What is Orange Chicken
Orange chicken is an American Chinese dish made by marinating and coating chicken pieces before deep frying and glazing them in an orange-flavored sauce. For me, it's both a guilty pleasure and a favorite comfort food. My version of this recipe isn't just another takeout imitation; it levels up the beloved Panda Express orange chicken with a trio of orange flavors, including juice, zest, and marmalade.
It's an easy recipe for homemade orange chicken that creates a fragrant, refreshing dish that perfectly balances tangy, sweet, and savory tastes with a contrast of sticky and crispy textures. Whether you're a fan of the Panda Express original or Costco orange chicken, these tricks bring the Chinese takeout experience home in a matter of minutes.
Orange Chicken Ingredients
- Boneless skin-on chicken thighs - These are my preferred cut for this orange chicken recipe, as they remain tender and juicy when cooked. If you can't find it, I have instructions for how you can debone whole thighs and legs. Boneless skinless chicken thighs are another good option. Boneless chicken breasts will work if you are concerned about calories, but they will not be as flavorful and can easily dry out if overcooked. Another great option for parties is to make meatballs with ground chicken seasoned with the marinade ingredients before shaping them into balls or chicken nuggets and coating them in starch. This simple change can turn this dish into a delicious party food that's perfect for potlucks and barbecues.
- Soy sauce - A tablespoon soy sauce is the primary seasoning for the crispy chicken pieces, imparting umami and a deep savory flavor to the marinade. For a gluten-free version, tamari can be substituted.
- Sake - Sake is a Japanese rice wine that adds umami and depth of flavor to the chicken while helping to tenderize it. The alcohol burns off when you cook it, but if you're concerned about this, you can also substitute in a pinch of MSG. Shaoxing is another rice wine that would make a good substitute.
- Ginger - Ginger contains a proteolytic enzyme called zingibain, which helps tenderize the chicken pieces while giving them a spicy zing. I like to keep the marinade pretty simple, but you can also add some grated cloves of garlic or garlic powder to give it even more flavor.
- Oil - To fry the chicken, use a neutral flavor oil with a high smoke point. Peanut oil, canola oil, and avocado oil are all good options.
- Potato starch - Coating the pieces of thigh meat with potato starch before dropping it in the deep fryer creates a crispy coating that helps thicken the orange sauce while helping it cling to each morsel of juicy chicken. There's also a small amount of starch in the sauce itself. Cornstarch is a viable alternative, but the texture will be more heavy. That's because cornstarch has smaller granules, which leads to a denser coating. Its higher ratio of amylose to amylopectin also tends to give it an unpleasant gummy texture as it cools.
- Orange marmalade - Marmalade is my secret ingredient for making the best orange chicken sauce. It adds sweetness and a potent orange flavor to the sauce while thickening it thanks to the pectin it contains. It also means you don't have to add any extra sugar. I recommend using a cheap marmalade (think Smucker's), as these tend to be less bitter than the fancier brands.
- Orange juice - The backbone of the homemade orange sauce, it provides the tangy, citrusy notes you expect from this popular dish. Freshly squeezed juice is ideal for the best flavor, and you'll need to squeeze around three medium oranges to get enough juice for the sauce. OJ from a carton will also work, but I recommend using one from the refrigerated aisle of grocery stores.
- Orange zest - Adding fresh orange zest to the sauce brightens the flavor profile, adding the vibrant citrusy aroma that only fresh oranges have.
- Garnishes - I like garnishing orange chicken with finely chopped red bell peppers and toasted sesame seeds. The peppers add a sweet, crisp contrast to the dish and a pop of color, and the sesame seeds add a nutty finish that contrasts nicely with the sweet and savory sauce. Fresh chili peppers or dried pepper flakes are another great option to bump up the heat.
How to make Orange Chicken
Preparing the Chicken
Cut the chicken into bite sized pieces. Marinate the pieces of chicken in a combination of soy sauce, sake, and ginger. This not only seasons the meat, imparting loads of umami, but it also gives it a pleasant ginger kick that complements the orange flavor in the sauce. Ginger is also a natural meat tenderizer. I usually start marinating in the morning so that it's well seasoned by the time I'm ready to make this dish for dinner. If you're in a rush, you could get away with a marination time as short as fifteen minutes.
When you're ready to cook, heat 2 inches of oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot to 340°F (170°C). This temperature is crucial as it's hot enough to crisp the chicken quickly without absorbing too much oil, resulting in a lighter, less greasy crust. While the oil is heating, add potato starch to a shallow bowl and coat the marinated chicken pieces with a thin, even starch coating. This is 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. When I make Karaage at home, I often make extra and use the leftovers to make this.
Fry the coated chicken in batches until each piece is uniformly golden brown and cooked through, then drain on a paper towel-lined rack.
Making the Orange Sauce
Add all of the orange sauce ingredients to a skillet and whisk together. Put the pan over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil.
Add the fried chicken to the tangy sauce and toss to glaze the chicken with sauce. The crispy starch coating melds with the sticky sauce, ensuring each bite is enveloped in that sticky, sweet, and tangy goodness. Garnish with minced red bell pepper and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds.
What to Serve With Orange Chicken
If I'm doing a Chinese take-out night at home, I usually like to make a batch of fluffy white rice, such as Jasmine rice. For the full Panda Express orange chicken experience, try making a stir fry recipe like my Chow Mein, Black Pepper Steak, Kung Pao Chicken, Broccoli Beef, and Chinese Garlic Green Beans. To make this a healthier meal, try making it with skinless chicken breasts and serving it with cauliflower rice or brown rice.
Although this fragrant chicken dish has become a staple of Chinese take-out, orange chicken was created in the US. Like most Chinese-American dishes, it takes inspiration from traditional Chinese flavors and techniques, but it's a relatively modern creation that's thought to have been popularized in Hawaii by Panda Express during the 1980s. With parallels to other American Chinese food classics like General Tso's Chicken and Sweet and Sour Sauce
Since this recipe does not use a flour-based batter, it can easily be made gluten-free using a soy sauce alternative like tamari or coconut aminos for the marinade.
Since "healthy" is subjective, it's tough to answer this question definitively, but this recipe is a healthier version than most because it is not made with a flour batter (which tends to absorb oil), and the sauce does not have any added sugar(beyond what's in the orange juice and marmalade).
If you're anything like me, leftover orange chicken isn't a thing, but if you do find yourself with a few uneaten bites, you can save them in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a couple of days.
for orange sauce
- ¾ cup orange juice
- ⅓ cup orange marmalade
- ½ tablespoon orange zest (zest of ½ orange)
- ½ teaspoon potato starch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ red bell pepper (minced, for garnish)
- ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds (for garnish)
- Add the 450 grams boneless skin-on chicken thighs, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon sake, and 1 teaspoon fresh ginger to a bowl and mix. Let this marinate for at least 15 minutes or up to 8 hours.
- Add all the ¾ cup orange juice, ⅓ cup orange marmalade, ½ tablespoon orange zest, ½ teaspoon potato starch, and ½ teaspoon salt into a skillet 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°F (170°C). Prepare a paper towel-lined rack.
- Add ½ cup potato starch to a shallow bowl, and dip chicken pieces in the starch to evenly coat them. 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 and repeat.
- To make the orange sauce, heat the skillet with the sauce ingredients over medium-high heat and stir constantly until the sauce 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. Garnish with ¼ red bell pepper and ½ teaspoon toasted sesame seeds.