When someone says “Buffalo chicken,” I immediately think of the bar-food classic of greasy wings in buttery hot sauce, the cool crunch of celery and carrots, and chunky blue cheese dressing. Salad is pretty much the farthest thing from my mind. And yet, what is a salad anyway? Sure, the word evokes a seemingly healthy dish of lightly dressed green leaves and other vegetables, but it’s a flexible term that also includes things like a Cobb salad, which contains as much animal protein and fat as it does vegetable matter. Which is to say, can Buffalo chicken be salad-ified? Of course it can!
To that end, my go-to Buffalo chicken salad pulls out all the stops. There’s tender chicken that’s been marinated with lemon juice and Frank’s Red Hot, slices of creamy avocado, and crisp vegetables that are tossed in two different dressings: a blue cheese-based one and a sweet, spicy vinaigrette made with hot sauce and brown sugar. You could easily skip all of that and just toss chopped Buffalo chicken with some lettuce and store-bought dressing and call it a day—but then what would you want this recipe for? The goal here isn’t merely to chop up the key components of Buffalo chicken and toss them together in a serving bowl, it’s to create something just a bit more thoughtful, where the chicken is plump and tender, the flavors balanced, and the whole thing a satisfying one-dish meal.
Getting the Chicken Right
Perfect chicken in a Buffalo-inspired salad is a different proposition from perfect chicken in a hot bar-food presentation. When served hot, we might want chicken with its skin on, cooked up crispy so it’s juicy and delicious. Cold in a salad, though, and that same skin suddenly becomes a little less of an obviously desirable thing (though, for the record, most of us at Serious Eats are all-in on chicken skin regardless of the situation). For the widest possible appeal, we’ve opted for boneless, skinless chicken thighs, which will remain juicy even if cooled to room temp or served chilled, and with no skin to upset the pickier eaters among us.
Here, a quick marinade of hot sauce and lemon juice helps to tenderize and flavor the chicken thighs. As Serious Eats contributor Tim Chin wrote in his marinades investigation, using an acid like lemon juice lowers the pH of the marinade, denaturing proteins and producing in a more tender result. Acids can also help meats hold onto moisture, making for juicier chicken that’s less likely to dry out. For ease and convenience, we marinate the chicken for just 30 minutes here. While the tenderization effect will be minimized, you can marinate the chicken for longer—up to eight hours—for a more dramatic effect. Longer than that and you risk the meat turning mushy from the exposure to acid.
Use the Crunchiest Vegetables… and a Ripe Avocado
Bold flavors and hefty ingredients like chicken, celery, and thick blue cheese dressing call for equally bold textures to stand up to it all. That means opting for hearty romaine lettuce instead of leafy greens that wilt easily, along with fresh vegetables that pack real crunch. Instead of the carrot and celery sticks that are normally served with Buffalo wings, I shave the carrots into long ribbons and thinly slice the celery, helping them incorporate more seamlessly into the salad.
Red cabbage, cucumbers, and red onions bring extra crispness, while plump cherry tomatoes lend a pop of bright acidity. The richness of a ripe avocado provides textural contrast, helping to highlight the bite of the other vegetables while also helping to tame the heat of the Buffalo dressing.
Two Dressings Are Better Than One
Most salads call for one dressing, which is fine and dandy. But think of your favorite Buffalo wings: they’re coated in a buttery, spicy sauce and served with a chunky blue cheese dressing that helps to temper the heat. But to capture the full-on flavor of Buffalo chicken, we need to introduce that element in more ways than just on the chicken alone. The solution? An additional Buffalo dressing. Made with Frank’s Red Hot, light brown sugar, and lemon juice, the sauce is sweet, spicy, and tart. Tossed with the crisp vegetables and tender chicken, the two dressings work in tandem to bring this salad-ized version of a classic Buffalo chicken to life.
For the Chicken: In a medium bowl, whisk together hot sauce and lemon juice. Add chicken and turn to coat evenly. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to broil with rack 6 inches from heat source and line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Remove chicken from marinade, letting any excess marinade drip back into the dish. Arrange chicken in an even layer on prepared baking sheet. Broil until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 170°F (77ºC), 10 to 12 minutes. Let rest 5 minutes. Slice chicken against the grain.
Meanwhile, for the Blue Cheese Dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together blue cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, vinegar, and salt. Season with pepper to taste, along with additional salt, if desired. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Buffalo Dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together hot sauce, oil, brown sugar, and lemon juice. Season with salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Salad: Using a vegetable peeler, peel carrots lengthwise to create long ribbons. Cover carrot ribbons with damp kitchen towel and set aside until ready to use.
In a large bowl, toss together romaine, cabbage, carrot ribbons, and 1/2 cup blue cheese dressing. Arrange on a large platter. Top with celery, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, avocado, and sliced chicken. Drizzle with blue cheese dressing and Buffalo dressing, season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The blue cheese dressing and Buffalo dressing can be made up to 1 week in advance and kept in an airtight container refrigerated.
The chicken can be marinated and cooked up to 1 day in advance, and brought to room temperature before serving.