The Food Lab: Bringing Home General Tso's Chicken
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If the British can proudly call Chicken Tikka Masala their national dish, then surely it's time that General Tso got his chicken in our national spotlight. After all, ask yourself this question that Jennifer 8. Lee, journalist and author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles asked in a recent TED talk: how many times a year do you eat Chinese food versus the supposedly all-American apple pie?
According to her, there are 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the country—more than all of the McDonald's, Burger Kings, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined. And whether it's called General Tso's (as it is here in New York), General Gau's (the way I knew it through my college years in New England), Cho's, Chau's, Joe's, Ching's, or, as they call it in the Navy, Admiral Tso's, walk into any one of those restaurants and chances are you'll find it on the menu.
Its origins are still up for debate. Its namesake General, Zuo Zongtang, almost certainly never tasted the dish before his death in 1885 and, as Lee discovers, his descendents—many of whom still reside in the General's hometown of Xiangyin—don't recognize the dish as a family heirloom, or even as particularly Chinese, for that matter.
As my friend Francis Lam reports in this fantastic piece on its origins, Ed Schoenfeld, proprietor of New York's Red Farm and perhaps the world's foremost expert on Chinese-American cuisine, traces its origins to Chef Peng Jia, a Hunanese chef who fled to Taiwan after the 1949 revolution. Made with un-battered large chunks of dark meat chicken tossed in a tart sauce, it was more savory than sweet. It wasn't until a New York-based chef, T.T. Wang, learned the recipe from Peng in Taiwan, brought it back, added a crispy deep-fried coating and sugar to the sauce, and changed the name to General Ching's that it stuck, eventually making its way onto Chinese menus across the country and the globe (the name got left behind in the process). It's so popular that an entire feature length film on its origins is being debuted this year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
It makes sense: As Lee says, as Americans we like our food sweet, we like it fried, and man, do we love chicken.
The details may vary—you'll see everything from broccoli to canned water chestnuts to mushrooms to (eek!) baby corn added to versions around the country—but the basics are the same: You start with chicken with the kind of crisp, craggy, deep-fried coating that Colonel Sanders himself would be proud of (what is it with military men and fried chicken anyway?), then toss it in a sweet and punchy sauce flavored with garlic, ginger, scallions, and dried chilies. Throw it all on a plate with some steamed white rice and you've got one of America's most popular dishes.
It also happens to be one of the safer options on Chinese-American menus. Even the $5-with-a-can-of-coke-and-egg-drop-soup lunch special at the sleaziest college take-out joint hits your taste buds in that sort of dirty, pornographic, hangover-craving kind of way that a McDonald's Chicken McNugget dipped in their Sweet & Sour sauce manages to nail time after time. And yet, I firmly believe that it has the potential to be so much more than that. How great would a homemade version of General Tso's be, with a flavor that shows some real complexity and a texture that takes that crisp-crust-juicy-center balance to the extreme?
I'm smart enough to know that one should never get involved in a land war in Asia. Luckily, this was a battle I could fight in my own kitchen at home. I rolled up my sleeves and headed into the fray.
Knowing that getting the crisp coating on the chicken right was going to be the toughest challenge, I decided to get the sauce out of the way first.
Though Chinese restaurants often brand General Tso's with a token chili or two next to its number on the menu, its flavors are really more sweet and savory with a bracing hit of acidity than actually spicy. Shaoxing wine (a Chinese rice wine similar in flavor to dry sherry), soy sauce, rice vinegar, chicken stock, and sugar are the base ingredients, and they all get thickened up into a shiny glaze with a bit of corn starch.
I looked at several existing recipes and tasted versions of the sauce from restaurants all around New York. Most restaurant versions are syrupy sweet, while home recipes range from being cloying to containing almost no sugar at all. I found that plenty of sugar is actually a good thing in these sauces, but that the sugar has to be paired with enough acidity to balance it out. I settled on a mixture of 2 tablespoons wine, 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce, 2 tablespoons vinegar, 3 tablespoons chicken stock, and a full 1/4 cup of granulated sugar, along with a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and a tablespoon of corn starch to thicken it up.
Even with the basic liquid ingredients balanced, the sauce tasted flat and boring without aromatics; In this case, that's ginger, garlic, scallions, and some dried whole red chilies.
Here's one of the great things about making General Tso's at home: you don't need a wok.* See, General Tso's is not really a stir-fried dish. It's deep fried chicken tossed with a sauce. The only place that stir-frying might come into play is with cooking those aromatics.
*I mean, you don't need need a wok for any Chinese dish, but if smoky, deep wok hei is your goal, it certainly helps.
I tried cooking a couple batches of sauce side-by-side. One I made the traditional way: oil heated until smoking hot, with the aromatics added in and stir-fried for just 30 seconds or so before adding in the liquid ingredients and letting the sauce simmer and thicken. The second I made by starting the same aromatics in a cold pan with oil, heating them while stirring until aromatic, then adding the liquids.
I fully expected the high heat version to have superior flavor, but when tasted side by side, we actually preferred the easier, lower heat version—the garlic, ginger, and scallion flavor was more developed and blended in more smoothly with the other ingredients.
As for the chilies, if you have a good Chinese market, they should be easy to find, though a pinch of red pepper flakes will do in a pinch.
The great part about General Tso's is that you can make the sauce well in advance—heck, you can even make it the day before if you'd like—and just warm it up to toss with the chicken when it's good and ready for it.
Speaking of that chicken, with the sauce nailed, it was time to start getting dirty with it.
To start my testing, I scanned through various books and online resources, pulling out recipes that claimed to solve some of the problems I was looking at—namely, a crazy crunchy fried coating that doesn't soften up when the chicken gets tossed with sauce. Though similar, there were variations across the board in terms of how thick the marinade should be (some contained only soy sauce and wine, others contained eggs, and still others were a thick batter), whether or not to toss with dry starch or flour after marinating, and whether to use light or dark meat chicken.
I put together a few working recipes that seemed to run the gamut of what's out there to test which approach gave the best initial results, including:
- Thin marinade of soy sauce and wine, tossed in corn starch before frying.
- Egg white-based marinade, tossed in corn starch before frying.
- Whole egg-based marinade, tossed in corn starch before frying.
- Egg-based batter made with corn starch, no dry coating before frying.
- Egg-based batter made with corn starch, with a dry coating before frying.
- Egg-based batter made with flour and corn starch, no dry coating before frying.
- Egg-based batter made with flour and corn starch, with a dry coating before frying.
Here are a few of the results:
They all look alright, but none of them stayed crisp for long, even before they were added to the sauce. From the testing, one thing was certain: a thicker, egg-based marinade is superior to a thin marinade, which produced chicken that was powdery and a crust that turned soft within seconds of coming out of the fryer. Adding a bit of starch to the marinade before tossing it in a dry coat was even better.
Better, but not perfect. The General may have won this battle, but he will lose the war, I swear it.
The other takeaway? Dark meat is the way to go. Breast meat comes out dry and chalky, a problem that can be mitigated with some extended marinating (the soy sauce in the marinade acts as a brine, helping it to retain moisture), but the process adds time to an already lengthy recipe, and even brined white meat is nowhere near as juicy as dark meat.
And who are we kidding? General Tso's is never going to be health food. Break out the thighs for this one (and check out our guide to deboning 'em).
A Different Coat
None of the existing techniques I found gave me quite the coating I was looking for, so I decided to start expanding my search, pulling out all of the chicken-frying tricks in the book.
What about double-dipping? I started my chicken pieces in a thick marinade made of egg white, soy sauce, wine, baking powder and corn starch (I found that adding baking powder to the batter helped keep it lighter as it fried), then dipped it into a mixture of corn starch, flour, and baking powder (a mixture of corn starch and flour browns a little better than straight up starch).
After that I moved it back to the wet mixture, and again into the dry, creating an extra thick coating.
Extra thick coatings produce extra crunchy chicken for sure. Too crunchy, unfortunately. Getting close to a quarter inch thick in parts, the coating made the General Tso's taste more like tough crackers than anything. Extra leavening didn't help.
Next up, I went for a different approach, looking to Korea for some clues. I spent a good deal of time perfecting a recipe for Korean Fried Chicken a couple years ago, and that recipe tackles a similar problem: how to get battered, deep fried chicken wings to stay crisp when coated in sauce.
The solution there? Use a thin slurry of corn starch that's been cut with vodka, an idea that I first saw in British chef Heston Blumenthal's Perfection series. The vodka can help fried foods get crisp in two important ways.
First, alcohol is more volatile than a water (and soy sauce, wine, and eggs are basically water). That is to say, it evaporates more readily, and since frying is essentially a process of evaporation, batters made with alcohol tend to come out crisper. Vodka also serves to limit gluten development. Why is this important?
One of the issues I was finding with my fried chicken chunks was that the coating, which started out crisp, soon turned leathery as it began to get cool or moist. This is a result of overdevelopment of gluten, the interconnected network of proteins that forms when flour and water are mixed. You want some gluten in the mix (without it, you end up with a powdery, papery crust), but too much can be an issue. Because gluten does not form in alcohol, vodka lets you achieve a batter that doesn't get leathery as it cools.
I tried coating chicken thigh pieces with the exact same batter that I used for that Korean Fried Chicken before tossing it in sauce and tasting it.
It was an improvement on the stay-crisp-when-wet front for sure, but it wasn't exactly what I was looking for in General Tso's. It needed more craggy nooks and crannies to capture that sauce.
With the idea of nooks and crannies in my head, my thoughts immediately jumped to the Homemade Chick-Fil-A Sandwich recipe I tested a couple years back. The trick there turned out to be adding a bit of the wet batter to the dry mix before dredging the chicken in it. By working that wet batter into the dry mix with your fingertips, you create little nuggets of breading that stick to the exterior of the chicken.
After deep frying, those little nuggets help increase the surface area of the chicken, making it extra crunchy and crisp.
In retrospect, thinking of fast food seemed like such an obvious move. After all, those Chicken McNuggets stay crisp for hours, and if you've been following along for a while, you'll know of this little hack: use Popey's chicken nuggets in Chinese-American stir-fries instead of frying your own chicken. It just makes sense to start this dish with really great chicken nuggets, right?
By combining that method with the vodka trick I learned from my Korean Fried Chicken, I ended up with even better end results. The best of both worlds:
I mean, just look at that exterior texture! And the best part? Those sauce-catching crags stay crisp for a long time—so crisp that even microwaved the next day, the chicken is almost as good as it was freshly-fried.
I had the General in my crosshairs, all that was left to do was pull the trigger. With just a bit of tweaking and streamlining, here's where we end up.
I start with a marinade of an egg white mixed with a couple tablespoons of dark soy sauce, a couple tablespoons of Shaoxing wine, and a couple tablespoons of vodka.
After setting aside half the marinade (I'm going to use it to moisten up my dry coating later on), I add 3 tablespoons of corn starch, a quarter teaspoon of baking soda (no need for baking powder here, as the wine adds the acidic element that reacts with the soda), and a pound of chicken, tossing it all with my fingers until the chicken is thoroughly coated. At this stage, you can refrigerate the chicken for up to a few hours, or you can plow straight through the rest of the recipe with a shortened marinating period. It makes very little difference.
Next up, I add that reserved marinade to my dry ingredients: a half cup each of flour and corn starch, along with a half teaspoon of baking powder and a half teaspoon of salt.
The mixture should look coarse and crumbly, with a few big nuggets of the flour-marinade mixture.
With the dry mix made, I then add the chicken. You can just dump all the chicken in and then work on carefully separating and coating each piece in the mixture, pressing firmly so that it adheres (you will get messy hands using this method), or you can use my preferred method, which takes a bit more practice: Holding the dry mix in one hand and tossing constantly, drop individual pieces of chicken in one by one with your other hand. As you toss, the chicken pieces should all get individually coated.
You may have heard me say it before, and I'll keep repeating it until evidence to the contrary arises: unless you have a deep fryer, a wok is the best vessel for deep frying. Its wide shape makes it easy to maneuver food and helps catch spatters, keeping your countertop clean as you cook.
All of the normal caveats about deep frying hold true here: use a thermometer to regulate temperature (350°F was the right temperature for this application), add pieces one at a time and gently lower them into the hot oil (don't drop them!), and keep things moving so that they fry rapidly and evenly, which in turn will help them get crisper faster.
Once the chicken is fried and drained, it's just a matter of tossing it with the pre-made sauce (I like to add a few 1-inch chunks of scallions to the mix, but it's totally optional.
A rubber spatula does the trick. It takes a bit of work to get the sauce to coat every surface, but you will be rewarded when all's said and done.
It was a long, twisted road to get here, but with a mix of chicken-frying techniques and a sauce that balances its sweetness with just the right amount of acidity, I believe I finally have a version of this most American of Chinese dishes that even the General's family would approve of.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.