We Americans love our fried chicken and just about everything sweet. So it’s not surprising Chinese dishes landing in the United States have evolved into gloppy, sticky, syrupy, deep-fried Chinese-American chicken takeout. But we can make two of our favorite chicken fixes better at home if we learn a few things. To start, the difference between orange chicken and General Tso’s chicken appears after the battering and frying: It’s all in the sauce.
Both dishes are American standbys not seen in China. They’re both battered, fried chicken chunks covered in a glaze-like sauce over white rice, often with sautéed broccoli or other vegetables. The first liquid to hit the chicken in either recipe is the marinade, consisting of soy sauce, Chinese rice wine or dry sherry, and sometimes eggs or egg whites and cornstarch. Sometimes it’s just the egg whites and cornstarch. The chicken is then dipped in a dry coating of cornstarch with salt and pepper or a combination of cornstarch, baking soda, and flour.
After deep-frying and draining on a paper towel, the final sauces start out similar: Soy sauce, Chinese rice wine or dry sherry, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and sometimes chicken stock. You then deepen the flavor with aromatic ginger, garlic, and scallions plus sometimes dried red pepper flakes or dried whole red chiles, especially in General Tso’s. Thickening that sauce with a little cornstarch makes it better.
Compared to General Tso’s, orange chicken usually has a lighter-colored sweet, sour, savory glaze. It’s not as spicy-hot because dried red chiles aren’t as common or used as heavily in this dish. All recipes ask for orange in some form — juice, zest, dried peel, or a combination thereof. Authentic Chinese-style orange chicken isn’t battered and fried, and it’s not sauced with fresh oranges or orange juice either, using dried orange peel instead. But we’ll stick with the juice or zest for the homemade version.
Oh, and Tso was statesman in the Qing Dynasty who had nothing to do with this chicken. Some guy just named it after him.
Also: Sesame chicken is pretty similar too, with the addition of … wait for it … sesame seeds. Sweet and sour chicken? Those recipes vary wildly but it’s in the same ballpark. Some call for no breading and deep-frying and instead, pan-frying. The sauce could use a lot of sugar, apple cider vinegar, and ketchup along with the standard soy sauce, like our Sweet and Sour Sauce recipe, which you can also use on pork, tofu, and as a dipping sauce for egg rolls and wontons. Other sweet-and-sour chicken recipes ask for pineapple, bell peppers, and stick with rice vinegar for the tangy bite.
If you’re craving for that quick dinner you usually order at the large chain Chinese takeout spot, this kitchme recipe will taste so similar you’ll only know it’s not takeout because the quality is a step up. Get the Panda Express Orange Chicken Copycat recipe.
Likely the most orangey of our orange-chicken recipes, this recipe has the juice from six oranges and the zest from two, complemented nicely by the tartness of Dijon mustard and whole-grain mustard. Get our Orange-Honey Mustard Baked Chicken Breasts recipe.
This dish is not exactly Chinese-inspired, but it’s got a few of the main ingredients. A half cup of orange juice and honey sweeten up these thighs, but then thyme, shallot, and garlic cut through any attempt at being cloying. The cumin in the carrot puree helps too. Get our Orange-Thyme Chicken Thighs with Carrot Puree recipe.
Kimberly of The Daring Gourmet marinates her chicken chunks in the soy sauce, egg, and rice wine or dry sherry before giving it the cornstarch treatment. Ginger, garlic and red chiles make the sauce spicy. Get the General Tso’s Chicken recipe.
Orange zest goes into this sauce, but it’s definitely not the single dominant flavor. Cinnamon, anise, ginger, and tamari or soy sauce also have a voice here.Get our Slow Cooker Asian-Style Chicken Thighs recipe.
Deep-fried for about two minutes, these chicken breast chunks aren’t breaded with much, just salt, pepper, cornstarch, and egg. Then the real flavor comes into play with the sauce you brush on when you bake them. Get our Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe.