Why It Works
- A balanced sauce has plenty of vinegary kick to balance out the cloying sweetness that most restaurant versions have.
- Cooking the aromatics for the sauce at a lower temperature lets their flavors develop without having to superheat your wok or skillet.
- Adding vodka to the chicken coating inhibits gluten formation and leaves you with a crisper crust.
- Adding some of the marinade to the dry coating mixture makes more surface area which results in extra crunch.
My high school physics teacher, Mr. Harless, always said to me, "Kenji, your goal in life should be to work hard to become as lazy as you can be."
During my first semester at college, when all classes were taken on a pass/fail basis, I took him at his word by being the one student in my thermodynamics class who got the lowest possible passing grade. I'm pretty sure that's not what Mr. Harless meant.
What he did mean was this: If you take the time to solve one problem, you should do your darnedest to make sure that the lessons you learn while solving it are applied to other, similar problems so that you can kill multiple birds with one stone...in an engineering sense.
The Best Technique for Crispy Chicken
Prime example: Take all the lessons I learned during months of testing recipes for General Tso's chicken and apply them to its very similar partners-in-crime on the Chinese-American lunch special menu, orange chicken and sesame chicken.
Easily the most difficult part of making General Tso's chicken at home is the battering and frying process. After dozens of tests, I landed on a method that works flawlessly to produce the crispest, most sauce-clingingest chicken you can imagine by using a combination of an egg-based batter and a vodka-spiked marinade to coat the chicken chunks before frying.
With a coat that crisp, the chicken stays crunchy no matter what you throw it into, and lucky for us, the only real difference between orange chicken, sesame chicken, and General Tso's happens to be the easiest part: the sauce. Adapting the recipe was as simple as coming up with good sauce replacements.
True Chinese-style orange chicken is made with sliced fresh chicken—not the battered and fried stuff you'll find in the US—and is flavored not with fresh orange, but with dried orange or tangerine peel. It's been ages since I've seen this version served at a restaurant in the US, but that's okay by me—the fried version does just fine.
Maximizing the Orange Flavor in the Sauce
Most of my testing for this sauce revolved around packing in the right orange flavor. I started by drying out orange peels naturally in the sun, then used them to flavor the sauce. It was tasty, but lacked the brightness I was after (not to mention it took over a day to dry the peels properly).
Drying the orange peels in the oven sped up the process, but didn't do much for flavor. What about fresh peels?
They were certainly brighter in flavor, but lacked the intense, almost raisin-like depth of dried peels.
The key turned out to be a threefold combination: I used dried strips of orange peel along with some fresh-grated orange zest, and a good amount of fresh juice in the sauce as well.
I made the sauce by sautéing some ginger, garlic, and scallions, then deglazing the pan with Chinese rice wine, just a touch of soy sauce, some fresh orange juice, some vinegar, sugar, and salt.
A little cornstarch thickens it up to chicken-coating texture.
And if you're the kind who likes their orange chicken a little spicy, a touch of red chile or even sriracha wouldn't hurt here.
Oh, and hey Mr. Harless, look what I did: I can now get take out-style Chinese-American orange chicken and I don't even have to pick up the phone! How's that for lazy?
This story was originally published under the column name "The Food Lab Redux."
For the Marinade:
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (see notes)
2 tablespoons 80-proof vodka
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks (see notes)
For the Dry Coating:
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the Sauce:
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (see notes)
2 tablespoons Chinese rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon roasted sesame seed oil
2 teaspoons grated zest and 1/4 cup juice from 1 orange
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 (2-inch) strips dried orange peel (see notes)
2 teaspoons peanut, vegetable, or canola oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger (about one 1-inch piece)
2 teaspoons thinly sliced scallion bottoms (about 1 scallion)
2 quarts of peanut, canola, or vegetable oil for deep frying
Steamed white rice and steamed broccoli for serving
For the Marinade: Beat egg white in a large bowl until broken down and lightly foamy. Add soy sauce, wine, and vodka and whisk to combine. Set aside half of marinade in a small bowl. Add baking soda and cornstarch to the large bowl and whisk to combine. Add chicken to large bowl and turn with fingers to coat thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.
For the Dry Coat: Combine flour, cornstarch, baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Whisk until homogenous. Add reserved marinade and whisk until mixture has coarse, mealy clumps. Set aside.
For the Sauce: Combine soy sauce, wine, vinegar, chicken stock, sugar, sesame seed oil, orange zest and juice, and cornstarch in a small bowl and stir with a fork until cornstarch is dissolved and no lumps remain. Add dried orange peel. Set aside.
Combine oil, garlic, ginger, and minced scallions in a large skillet and place over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are aromatic and soft, but not browned, about 3 minutes. Stir sauce mixture and add to skillet, making sure to scrape up any sugar or starch that has sunk to the bottom. Cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens, about 1 minute. Transfer sauce to a bowl to stop cooking, but don't wipe out skillet.
To Finish: Heat 1 1/2 quarts peanut, vegetable, or canola oil in a large wok or Dutch oven to 350°F (177°C) and adjust flame to maintain temperature.
Working one piece at a time, transfer chicken from marinade to dry coat mixture, tossing in between each addition to coat chicken. When all chicken is added to dry coat, toss with hands, pressing dry mixture onto chicken so it adheres, and making sure that every piece is coated thoroughly.
Lift chicken one piece at a time, shake off excess coating, and carefully lower into hot oil (do not drop it). Once all chicken is added, cook, agitating with long chopsticks or a metal spider, and adjusting flame to maintain a temperature of 325 to 375°F (163-190°), until chicken is cooked through and very crispy, about 4 minutes. Transfer chicken to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain.
Add chicken to empty skillet and return sauce to skillet. Toss chicken, folding it with a rubber spatula until all pieces are thoroughly coated. Serve immediately with white rice.
Shaoxing wine can be found in most Asian markets. If unavailable, dry sherry can be used in its place.
If you can't find boneless skinless chicken thighs, you can debone them yourself using this guide.
Dried orange peel can be found at Chinese grocers, or make your own by peeling off sections of orange peel with a vegetable peeler and placing on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet in a 275°F (135°C) oven until mostly dry, about 45 minutes.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 21g||27%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||16%|
|Total Carbohydrate 54g||20%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||3%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 7mg||37%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|