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.
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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.
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.
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.
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!
Serve this with
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Sweet and Sour Chicken
Sweet and Sour Sauce
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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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