A quintessential American casserole, hot chicken salad is timeless, a comfort food that never disappoints and comes together in no time. It takes the components of a classic chicken salad, tops it off with something salty and crisp, and bakes in the oven until warm, bubbly, creamy and crunchy.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the dish’s provenance, as early as the late 1890s, recipes appear in community cookbooks from Kentucky, the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee, to the Midwest and even parts of the Northwest. With each recipe, the filling and toppings vary. The main components are cooked chicken (a cut up rotisserie or poached chicken works great), mayonnaise, celery, grated cheese, lemon juice and slivered almonds for texture. To this mix, you can also add water chestnuts, pimento, onion, mushrooms, cooked eggs or canned cream of chicken soup, a stalwart of casserole recipes. In the 1951 edition of “The Joy of Cooking,” the first time hot chicken salad appeared in the book, the dish included a béchamel sauce.
Toppings can include bread crumbs, crackers or cornflakes. But in the 1960s, when, according to Ronni Lundy, author of “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes,” warm or hot salads became popular, potato chips started appearing as a topping. They also finish this version, turning the dish into something that sends everyone rushing to the table.
That it’s so easily prepared with staples is part of what makes it “the first thing to come through the door” to provide comfort and support, said Kathleen Purvis, a former food editor at the Charlotte Observer and the author of “Distilling the South.”