This recipe for General Tso’s chicken has been the most popular on this site since I first posted it in 2009. Month after month it continues to be the most viewed and searched for recipe here. I love that so many of you, presumably, have visited on a mission to replicate this tasty dish from a favorite take-out.
Over the past few months, I’ve been testing and retesting this recipe for my cookbook, and want to share a new revised version. I’ve loved all your feedback and incorporated some changes that’ll make this General Tso’s even better. The sauce, for example, has a couple of new ingredients to round out the tomato base.
The biggest improvement is in the frying process. The previous recipe resulted in really nice crispy chicken, but I think this new recipe one-ups its predecessor. After countless hours frying chicken in front of the stove, I’ve found that the key marinade ingredient for crispy chicken is…egg whites, which allow the cornstarch to adhere to the meat, without lending too much of an eggy flavor. And, as one commenter suggested, tossing the cornstarch with a little salt and pepper is great for adding more flavor to the fried chicken. You can also take a few extra minutes to fry the chicken again for another 30 seconds, an optional step to get very crispy chicken, identical to the take-out kind.
(Update: If you’ve enjoyed this General Tso’s Chicken recipe, check out many more Chinese restaurant favorites in my new cookbook The Chinese Takeout Cookbook: Quick and Easy Dishes to Prepare at Home.)
Almost nobody in Hunan has ever heard of General Tso’s Chicken, the most famous Hunan dish in America. Like many other American-Chinese favorites, the roots to China are vague but interesting.
You may know the dish as General Tsuo’s, or Tzo’s or Tao’s or some other variation. You couldn’t really pronounce the name, but order it anyway at Panda Garden because of its addictiveness. Who cares if it isn’t really Chinese food, like your ABC friend hinted?
General Tso’s Chicken became popular in America via some enterprisingly Taiwanese chefs who opened Hunan restaurants in New York in the 1970s. Hunan cuisine is traditionally very spicy, full of smoky chilis and pickled vegetables. But to appeal to American diners, the chefs started deep-frying, and sweetening the sauces. They improved upon each other’s crispy chicken dishes until they got a crunchy, sweet, sour, and mildly spicy coating. You can read more about the history in Fuchsia Dunlop’s NYT article, or Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles; both writers trace the original General Tso’s back to Taiwan.
I first tried making the Taiwanese version from Dunlop’s Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province. But the recipe calls for starch in the marinade and sauce, instead of as an outside coating, which doesn’t create a create the crunchiness I was expecting. I wasn’t the only one who was disappointed by the original version. On trying the chicken dish in Taiwan, Jennifer 8. Lee wrote, “The dominant flavor was soy sauce. That was followed by chopped garlic and a kick from spicy chili peppers. The chicken was appropriately chewy, but there was no crispy, fried batter coating. Where was the sweetness? The tanginess? Instead, it had a strong salty flavor.”
The older version is like the stodgy artiste who refuses to waver to popular opinion. Which is respectable. But there’s a reason Americanized General Tso’s is so good. It’s brash, super crisp, and sweet. Like pop music, it just hooks you.
So here is my altered General Tso’s Chicken after cooking in many, many times. I prefer to use boneless chicken thighs instead of chicken breast for a juicier bite. (Dark meat is juicier and much more tender than white meat, and contrary to widespread belief, not much higher in fat.) Chicken stock adds a bit more flavor, but if you don’t have any handy feel free to substitute water. Sauce may taste a little tomato-y on its own, but trust me, mixed with the fried chicken it will taste positively delicious.
The sauce, with tomato paste, chicken broth, vinegar, and hoisin sauce, thickens up quite nicely in the wok. It’s sweet but not overly so, with a mild kick and smoky flavor from the chilis and a good amount of tanginess. Meanwhile, the cornstarch coating results in a brash, proudly crisp exterior. It may not be authentically Hunan, but there’s a reason it continues to be such a beloved dish in the U.S.
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General Tso’s Chicken
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal, 2 to 3 as a main entree
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced into 1-inch cubes
- 1 1/2 cups cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying, plus 1 tablespoon for stir-frying
- 8 dried whole red chilis, or substitute 1/4 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon white sesame seeds, for garnish
- Scallions, green parts thinly sliced, for garnish
- 1 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
- 2 egg whites
- 1/4 cup chicken stock, or substitute water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon hoisin sauce
- 1 teaspoon chili paste
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- Prepare the marinade: In a large bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, and egg whites. Coat the chicken to the marinade mixture and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, combine the chicken stock, tomato paste, sugar, soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, chili paste, sesame oil, sugar, and the 1 teaspoon of cornstarch. Stir until the sugar and cornstarch are dissolved. Set the sauce aside.
- In a large bowl or deep plate, toss the 1 1/2 cups cornstarch with the salt and pepper. Coat the marinated chicken in the cornstarch and shake off any excess before frying.
- Heat the 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in your wok until it registers 350°F on an instant-read oil thermometer. Working in 2 or 3 batches, add the first batch of chicken cubes and fry until golden brown on the outside and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the chicken.
- Drain the oil into a heatproof container and save for discarding. Wipe the wok with a paper towel to remove any brown bits, but don’t wash.
- Reheat the wok or skillet over medium-high heat. Add another 1 tablespoon of oil and swirl to coat the base and sides. Add the dried chilis and garlic to the wok and stir-fry until just fragrant, about 20 seconds. Pour in the sauce mixture and stir until thickened, about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Return the chicken to the wok and stir well to coat with sauce. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish. Garnish with white sesame seeds and scallions. Serve with white rice and vegetables.
Recipe first published March 3, 2009. Updated August 30, 2011.