I just adore orange chicken and its sticky sweet and slightly spicy sauce coating chunks of crispy chicken. As I planned the menu for this little ninja birthday party, it seemed like the perfect fit for a big group of adults and young children. It’s a dish I’ve eaten often and made never.
So, I did a bit of researching. The big surprise for me was that some of the recipes contained not a bit of orange – no juice, no extract, no peel. Many recipes contained more sugar than anything else. And though those recipes may be successful at reproducing the familiar orange chicken flavor from your favorite Chinese takeout restaurant, I just can’t come to grips with an orange chicken recipe made without orange.
So, I played around a bit and came up with the following recipe. It’s pleasingly sweet, just a bit spicy, and packed with a good dose of authentic orange flavor. Prior to frying, the chicken is marinated in a soy-ginger-orange marinade, then dipped in egg, and coated with cornstarch. A simple sauce, made with orange juice and fresh zest is accented with Asian flavors then thickened to the consistency of a glaze with a bit of cornstarch. Definitely a crowd-pleaser!
Cornstarch is an effective (and gluten-free) thickener which can be used in a variety of recipes, including sauces, gravy, pudding, and fruit pie filling. It adds no flavor of its own and produces a clear glaze, as compared with the cloudy effect of a butter/flour roux.
In general, about 1 tablespoon of cornstarch can be used to thicken 1 cup of liquid. To effectively blend the cornstarch into the liquid to be thickened, you should start by making a slurry, which is simply a mixture of the cornstarch with a bit of cold liquid (usually water). This step prevents the cornstarch from clumping when added to the hot liquid. Add the slurry to the liquid you wish to thicken, then bring to a simmer for a minute or two until the liquid thickens.
For the Chicken:
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
Vegetable oil, for frying
For the Sauce:
2/3 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup orange juice
Zest from 1 orange (about 1 tablespoon)
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1-1/2 teaspoons sambal oelek (crushed chile paste)*
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1-1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
2 green onions, sliced
*You can substitute crushed red pepper or cayenne pepper powder to add a bit of spiciness. If using cayenne powder, reduce the quantity.
For the Chicken
Stir together the soy sauce, orange juice, and ginger. Submerge the chicken in the mixture. Allow the chicken to marinade for about 20 minutes in the refrigerator.
Combine the cornstarch and salt on a plate. Heat about 1/2-inch of oil in a large skillet over medium-high/high heat to approximately 375 degrees F. (You can use an instant read meat thermometer to estimate the temperature. If you do not have a thermometer, just heat the oil for several minutes until it’s sizzling hot.)
Remove the chicken from the marinade. Place the chicken in a bowl with the lightly beaten eggs. Remove the chicken from the eggs, then dredge in the cornstarch until well coated. Fry the chicken in small batches until crispy, golden, and cooked through, about 5-6 minutes. Turn the chicken once or twice during cooking. Remove the chicken from the oil with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel.
For the Sauce
Combine the brown sugar, water, orange juice, orange zest, rice wine vinegar, lemon juice, soy sauce, and sambal oelek in a saucepan over medium heat until well combined. In a small ramekin or bowl, stir together the cornstarch with the cold water. Pour the mixture into the sauce and whisk to combine. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Simmer for a couple minutes until the sauce is thickened.
Just before serving, pour the sauce over the chicken. Garnish with sliced green onions and additional orange zest, if desired. Serve over white jasmine rice.
To maintain the chicken’s crispiness, wait until just before serving to toss the chicken in the sauce.
To make ahead of time, fry the chicken and refrigerate until using. Prepare the sauce and refrigerate until using. Reheat the chicken on a baking sheet in a 375 degrees oven for about 10-15 minutes until heated through and crispy. Heat the sauce and pour it over the reheated chicken.