The Best General Tso’s Chicken

This is probably the most complicated recipe I’ve posted about to date. It’s the first recipe I’ve tried by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt; he’s a big name in the culinary world, and after making this recipe I understand why. For someone like me, who is made happy by precise measurements, detailed explanations, and reproducible results, this is cooking at its most enjoyable.

He goes into detail about not only what to do, but also why it works. General Tso’s Chicken isn’t a super common recipe to try at home, but his is in fact very true to the take-out version we all know and love.

His primary challenge was finding a breading method for the chicken that would hold its crispy texture under the sauce. He drew from fried food techniques around the world and tested a wide variety of strategies before finding the key: he incorporates vodka into the marinade, which through some magical chemistry makes the batter crispier and more sog-resistant. Vodka, which is more volatile than water, evaporates more quickly than water would, which apparently helps the batter crisp up when frying; it also limits gluten development, which prevents the fried dough from getting leathery.

So, he’s taken care of all the experimentation, and all you have to do is follow the steps to get great results. Caveat: there are a lot of steps. It does feel a bit like a lab experiment, with many small dishes of precisely-measured ingredients waiting their turns. For me, this is fantastic; there’s no pinch-of-this, just-eyeball-that, oh-the-secret-ingredient-is-love bullshit. (This is not a criticism of people who have the gift of eyeballing! Most of my friends who cook do it this way, with great results.) But the whole reason I got so obsessed with cooking in the first place is that I suck at it. When I started getting more serious about cooking for myself a few years ago, I did not have a lot of kitchen experience; I basically had no frame of reference for any but the simplest tasks. I could boil water and flip pancakes; everything else was a mystery. So recipes that instructed me to knead or stir or simmer until the dough or sauce “looks right” were the bane of my existence. How was I supposed to know what “right” looked like?

Now that I have more experience under my belt, I can usually make educated guesses when I run into instructions like that. But having someone like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt spell out each step in precise terms is much more relaxing for me. There’s no guesswork involved in any of the amounts, times, or temperatures, and each step does exactly what it claims to do. The most magical moment comes when cooking the sauce. All of the aromatics (garlic, scallion, chilis) are heated in an oiled skillet from cold, giving the flavors time to develop and blend. Then the sauce liquid is added. The instructions say, “Cook, stirring, until sauce boils and thickens, about one minute.” For 59 seconds, it doesn’t seem like much is happening. Then, all at once, the reaction happens; a low burbling is heard, first slow, then faster, and all at once the thin sauce thickens into a dark, sticky, Swamp-Thing-esque blob. I realize Swamp Thing isn’t usually considered an appetizing metaphor, but in this case it’s a good thing; you end up with a dark, sticky, perfectly takeout-worthy sauce, exactly the right consistency for coating the crispy chicken bits.

Maybe most people who deep fry already do this, but I highly recommend using a thermometer to monitor the oil temperature. I used my new meat thermometer to keep it around 350 degrees F, and the chicken crisped up nicely in exactly four minutes, as written.

I’d never been a huge fan of General Tso’s chicken at take-out places; it was both too spicy and too sweet. But this recipe knocks it out of the park. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and savory, and the crispy texture is impeccable. On a night when you have the time and energy to spare and feel up to a challenge, I highly recommend giving this a try. It is definitely worth the effort.

Deliciousness score: 10
Easiness score: 5

6.4 rating

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