagine you adding in a few red grapes – maybe even green grapes – if you’ve got some in the fridge. (Works beautifully in our creamy Healthy Chicken Salad with Yogurt Dressing, so why not?)

This recipe is written for the way we always make it. Use it as a springboard for how you make it. And don’t stress over the details.

Basically, this salad is meant to be a go-to, I-can-throw-it-together-at-a moment’s-notice kind of meal.

Improvise … have fun … and I bet it’ll become a favorite meal in your family’s regular dinner rotation, too!

Here’s all you have to do to throw the recipe together (in seriously only a few moments!) …

How to Make This Chicken Pecan Salad

Ingredient Prep

There isn’t much prep to be done – just slicing your juicy chicken (remember a purchased rotisserie chicken or leftover pre-cooked chicken works fine), then chopping up some apple and whisking together the dressing.

Overhead showing the apples cut into chunks on a cutting board with half an apple and bowls of goat cheese and pecans at edge.

I personally like to chop the apples into cubes, but thinly slice the chicken. You can definitely go with sliced apples instead of cubed, though … or cubed chicken instead of sliced. Whatever you prefer.

Step #1

Heap your salad greens in a large serving bowl, or separate them onto individual plates.

Layer some of your chopped apples, pecans, dried cranberries and goat cheese throughout your bed of lettuce, as you build the salad. (That way, you’ll have bits of those yummy “toppings” all throughout your creation … instead of only on the top layer.)

Goat Cheese Tips

I usually buy pre-crumbled goat cheese, to save a little time.

If you’re crumbling your own, though, it’s much easier to crumble super-cold goat cheese. If you try to crumble room temperature goat cheese, you’ll end up with smeary fingers and goopy blobs instead of nice crumbles.

Then, sprinkle the remaining apples, pecans, cranberries and cheese over the top of the salad and arrange your chicken.

Since I typically do sliced chicken, I like to fan it attractively on top. But, if you opt to chop your chicken in chunks, you can layer it throughout the salad with all the rest of the “toppings.”

Side view of salad in large, ridged white serving bowl with dressing and wooden servers in background.

Easy so far, right?!? You’re practically already done!

Step #2

For the dressing, whisk together some balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, smooth Dijon mustard and salt.

Make sure that all the salt is dissolved, and not collected at the bottom of your bowl.

Make the Dressing Ahead

If you’re short on time, fear not!

You can make your vinaigrette ahead of time, since it keeps beautifully in the fridge for several days.

Small glass bowl of Balsamic Dressing with whisk, measuring spoons, bowls of salad and pecans nearby.

Besides our holiday Salad with Goat Cheese and Pears, we also use this same Maple-Balsamic Vinaigrette in our Adorable Thanksgiving Salad with Butternut Squash Turkey and (with a couple tiny tweaks) in our Superfoods Brussels Sprout Salad.

You’ll find plenty of opportunities to use it!

Just give the dressing a quick re-whisk, as needed, before serving.

Step #3

Serve it up … yum yum yum! (Does this even count as a step?!?)

Two hands using wooden utensils to scoop salad with a pecan and chunk of apple out of big white bowl

I recommend that you wait to add the dressing to your salad until right before serving, or that you pass it ’round the dinner table so everyone can dress their own.

FAQs At-a-Glance

Does It Matter What Type of Salad Green I Use?

Not all that much. In general, any beautifully fresh greens will work nicely.

Can I Just Use Bottled Dressing for This Pecan Chicken Salad?

I mean … of course, you can use any dressing you love. I’m certainly not gonna stop you from living your best dressing life! But, I’m also here to URGE you (beg you … plead with you) to try our Maple-Balsamic Dressing instead. It’s a game-changer on this salad (and lots of others), and I have never found a store-bought version that even comes close. I truly don’t think you’ll get the same results from a store-bought bottle.

Can I Use Chicken Thighs Instead of Chicken Breasts?

It’s much more common to use chicken breasts for salads like this one. But as I explained in the article above, virtually any cooked chicken will work (and that includes thighs if you really prefer them). This would also be terrific with salmon, thinly sliced steak, leftover turkey from Thanksgiving … even no meat at all!

Can I Make This Ahead of Time?

I don’t recommend fully making this Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad ahead of time, since the apples can turn brown, and the lettuce may get soggy (especially if you’ve added the dressing). BUT … there are lots of steps you can do ahead, so it’s extra-fast to throw together at dinnertime. For example, you can make the dressing a couple days ahead, pre-slice the chicken, toast or candy your pecans (if you’re going that route), and crumble your goat cheese (if you didn’t buy pre-crumbled). Keep everything in separate, airtight containers in the fridge until you’re ready to toss it all together.

The Very Best Dinner Salad in the Entire World???

(Amy thinks so!)

Sure, we have lots of salads here on our website. And we truly love every single one of them (otherwise, we wouldn’t bother to share them!).

But this one. THIS ONE.

When I need to throw a big, main course dinner salad together, without really even thinking about it. And when I need a quick, flexible, nourishing meal that I know (from years of experience), everyone will be absolutely thrilled with …

This is that one.

Closeup of the chicken arranged on one portion of salad in a broad white dinner bowl with fork.

You’ll love that it’s so quick and easy. And so flexible.

You’ll love that it’s a meal in itself, all together in one bowl, with no other side dishes needed.

And you’ll love that it’s just so, so good.

Amy’s all-time favorite salad in the entire world. There’s no higher praise I can give it than that!

~ by Shelley

Love the Recipe? • Were My Tips Helpful?

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Please leave a star-rating in the recipe card below – I truly appreciate all your wonderful feedback!

Closeup overhead of single servingof salad in broad dinner bowl with dressing drizzled over the chicken.

Pecan Chicken Salad

This is the #1 main dish salad my family makes on constant repeat. It's a total breeze to throw together, and it's so perfectly delicious, every single time!
• Ready in 30 Minutes or Less • Includes Make-Ahead Steps •
5 from 8 votes
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Prep Time: 11 minutes
Total Time: 11 minutes
Yield: 14 cups (which should serve about 3-5 people as a main course)

Ingredients
 
 

Salad

  • 5 ounces mixed gourmet/spring greens
  • 1 cup chopped apple (we like Honeycrisp)
  • ¾ cup pecans (can optionally toast or use candied pecans – see note)
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • 3 ounces crumbled goat cheese
  • 2 cooked chicken breasts (warm or chilled – see note)

Dressing

  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
  • teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions
 

  • Place greens in a large serving bowl (or divide among individual salad plates), layering in some of the apples, pecans, dried cranberries, and goat cheese as you build the salad. Sprinkle the remaining apples, pecans, cranberries, and cheese over top of greens, and arrange the chicken on top.
    Overhead closeup of the sliced chicken fanned on the greens with pecans, cheese and fruit sprinkled on top.
  • For the dressing, whisk together balsamic vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, mustard, and salt until emulsified.
    Small glass bowl of Balsamic Dressing with whisk, measuring spoons, bowls of salad and pecans nearby.
  • Dress the salad just before serving, or pass the dressing at the table. (See note.)
    Hand pouring dressing our of glass cruet onto salad in serving bowl below.

Notes

Pecans: You can use plain pecan halves, toasted pecans or candied pecans. If you’re going the candied route, I definitely recommend using our super-easy recipe for 5-Minute, 4-Ingredient Candied Pecans. They add just the right amount of sweetness without going overboard on the sugar or adding corn syrup, butter, or other less-healthy ingredients.
Chicken: As mentioned in more detail in the article above, my family usually uses either rotisserie chicken (for maximum speediness) or (on pleasant summer evenings) simple grilled chicken that’s just lightly seasoned with only salt and pepper. This recipe works beautifully with both warm and chilled chicken. Basically any preparation you prefer, or any leftover chicken you happen to have, will be fine, as long as it hasn’t been strongly marinaded or seasoned with flavors that would compete with the rest of this dish.
Serving tips: This salad is literally loaded with toppings, which is exactly how my family likes it best. Feel free to tweak the exact proportions to suit your family’s tastes. As I said in the article above, you don’t have to stress about exact measurements (except for the dressing).
Dressing: This recipe makes enough dressing that you probably won’t need it all if you follow the exact amounts I suggest for the other ingredients. But, since I wanted the recipe to be flexible for you to vary the amounts … and since some people may be “heavy pourers” when it comes to dressing, I wrote the dressing part of the recipe to be able to give you some wiggle room.
Make-ahead tips: The dressing can be made a day or two in advance and kept, covered, in the refrigerator. If you’re planning on making candied pecans (using our recipe), those can also be made in advance. For a little extra time-savings, look for already-crumbled goat cheese, rather than the logs that you’ll need to crumble yourself.

Nutrition

Serving: 1 cup | Calories: 146 | Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Unsaturated Fat: 6g | Cholesterol: 24mg | Sodium: 70mg | Carbohydrates: 10g | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 8g | Protein: 9g
(Note that this calculation assumes you’ll use all the salad dressing, which you probably won’t.)

* Nutrition information should be considered an estimate only, and may vary depending on your choice of ingredients or preparation. No guarantees are made regarding allergies or dietary needs. Always consult a physician or dietician for specific advice and questions.

Course: Salad
Cuisine: American
Diet: Low Calorie
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