Ready for a delicious kung pao chicken stir fry made in less than 30 minutes? Sure you are! This recipe rivals any Chinese takeout with lean white meat and crisp vegetables tossed in a spicy sauce.
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This homemade version of kung pao chicken will have you ditching the takeout menu for good. This dish is for those who enjoy a spicy kick to their Chinese food. To achieve restaurant-quality results, it’s about getting organized for fast cooking in a fiery hot wok or large pan.
The sauce simmers with dried red chili peppers for the characteristic hot taste. The result is heat layers that leave a lingering spice while boosting the flavor. Combined with tender pieces of seared meat and fresh vegetables, it’s a tasty dish that you can make even when you’re short on time.
What is kung pao chicken?
A stir-fried Chinese-style dish that combines small pieces of chicken tossed in a spicy, sweet, and savory sauce. The chicken can be seasoned and cooked in a wok or coated and deep-fried for a crispy texture. It’s often served with vegetables and garnished with peanuts.
The dish originated in the Sichuan province in southwest China, known for its spicy cuisine. Due to its popularity, you can now find it on menus in Chinese restaurants worldwide.
I use boneless skinless chicken breast cut them into even, 1-inch pieces. The small uniform size allows more surface areas to develop flavors while searing in the hot wok. A quicker cooking time also prevents the lean meat from drying out. If you prefer dark meat, use chicken thighs. They contain more fat, which you may need to trim off.
Marinate before cooking
Start by briefly marinating the chicken in umami-packed ingredients like soy sauce and sesame oil to enhance the savory taste of the chicken. Black pepper adds a hint of heat. However, use Sichuan peppercorns if you like a more tingling, numbing sensation. They add an exciting flavor dimension.
Using cornstarch gives the meat a velvety texture when stir-fried as it soaks up the sauce ingredients sp that it clings to the surface. You only need about 10 minutes since the chicken is cut into small pieces, exposing more surface area for marinating.
Make the kung pao sauce
The base of this sauce is a combination of soy sauce and sesame oil for umami-flavored notes. Equal parts of honey and rice vinegar give a balanced sweet and tangy flavor. Whole dried chili peppers provide a spicy taste, while a cornstarch slurry helps thicken the sauce at the end of cooking.
For a kick of heat
Grab a bag of whole dried red chili peppers. You can find them in the Asian or Latin sections of the grocery store or specialty market. They won’t add any heat to the sauce until they are split open, exposing the spicy membrane loaded with capsaicin.
You can shake out and discard the seeds for a milder taste, but leave some in for a hotter experience.
A wok with a circular base efficiently heats the bottom and sides of the pan, giving more area for searing the ingredients. Alternatively, you can use saute pan with sloped sides to make it easier to toss and stir the meat, vegetables, and sauce. The wok and oil must be very hot to get a good sear on the chicken and retain the vegetables’ crispness.
Cook the chicken first
Arrange the marinated chicken in the wok in one layer, then don’t move the pieces! Letting them sit for a few minutes in the hot oil develops a golden-brown crust, allowing them to release quickly from the pan’s surface.
After the browning process adds a nice contrast in texture and flavor, move the pieces around and complete the cooking process. Stir-frying the chicken happens fast! About 4 minutes so that the lean white meat stays juicy.
Stir-fry vegetables and aromatics
Chopped white onions and bell peppers add a nice earthy, sweetness, and crisp texture. Two essential ingredients in Chinese stir-fries are minced garlic and ginger. The moment the sulfurous allium hits the pan, the raw flavor mellows out and turns nuttier in taste. The ginger adds a strong pungency to the dish.
Add the split chilies into the wok after cooking the other vegetables. The fat in the pan helps to extract the fat-soluble flavors and spicy capsaicin.
Cooking the sauce
The pieces of cooked chicken and kung pao sauce simmer together. The heat helps to thicken the cornstarch slurry. Once you pour the slurry in, keep stirring to help the starches evenly distribute. It only takes about 1 minute to reduce the liquid into a glossy sauce that clings to the chicken.
Before serving, I like to garnish with peanuts for crunch and sliced greens onions for a pop of green color and mild onion taste.
Serve this with
Yes, it’s meant to be a spicy dish, although you can control the heat level when making it from scratch. The split dried chili peppers give most of the lingering heat, but you can add extra chili sauce or minced fresh chili peppers to crank up the spice level.
Dried chili flakes are a good substitute for red chili peppers. Start by adding ¼ teaspoon, and gradually increase to your tolerance level. Additional alternatives include chili oil or chili sauce like sriracha or sambal oelek. Just make sure to give the base sauce a taste at the end of cooking to gauge how much extra heat is needed.
Stir-frying uses just enough oil to cook the meat and vegetables. The recipe uses lean white meat and fresh vegetables, considered a healthy combination. The sauce is balanced with soy sauce, honey, and vinegar. Enough to coat the chicken without being too heavy. I like to serve this with cauliflower rice or broccoli rice for a low-carb side dish.
How to maximize the spicy factor
Whole dried red chili peppers are used because the flavors are more concentrated and complex compared to fresh chilies. The chilies are split in half to expose the flesh and seeds where most spicy capsaicin resides. When the chilies are sauteed with oil and vegetables, the spice molecules disperse, enhancing the dish’s heat level.
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Kung Pao Chicken
- 1 ½ pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 ½ teaspoons cornstarch, divided
- 5 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
- 5 teaspoons sesame oil, divided
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 3 tablespoons water, plus 2 teaspoons, divided
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup diced white onion, ¾-inch dice
- 1 cup green bell pepper, ¾-inch dice
- 1 cup red bell pepper, ¾-inch dice
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 8 pieces dried red chilies, cut in half, seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
- 1 tablespoon sliced green onions
- Marinate the chicken – In a medium bowl, combine diced chicken, 1 ½ teaspoon cornstarch, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and black pepper. Set aside while preparing the other ingredients.
- Stir fry sauce – Whisk in a medium bowl, 3 tablespoons water, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, and 1 tablespoon sesame oil. Set aside.
- Cornstarch slurry – Whisk in a small bowl, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and 2 teaspoons water. Set aside.
- Heat a wok or large saute pan over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil. Once hot, add the marinated chicken to the pan in a single layer. Cook without moving for 2 minutes. Stir and cook until no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a clean bowl.
- Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the bell peppers, stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the garlic, ginger, and chili peppers, and cook for 1 minute.
- Add the chicken back to the pan. Add the sauce and allow it to heat and bubble, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Mix the cornstarch slurry and then gradually add it to the pan, stirring to combine. Stir and cook until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute.
- Garnish with peanuts and green onions. Serve warm.
- Wok Spatula
- Serving Size: 1 ½ cup
- Spice Level: Add some of the dried red chilies seeds to increase the heat. Alternatively, add ¼ teaspoon of chili oil or chili sauce like sriracha or sambal oelek at the end of cooking. Adjust to your tolerance.
- Storing: Cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Cover and reheat in the microwave in 30-second intervals until hot.
- Make it Gluten-Free: Use gluten-free tamari or coconut aminos instead of soy sauce.
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