Sweet and Sour Chicken

5 from 31 votes
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Make this easy homemade sweet and sour chicken, a popular Chinese dish, ready in only 30 minutes! Simply stir-fry pieces of tender meat, crisp vegetables, and juicy fruit, then toss in a delicious tangy sauce.

Sweet and sour chicken in a bowl with white rice

This Chinese sweet and sour chicken recipe is a fast and flavorful meal, made all in one pan! Small pieces of lean white meat briefly sear in a wok to develop a browned surface crust. Crisp bell peppers add a colorful crunch, and juicy pineapple chunks are a perfect addition to the syrupy glaze.

This dish is a popular choice at Asian restaurants because of the tasty sweet and sour sauce that clings to each ingredient. Thankfully, you probably have everything already in your pantry to make it. It’s just a simple sweetened tomato-based sauce with rice vinegar for pungency.

ingredients to make a chicken stir fry

Chicken selection

I use boneless skinless chicken breast cut into 1-inch pieces, as uniform as possible to ensure even cooking—season with salt, pepper, and cornstarch to give it a very light coating. Stir-frying the meat in a small amount of oil is healthier, but deep-frying will provide a crispy texture. 

If you prefer dark meat, use chicken thighs. You may notice extra fat surrounding the meat. Just trim it off so that the dish doesn’t taste too greasy.

Recipe Resources

Add fresh vegetables and fruit

To complement the flavor of the sugary sauce, add in a variety of naturally sweet produce. Sulfurous white onions mellow in taste when cooked while getting caramelized in the hot pan. I chop up red and green bell peppers and briefly stir-fry them. I like the crunch they add to the dish and the subtle earthy taste without being spicy, like chili peppers

Fresh pineapple accents the syrupy, tangy taste of the sauce. I like to cut the pineapple into bite-sized pieces when ripe and in season. For a quick substitution, you can use canned chunks.

sweet and sour sauce in a bowl with a whisk

To make the sweet and sour sauce

The sauce uses tomato paste as the base, giving its characteristic reddish-orange hue. You only need a small amount, as the fruit solids are concentrated. Naturally occurring glutamates in the paste elevate the umami taste of the dish. In addition to soy sauce, garlic powder and onion powder enhance the savory flavor.

I use honey as the sweetener for its unique floral flavor and thick, syrupy consistency. Alternatively, you can use pure maple syrup or brown sugar if you prefer a stronger molasses taste. Nearly equal parts of rice vinegar provides enough pungency to balance the sweetener. Pineapple juice makes the fruit taste stronger.

How to thicken the sauce

A classic cornstarch slurry, often used in Chinese cuisine, thickens the sauce in minutes. It’s a combination of 1 part cornstarch to 2 parts water to dilute the starch granules. The starches quickly swell when added to the simmered sauce, thickening the liquid into a shiny, translucent, sticky glaze.

Ready to stir fry

The rounded sides of a wok allow for more heat distributed on the bottom and sides to sear the food quickly. Alternatively, a large skillet, stainless steel, or nonstick can be used. The chicken is first seared in a single layer to create a golden crust on the surface. The aromatic bell peppers, onion, minced garlic, and pineapple are stir-fried just long enough to warm and tenderize the pieces. 

You don’t want the fruit to become overly soft and lose its structure. It’s important to simmer the sauce, with little bubbles just breaking the surface. This means it is hot enough for the cornstarch slurry to activate its thickening powers. It all comes together in 15 minutes or less!

sweet and sour chicken with sesame seeds on top

Serve this with

FAQ

What is Chinese sweet and sour chicken made of?

A popular Chinese food made from a combination of white or dark meat chicken, bell peppers, and pineapple. The ingredients are stir-fried, then tossed in a sweet and tangy sauce. You get a hearty serving of protein, vegetables, and fruit in one bowl.

Can you make it grain-free?

Yes! Arrowroot powder is an excellent substitution for cornstarch in this dish. It thickens similarly with a glossy sheen. You’ll need 4 ½ teaspoons of arrowroot powder, plus 3 tablespoons of water to make the slurry.

Is sweet and sour chicken the same as Orange Chicken?

No! Sweet and sour chicken has a more pronounced tanginess balanced with a sugary flavor. Pineapple juice is used as a fruit note instead of citrus. Orange chicken is much more sweet and savory, with just a hint of vinegar. It also can have a slight spiciness from red chili flakes. Both dishes can use stir-fried chicken or deep-fried for more crunch.

Top down view of two bowls of chicken served on top of white rice

Why is the chicken coated in cornstarch?

The chicken pieces are tossed in a light coating of cornstarch to help dry the surface of the meat for better browning. The finely ground grains also add texture to the crust and allow the sauce to stick better to the meat instead of slipping off—the result is more flavorful bites.

Sweet and Sour Chicken

Make this sweet and sour chicken recipe in under 30 minutes! Stir-fried lean meat tossed in a delicious tangy sauce with crisp vegetables.
5 from 31 votes
Prep Time10 minutes
Cook Time20 minutes
Total Time30 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Entree
Cuisine Chinese

Ingredients 
 

Sweet and Sour Sauce

  • ½ cup honey
  • cup rice vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons pineapple juice
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons water

Chicken

  • 1 ½ pound boneless chicken breast, 1-inch pieces
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup red bell pepper, ¾-inch dice
  • 1 cup green bell pepper, ¾-inch dice
  • 1 cup white onion, ¾-inch dice
  • 1 cup pineapple chunks, canned or fresh, ¾-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro leaves
  • ½ teaspoon sesame seeds

Instructions 

  • Sweet and Sour Sauce – In a medium bowl, whisk together honey, rice vinegar, tomato paste, pineapple juice, soy sauce, onion powder, and garlic powder. Set aside.
  • Cornstarch Slurry – In a small bowl, combine cornstarch and water. Set aside.
  • Prep the Chicken – In a large bowl, add chicken, salt, pepper, and cornstarch, then stir to coat.
  • Cook the Chicken – Heat a large saute pan or wok over medium-high heat. Add vegetable oil and sesame oil. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, add the chicken in a single layer. Cook without moving, until light golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip the pieces to cook the other side, occasionally stirring, about 3 to 4 minutes, or until no longer pink.
  • Add the Vegetables – Add minced garlic, red bell pepper, green bell peppers, and onions to the pan. Stir-fry until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add pineapple and cook for 1 minute.
  • Simmer the Sauce – Add the sweet and sour sauce to the pan and allow it to simmer and bubble, 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Thicken the Sauce – Give the cornstarch slurry a mix and then gradually add it to the pan, constantly stirring to combine. Cook until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Season with more salt and pepper as needed.
  • Garnish and Serve – Add cilantro and sesame seeds on top. Serve hot with your choice of sides like steamed rice.

Notes

  • Recipe Yield: About 5 cups
  • Serving Size: About 1 ¼ cups
  • Dark Meat: Boneless chicken thighs can be used instead of chicken breast.
  • Substituting the Cornstarch: For the sauce, use 4 ½ teaspoons of arrowroot powder mixed with 3 tablespoons of water. Keep the amount the same to coat the chicken.
  • Make it Paleo and Gluten-Free: Use pure maple syrup instead of honey. Arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch. Coconut aminos or Braggs Liquid Aminos instead of soy sauce.
  • Storing: Cool completely, then store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Cover and reheat in the microwave in 30-second intervals until hot.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 4 servings
Calories 459kcal (23%)Carbohydrates 65g (22%)Protein 39g (78%)Fat 5g (8%)Saturated Fat 1g (5%)Polyunsaturated Fat 1gMonounsaturated Fat 2gTrans Fat 1gCholesterol 109mg (36%)Sodium 843mg (35%)Potassium 1087mg (31%)Fiber 4g (16%)Sugar 50g (56%)Vitamin A 1577IU (32%)Vitamin C 92mg (112%)Calcium 50mg (5%)Iron 2mg (11%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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20 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Toni says

      Can you make this without the soy sauce and tomato paste? I completely forgot to get them at the store and I have to make it tonight! No time to run to the store!

      • Jessica Gavin says

        Hi Toni- Do you have some ketchup, tamari, braggs amino acids, or coconut aminos? I don’t think it will taste the same without the soy and tomato paste.

    • uncle willy says

      I deviated from your recipe a bit but it still turned out awesome. I used more pepper, more rice vinegar… and added a bit of brown sugar, didn’t use tomato paste, used tomato sauce, the pizza sauce stuff used double the amount … and some jalapeno thinly sliced.

  1. Kathy B. says

    I made this for dinner last night and my hubby and I both loved it! I served it over white rice. Next time I will double the sauce (because it’s awesome) and add a little more soy sauce than is called for. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing. Thank you for this wonderful recipe.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You don’t have to substitute the cornstarch. Just another option to use arrow root powder is you are avoiding corn.

  2. Thomas Leinaar says

    I used Arrowroot powder instead of cornstarch, liquid Stevia for sweetness, 1 Tablespoon of tart cherry juice. Coconut Secret Coconut Aminos unsweetened canned pineapple chunks and juice. Wow, it came out incredible! Some of my substitutes were to keep the glycemic index lower. I am type 2. Thanks Jessica for posting this and giving me the courage to play with your already fantastic recipe’s to fit my food requirements! I have used this recipe twice now with two different variations. One with not chicken but fresh whole Tilapia, so good! and once with, you should be sitting for this, chicken livers and gizzards. Pre cook the gizzards marinated in teriyaki coconut Aminos) in an Insta pot till tender.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Wow, you are an adventurous chef Thomas! That you for sharing your substitutes to make the sweet and sour chicken lower in glycemic index. I’m sure others will find it helpful!

  3. Katie Conaty says

    Jessica,
    Thanks for a great recipe! I loved the fresh pineapple taste with the sweet and sour overtones. So good and colorful!