Orange chicken is an American Chinese dish that’s made by battering and deep-frying pieces of chicken before coating them in an orange-flavored sauce. Like many Chinese-American dishes, Orange Chicken does have distant roots in China; however, it is not an authentic Chinese dish. That doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad, but unfortunately, many take-out shops go overboard on the batter and use artificial colors and ingredients. The thing is, Orange Chicken is easy to make from scratch. Once you make it at home, you’ll never go back to the red pagoda clad paper boxes again.
Although orange chicken is a relatively recent creation, it’s unclear who invented it. What is reasonably certain is that it was developed in North America as a variant of General Tso’s Chicken or Sweet and Sour Chicken. The American fast-casual chain Panda Express claims to have invented it, and while this is difficult to prove, it is generally credited with popularizing the dish.
For my take on Orange Chicken, I like to marinate the chicken in a combination of soy sauce, sake, and ginger. This not only seasons the chicken, imparting loads of umami, but it also gives it a pleasant ginger kick that complements the orange flavor in the sauce. I usually throw the chicken in the marinade in the morning, so that it’s well seasoned by the time I’m ready to make it for dinner. If you’re in a rush, you could get away with a marination time as short as fifteen minutes.
Next, I dust my marinated chicken in a thin coating of potato starch before frying it. This is essentially how I make my Karaage, so the fried chicken is pretty awesome on its own, and you may be tempted to snack on a few bites before throwing it into the sauce. I prefer this method as opposed to using a batter because it’s easier, and it creates a thin crust without becoming greasy and cloying. I know someone is going to ask, so I’ll address it now. You can substitute cornstarch for the potato starch, but it will not be the same. Cornstarch has smaller granules, which leads to a denser coating, and it also has a higher ratio of amylose to amylopectin which gives it an unpleasant texture as it cools. Bob’s Red Mill produces a potato starch that’s sold in most upscale grocery stores.
To finish the dish, the fried chicken just gets tossed with the orange sauce until it forms a glossy orange glaze around each morsel of juicy chicken.
For the sauce itself, I wanted there to be no mistake that it’s Orange Chicken you’re eating, so I hit it with a triple dose of orange. First, there’s marmalade, which is nice because it not only has an intense orange flavor, it’s sweet enough to balance out the tanginess of the second form of orange: orange juice. Finally, there’s some fresh orange zest, which adds a zingy pop of orange flavor without using any artificial flavorings.
For the marmalade, I like to use a cheap one because they tend to be sweeter and less bitter than the fancy ones. If you insist on getting fancy ingredients, put the money towards buying great chicken instead. As for the orange juice, you need to use a fresh orange anyway for the zest, and you should easily get 1/3 cup of juice from the orange you took the zest from.
Other Sweet & Sour Chicken Dishes
- 450 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs (cut into 1.5-inch pieces)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1 teaspoon fresh ginger (grated)
- ½ cup potato starch
- vegetable oil (for frying)
for orange sauce
- ¾ cup orange juice
- ⅓ cup orange marmalade
- ½ tablespoon orange zest (zest of 1/2 orange)
- ½ teaspoon potato starch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ red bell pepper (minced, for garnish)
- ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)
- Add the chicken, soy sauce, sake and fresh ginger to a bowl and mix together. Let the chicken marinate for at least 15 minutes, or preferably up to 8 hours.
- Add all the ingredients for the orange sauce into a pan and whisk together.
- When you're ready to make the orange chicken, preheat a heavy pot filled with 2-inches of vegetable oil to 340 degrees F (170 C). Prepare a paper towel lined rack.
- Add 1/2 cup potato starch to another bowl, and dust the chicken with the potato starch. You want an even coating, but it should not be caked on.
- Fry the chicken in batches until golden brown and cooked through, flipping a few times to ensure it browns evenly.
- Drain the chicken on the prepared rack.
- When all the chicken is done, heat the pan with the orange sauce, stirring constantly until it starts to thicken.
- Add the fried chicken to the orange sauce and toss to coat evenly. The orange chicken is done when the sauce forms a thick glaze around the pieces of the chicken.