I’ve always been a fan of orange chicken. It’s sweet and sticky, with crunchy chicken that just hits the spot. This spicy orange chicken (without deep frying!) recipe is my take on the classic Chinese-American dish.
The invention of orange chicken is widely credited to Executive Chef Andy Kao of Panda Express in 1987. He crafted the recipe while working on the opening of a new location in Hawaii. It still remains one of the most popular Chinese dishes in America (with the data to back it up). The dish, however, isn’t a purely American invention and may be a sweeter, stickier spin-off of a “tangerine chicken” dish from the Hunan province in China. This dish is spicy and tangy with a sauce that’s flavored with dried tangerine peel and dried chilies. Unlike the orange chicken, tangerine chicken is not breaded and deep-fried but is instead sautéed in hot oil.
This orange chicken recipe falls somewhere in between the two. It’s not as spicy and tangy as tangerine chicken, but it’s also not quite as sweet as traditional orange chicken. Instead of battering and deep-frying the chicken, I lightly coat bite-sized pieces of boneless, skinless chicken with cornstarch and pan-fry them in oil. It’s a little bit of crunchiness, but not much.
What you need for my spicy orange chicken recipe:
There are a few components to the dish, and I’ll walk through each one separately in this post. At a glance, here’s what you need to prepare:
- Fresh mandarins: While you can use marmalade or store-bought orange juice if you prefer, I think fresh is superior.
- The sauce: The most important part! It’s made with orange juice and zest, Shaoxing wine, light brown sugar, chili oil, sesame oil, rice vinegar, soy sauce, and cornstarch.
- Chicken: While you can use breasts, I highly recommend boneless, skinless chicken thighs. They won’t dry out, so they’ll give you the juiciest, most tender crispy chicken! I coat them with cornstarch for just the right amount of crunchiness.
- Aromatics: Ginger, garlic, scallion, bird’s eye chili, and mushrooms load this dish up with aromatic, spicy, umami undertones.
- For serving: Serve this chicken with steamed rice, crispy shallots, minced scallions, or sesame seeds for the perfect midweek meal.
I’ll go through each component needed for this dish below, but you can always skip ahead to the recipe!
First, the sauce:
The sauce is arguably the most important part of the dish. Some recipes will use orange marmalade, some use orange marmalade in combination with BBQ sauce, and some use store-bought orange juice. In my opinion, I think it’s best to start with fresh orange juice if you can. If needed, store-bought is fine too. If using marmalade, you’ll want to reduce the brown sugar as the marmalade will be much sweeter than orange juice.
I use juice from Satsuma mandarins because H Mart had a big container of them on sale. I’m a simple girl, and I can’t resist oranges with their cute green leaves. Satsumas are a type of mandarin that originated in Japan, and they’re so sweet and juicy. Perfect for this orange chicken! If you want a more tart sweetness, opt for tangerines or tangelos. Regular old navel oranges are also just fine for this recipe.
Prepare the sauce by whisking all the ingredients–orange juice, zest, brown sugar, soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, rice vinegar, and cornstarch–in a bowl until completely smooth.
Shaoxing wine substitutes:
Shaoxing wine is a rice wine that hails from Shaoxing, China. It’s made from fermenting glutinous rice with water and wheat-based yeast. It’s a crucial ingredient in many savory Chinese dishes. If you can’t find it, here are a few substitution suggestions:
- Dry vermouth or dry sherry: Shaoxing wine brings a dry, somewhat sharp flavor that rounds out the sweetness of this dish. Using a dry, fortified wine will bring in similar notes to Shaoxing wine.
- Dry white wine: Similar to dry vermouth or sherry, dry white wine will give a similar sharpness to the sauce.
- Mirin: You can use mirin to bring in a little brightness, but be sure to reduce the brown sugar by at least 1 tablespoon if going this route.
- Red wine vinegar: This will be much more acidic and tart, so use half of what the recipe calls for Shaoxing wine.
Next, the aromatics:
You need just a few aromatics for this dish, including:
- Bird’s eye chili
- Minced scallions
- Sliced mushrooms
Use freshly minced, when possible but jarred or tubed pastes are fine in a pinch! Bird’s eye chilies are a variety of hot pepper used often in Southeast Asian cooking. They are spicy, at about 50,000–100,000 on the Scoville Scale. Omit or replace with your preferred chili pepper of choice. You can also add a few dashes of cayenne pepper to the sauce as it cooks.
This recipe calls for boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Because this orange chicken recipe is made without deep frying, thighs will give you that juicy richness that breasts might be lacking when pan-fried.
I coat the cubed thighs with cornstarch, salt, and white pepper. White pepper is optional, but I like the little bit of funk it brings.
I do recommend trying the chicken after it fries. If you find it’s not quite salty enough for your preferences, add a little sprinkle of salt while it’s nice and hot, so it absorbs into the crust.
Bring it all together:
Once you have everything prepped, it’s time to bring it all together!
- Step 1: This orange chicken is made without deep frying. You will, however, need to pan-fry the chicken in a little oil until golden brown and a bit crispy. Take them out of the skillet and set it aside.
- Step 2: Cook the mushrooms until lightly browned, then add the remaining aromatics.
- Step 3: Simmer that beautiful sauce until thick!
- Step 4: Toss everything together until nicely coated.
- Step 5: Serve it up! Get the rice going in a separate pot before you start frying the chicken, and it will be ready as soon as you’re finished cooking.
It seems so simple, and it really is. You do however want to do all the prep work first, which takes a little time. That will make everything come together in the end perfectly.
If you liked making this orange chicken, check out some of my other chicken recipes!
Spicy Orange Chicken Recipe
- Mixing Bowls
- 2 –3 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized cubes
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- 2 teaspoons neutral oil, as needed, divided
- 6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, caps sliced and stems discarded
- 2 teaspoons freshly minced ginger
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 2–3 bird’s eye chilies, trimmed and minced
- 2 scallions, minced
- Sliced scallion greens, crispy shallots, or sesame seeds
- Cooked white rice
Prepare all the ingredients:
- Before beginning, prepare all of the fresh ingredients and have them ready
Prepare the sauce:
- Place all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and whisk until the cornstarch is completely incorporated into the liquid and no lumps remain. Set aside.
Prepare the chicken:
- Place a skillet on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the neutral oil and allow it to heat as you prepare the chicken.
- Put the diced chicken in a bowl and season it with salt and white pepper. Sprinkle the cornstarch on top and use a wooden spoon or rubber spatula to mix until all the chicken is coated.
- Turn the heat on the skillet to medium-high. Once the oil is hot and shimmering in the skillet, arrange a batch of the chicken in an even layer, ensuring that the chicken isn’t crowded. Cook for 4–6 minutes on each side until golden brown and cooked through. Transfer to a bowl and continue cooking the chicken in batches until all of the chicken is fried.
Cook the mushrooms:
- If the pot is dry, add 1 teaspoon neutral oil. Add the mushrooms and season all over with salt. Cook for 4–5 minutes until they are a light golden brown all over. Shiitakes dry out very quickly, so be sure not to cook them too long! Transfer them to the bowl of cooked chicken.
Sauté the aromatics:
- Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the skillet. Add the minced ginger, garlic, chili peppers, and scallions. Cook for 1 minute until fragrant.
Cook the sauce:
- Pour in the sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, for 3–5 minutes until the sauce becomes very thick. If it begins to stick, reduce the heat to low.
Sauce the chicken:
- Pour the cooked chicken and mushrooms into the sauce and toss to coat. Continue tossing over low heat for 2–3 minutes until the chicken is completely coated and the sauce thickens a bit more. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings if needed. Turn off the heat.
- Spoon the chicken over cooked white rice. Garnish with sliced scallions, crispy shallots, or sesame seeds. Enjoy!