We can acknowledge that the takeout you're likely to get from the average American "Chinese" restaurant is nowhere close to authentic Chinese food, that it's often overly greasy or sugary or salty, or that it's often made with poor-quality ingredients. We can acknowledge all of that—and still, some nights, find ourselves craving a meal out of little white boxes, preferably eaten on the couch in front of the TV. There's no real substitute for the Chinese-American takeout you grew up with, or spent your twenties with. But if you want to revel in classic dishes like General Tso's or kung pao chicken, scallion pancakes, and vegetable chow mein, we're here to teach you how to make all those and more at home, allowing you to achieve better flavor and texture. Read on for nine recipes that not only mimic but improve on some of our most cherished Chinese-takeout staples, so you can start enjoying them whenever you want.
The Best General Tso's Chicken
Recipes abound for General Tso's chicken, one of the most iconic dishes in the takeout canon. All of them, however, generally consist of chicken fried in a crispy shell, then tossed in a sweet, glossy sauce flavored with garlic, ginger, dried chilies, soy sauce, and sesame oil, among other ingredients. Our biggest complaint about the formula is that overly sugary sauce, which we balance in this recipe with a good amount of vinegar. A couple of tablespoons of vodka and a little marinade added to the batter result in a supremely crunchy, well-textured coating.
The Best Chinese Sesame Chicken
Once you've mastered our technique for a crispety, crunchety coating on takeout-style fried chicken, you can easily replicate a number of favorites on the buffet line. To turn our General Tso's recipe into sesame chicken, we simply change the sauce, adding extra sugar and sesame oil and omitting the chilies. Be sure to toast those sesame seeds before adding them, and sprinkle them both throughout the sauce and over the finished dish.
The Best Chinese Orange Chicken
If you've eaten a typical dish of takeout orange chicken any time recently, your memory might recall an orange-tinted sauce with very little resembling fruit flavor. Here, we create better, more complex flavor in our orange sauce by incorporating citrus three ways: fresh orange juice, grated zest, and dried peel. That last ingredient adds a depth that you can't get from fresh juice and zest alone.
Takeout-Style Kung Pao Chicken (Diced Chicken With Peppers and Peanuts)
The original, real-deal Chinese version of kung pao chicken gets its mouth-numbing heat from Sichuan peppercorns (so does the "realest-deal" Chinese version, while the Chinese-American take is much less spicy. It's the latter we're aiming for in this recipe—cubes of chicken in a thick, slightly gloppy sauce, permeated by a gentle heat. It's a quick and easy recipe, too: Just stir-fry marinated diced chicken with roasted peanuts, diced celery and peppers, ginger, and red Chinese or árbol chilies; then coat it in a mixture of soy sauce, chicken broth, vinegar, sesame oil, sugar, and cornstarch. Dinner's on the table in 30 minutes.
Chinese-American Beef and Broccoli With Oyster Sauce
The problem with so many steam-table iterations of this dish lies in the broccoli; it's too often mushy and bland. To keep it crisp and flavorful here, and get a good sear on the strips of beef without overcooking them, we stir-fry the ingredients over very high heat, using a wok or a wok insert over a grill.
Crab Rangoons (Crab Puffs) With Sweet and Sour Sauce
As former Serious Eats editor Adam Kuban put it, crab rangoons, those little parcels of creamy filling surrounded by crunchy shell, are "just a big ol' excuse for crazy non-Chinese people to eat deep-fried cream cheese." And it's true—but that admission doesn't make them any less delicious. At your local Chinese joint, the crab rangoons are almost certainly made with surimi, those artificially colored sticks of reconstituted fish that you find in California rolls. Using real crab instead will give the dumplings a more assertive fish flavor, but stick with surimi to re-create the "crab" puffs of your youth.
Extra-Flaky Scallion Pancakes
Anyone who's spent a significant amount of time in or around New York City should be intimately familiar with scallion pancakes, the flaky, savory disks studded with chopped scallions and fried. We use a laminated dough here (much as you would if making puff pastry) to create layer upon layer of very thin sheets of flavorful pastry. Frying them in oil is traditional; for a puffier, crispier experience, try cooking them on the grill.
Easy Vegetable Fried Rice
Done right, takeout fried rice is a thing of satisfying, well-balanced beauty. But it's frequently served clumpy and over-sauced, or, worse, bland and oily. Making it at home gives you more control over the final dish, plus it's a great way to use up leftovers. Our approach busts a few myths—no, your rice doesn't have to be medium-grain, or day-old, for that matter. While this version calls for vegetables, like carrots and peas, you can easily bulk it up with pork, chicken, or your protein and garnishes of choice.
Stir-Fried Chow Mein With Four Vegetables
Chow mein is another Chinese-American standby that's so easy to make at home and customize to your liking, you may never feel the need to order it again. For this DIY version, we quickly cook vegetables (chives, julienned carrots and scallions, bean sprouts) and tofu in a wok, then combine them with long, slender chow mein noodles and a soy-based sauce. Add extra vegetables, more tofu, or meat to turn it into a heartier meal.