The Best General Tso’s Chicken

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

Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops with Rice Noodle Salad

Vietnamese Grilled Pork Chops with Rice Noodle Salad

I lived in Saint Louis, Missouri for a number of years after college, and there was an unassuming little Vietnamese place in my neighborhood called Pho Grand, which remains my favorite restaurant to this day. I had my favorite dish there (lemongrass tofu), which I got 90% of the time, and my second favorite dish (some other kind of tofu), which I got when I felt like I should be more adventurous and not just get the same thing every time. I tasted bits & pieces of friends’ dishes from time to time, and I just never had a bad dish there; literally everything was good. It made me fall in love with Vietnamese cuisine.

For some reason, I’ve never tried Vietnamese cooking at home. I guess I assumed that I couldn’t recreate an authentic taste like the ones I loved from Pho Grand. But when I stumbled across this recipe from Serious Eats, it looked so tasty (and so similar to what I remembered from the restaurant) that I thought I’d give it a shot.


Nothing about this recipe is particularly difficult, but there are a lot of steps, since there are two condiment recipes in addition to the main dish. Additionally, one of those condiments (the pickled vegetables) needs to be made in advance. I intended to make mine the night before, but forgot and ended up throwing it together the morning of. I have to admit that I was feeling a little bit grumpy as I stood in my kitchen julienning carrots (poorly) while my scone waited for me temptingly on the table. But in the end, it was 100% worth the effort.


I couldn’t find a daikon radish at my grocery store, so I used a few regular radishes instead. While not strictly authentic, they tasted fine to me. They did turn the entire pickle jar pink, which is kind of a perk in my opinion. I also mixed up the nuoc cham dipping sauce that morning. Really, the ideal plan would be to do all this prep the night before; the pork can be marinated in the fridge for 12 hours. By the time I finished the dipping sauce, I was really feeling my scone calling to me and wasn’t up to dealing with the marinade. I just did the 30-minute option at dinnertime instead, letting the pork marinate at room temperature before putting it on the grill.

Once all the prep is done, the dish comes together quickly. While the pork is grilling, you can boil the rice vermicelli, which takes just a few minutes. Because I was using an electric grill on a chilly day, my pork took longer to cook through than expected. (I’m not a huge fan of my electric grill, at least not on cool days, when it has a hard time holding its temperature.) But it does have the advantage of keeping meats juicier than a standard grill, so even though it cooked longer, the texture was still decent.


And the taste was seriously amazing. All the fresh, bright flavors I remembered from my old favorite restaurant were there. Lime juice, garlic, a little sugar, and the sharp pickled veggies were perfect complements to the savory pork. It’s an especially nice recipe for summer: cool and refreshing, with no oven required.

All in all, this is one of my favorite recipes of the year, and I’ll definitely be making it again. I’ve had good luck with Serious Eats in general, and am excited to try more of their dishes. (Tune in later this week for another Serious Eats find, an amazing restaurant-style General Tso’s Chicken from the renowned J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.)


Deliciousness score: 9
Easiness score: 6

6.1 rating

Savory Ginger Mushroom Oatmeal

Savory Ginger Mushroom Oatmeal

So, a little background on me: I was a vegetarian for almost fifteen years, starting when I was about 20. When I moved in with my carnivorous fiancé, Dusty, I started incorporating a little bit of meat back into my diet. I didn’t intend to at first; in fact we would always cook separately, since there’s not a ton of overlap in the foods we like anyway.

One thing we could share was pizza, which we made together from scratch every Sunday. I would put various roasted vegetables on my half, or just leave it plain cheese, and he would make his usual heap o’ meat: ham, pepperoni, bacon, and ground beef. Occasionally we wouldn’t cut it quite perfectly down the center, and a fraction of a pepperoni slice would find its way onto my side. (Did I mention that pepperoni pizza was the very last thing I gave up, when I went vegetarian? The struggle was real.) My primary motivation for eating a vegetarian diet was to cut down on industrial farming. But… I also find pepperoni delicious. So I said to myself, “Well, it’s too late for this poor pepperoni anyway, it’s already paid for, and my not eating it isn’t going to cast an economic vote one way or the other.” And I went on that way for months, eating an occasional slice of pepperoni and reveling in it, but not intending to make any other major changes to my habits.

Then one day, by accident (yes! it really was an accident, although Dusty gleefully implies otherwise to this day), I was rushing out the door and took his slice of leftover pizza to work instead of my own. Lunchtime came around, I took a bite without thinking about it, and… it was all over. It was so good. Some kind of meltdown happened in my brain, and I decided that, after so many years of eating so strictly, I needed to go adventuring.  I wanted to see what other flavors I’d been missing.

So, for the past year or two, huge sections of cookbooks that had always been blank to me were suddenly filled with new and exciting ideas. I finally tried the celebrated local Pacific Northwest salmon, and tasted for myself what everyone was so excited about. I spent more than ten seconds looking at menus in restaurants. I put bacon in all the things: pizza, muffins, soup, omelets, sandwiches. My heart was happy. (My figurative heart, anyway; my physical heart probably not so much.)

Why am I going on and on about the glories of meat in this review of a recipe with no meat, you ask? It’s just to let you know that, although I’m not vegetarian currently, I spent many years in constant search of the elusive savory vegetarian dish. It’s very difficult to find a meatless recipe that hits those hearty & savory notes; the elusive “umami” flavor, the stick-to-your-ribs-ness that makes you want to curl up with it on a cold night.

This recipe has all of that. I was a little skeptical at first (“Mushrooms? In my oatmeal?”), but it looked interesting and I needed to round out my week’s worth of healthy recipes, so I figured it was worth a shot.

I’m definitely glad I tried it. It basically took all of the things I like about ramen and turned them into a brunch recipe. (I will admit that I don’t think I’d be up for this as breakfast first thing in the morning; I made it for lunch, and it was perfect. Hearty and satisfying, but not heavy.)

A few notes:

  • The mushroom type makes a big difference here. I used cremini mushrooms, as written, and they were tasty. Shiitake or maitake mushrooms would also be good I think; anything with some substantial, unique flavor. I probably wouldn’t just throw white mushrooms in here.
  • The recipe called for a dash of soy sauce; my recommendation is to dash, and then keep on dashing, and then dash a few times more. More of a 400-meter than a 100-meter, if you catch my drift. I like salt, what can I say.
  • I also added some garlic, because why not.
  • The oatmeal-to-mushroom ratio is a little high. I got two bowls out of this before running out of mushroom topping, and still had more than a cup of cooked oatmeal left over. Next time I will either make more mushrooms or less oatmeal.

Very tasty, and worth making again. I did not add any sriracha sauce, because I’m a total lightweight when it comes to spicy foods, but I’m sure it would be good that way as well.

It’s totally worth clicking through to the Cooks’ Illustrated soft-boiled eggs tutorial too, if you haven’t had much luck with soft-boiled eggs in the past (as I haven’t). I followed his instructions in the linked article, which were super simple, and my eggs came out great. They weren’t even hard to peel.

Deliciousness score: 7

Easiness score: 7

1.2 rating