Why It Works
- Marinating chicken breast with salt and soy sauce and coating it in cornstarch helps ensure that it stays moist during its brief cooking period.
- Infusing oil with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns provides the signature ma-la (hot and numbing) flavor in this dish.
- Cutting all the main ingredients to roughly the same size encourages even cooking and better presentation for chopsticks.
For those of you keeping score at home (I know you're out there), yes, this is the third recipe for kung pao chicken that I've published here on Serious Eats in the last seven years. The first version was funky and fiery with fermented chili bean paste, chicken thighs, and leeks. The second version was a decidedly milder version made with bell peppers and celery, just like at those Upper West Side Chinese takeout joints. The version I'm sharing today is based upon the kung pao chicken I tasted at the source in Chengdu: a simpler yet more nuanced version than either, and a near-perfect weeknight dish.
By the way, you can catch a quick video of me cooking this dish here on my YouTube channel.
Editor's Note: This recipe is excerpted from the upcoming second volume of my book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. I hope you enjoy it.
- For the Chicken:
- 2 small boneless skinless chicken breasts, about 6 ounces (170g) each, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) Shaoxing wine (see note)
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce (10ml)
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch (about 5g)
- Large pinch kosher salt
- For the Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon honey (15ml)
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) Chinkiang vinegar (see note)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (15ml)
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) light soy sauce (see note)
- 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch (about 2g)
- Water or homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock, as needed
- For the Stir-Fry:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (45ml)
- 6 to 12 small dried red chiles (such as árbol), stems removed, cut into 1/2-inch pieces with scissors, seeds discarded
- 1 teaspoon (about 2g) Sichuan peppercorns, reddish husks only (stems and black seeds discarded)
- 4 medium cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1-inch knob ginger, peeled and cut into fine matchsticks or grated
- 6 scallions, white and pale green parts only, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3/4 cup roasted peanuts (about 5 ounces; 150g)
For the Chicken: Combine chicken, wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, and salt in a small bowl and turn until well mixed and chicken is evenly coated in a thin film of the cornstarch paste. Set aside.
For the Sauce: Combine honey, vinegar, wine, soy sauce, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Stir together with a fork until no clumps of cornstarch remain.
To Stir-Fry: Pour a small amount of oil into the bottom of a large wok or skillet and rub around with a paper towel. Place over high heat and preheat until smoking. Add remaining oil and immediately add chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Stir-fry until fragrant but not burnt, about 5 seconds. Immediately add chicken and stir-fry until there are no longer pink spots on the exterior (chicken will still be raw in center at this stage), 45 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes.
Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add scallions and peanuts and stir-fry for 30 seconds.
Add sauce ingredients and stir-fry until all the ingredients are coated evenly and the chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute, adding water 1 tablespoon at a time if necessary to keep the sauce from clumping. Serve immediately with steamed white rice.
You can use dry sherry in place of the Shaoxing wine. You can find Chinkiang vinegar online or use Chinese black vinegar or even balsamic vinegar in its place. You might find bottles of low sodium soy sauce labeled “light.” That is not what you’re looking for in this recipe. Light soy sauce is typically thinner and saltier than the dark soy sauce used in some Chinese recipes. You can use Japanese shoyu or tamari in its place if you can’t find Chinese light soy sauce. Sichuan peppercorns can be found in most Asian markets or ordered online. This recipe serves 2 as a main course. Trying to double the recipe will lead to poor results as you won’t be able to maintain enough heat to sear the chicken. If you want to double the recipe, cook the chicken and vegetables in two separate batches, following the recipe through the end of Step 5 and transferring the cooked chicken and vegetables to a large bowl on the side. When you’re ready to finish, add all of the cooked chicken and vegetables (both batches) back to the wok over high heat, stir in the double batch of sauce, and toss until coated. You can also cook this recipe in a large Western-style skillet, though the flavor will not be quite the same.