I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant that didn’t have some variation of sweet and sour chicken. It might have even been one of the first Chinese dishes I’ve ever had. It has fruit in it so it’s kid friendly, right?
So much of our Chinese food is westernized beyond recognition so I am almost embarrassed to call this Chinese food. To educate myself, I decided to learn more about the origins of this dish. I am glad to report that sweet and sour sauce actually originated in China, but it is more of a light vinegar and sugar mixture. It wasn’t until it came to America did we decide to bread and deep fry the meat, throw in peppers and pineapple, and then toss it in that glossy syrupy thick sauce common in most restaurants in the US. Naturally we would take a relatively healthy dish and supersize it. It’s the American way.
Although this recipe has peppers and pineapple, I’m also glad to say that this recipe is way more mellow and delicious than what you’d find at Chinese restaurants. It doesn’t have any of that sickly sweet goop smothering everything. You might not go back to restaurant sweet and sour chicken. I definitely will think twice and stick to Mongolian beef.
Prep all your ingredients. This is known as “mise en place.” Leave it to the French to come up with a phrase for prepping food. Ok, I actually love it. Makes me feel organized.
Be sure to use canned pineapple in 100% juice because you’ll need to save the juice for your sweet and sour sauce, which you’ll make next. After making the sauce, chop up your veggies and chicken into bite-sized pieces. Chop the chicken after the veggies so you don’t contaminate the board and have to use a second board for the veggies. Less mess. Coat the chicken with cornstarch and season with salt. I chose to use thighs instead of breast meat for the extra flavor.
Mince your garlic and ginger. To mince the ginger, I actually use a cheese grater. You don’t have to peel the ginger or deal with any of the tough fibers found in ginger. You could also grate your garlic, but I know I’ll grate my fingers and that’s just not right.
Once you have everything ready to go, making the dish goes pretty fast.
Stir-fry your veggies in a little oil. The case of this recipe from the Kitchn and they recommend waiting until you have charred spots in the peppers, but I disagree. I like my veggies to be firm and slightly hold their shape, which means you should stir the veggies often. Add the garlic and ginger.
In less than a minute, everything should smell pretty good, which means it’s time to transfer all this to a plate or bowl, and cook the chicken separately. This is the trick to ensure everything is ready at the same time. You won’t end up with mushy veggies or dried out chicken.
Instead of deep-frying the chicken, only add a couple tablespoons of oil to the pan. After heating up the oil, spread the chicken into an even layer in the pan. Now, DO NOT TOUCH IT. Resist the urge. It will not burn. You want to brown the chicken to provide flavor to the dish, and you want the cornstarch to stick to the chicken, creating an almost crispy texture that resembles deep-frying. You’ll flip it after it’s brown on one side. You’ll know this because the chicken will no longer stick to the pan. You definitely want to wait until this happens so all your cornstarch doesn’t stick to the pan.
After the chicken is cooked, return everything to the pan plus the pineapple and pour the sauce over it all. Stir until everything is coated. Wait a few minutes, stirring a couple times, until the sauce is thickened to your liking. The cornstarch you used on the chicken will help thicken the sauce.
Serve over rice if you don’t care about carbs. Eat.
What I really liked about this recipe is how healthy and fresh it tastes without any overwhelming sugary taste. After all, it’s a main dish, not dessert. The apple cider vinegar really stands out for that sour element, but it has just enough sugar to make it sweet. Two-thumbs up.
Sweet and Sour Chicken
- 8 ounces canned pineapple chunks in 100% pineapple juice with juice reserved
- 1/4 cup ketchup
- 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar packed
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 3 tablespoon canola oil divided
- 1/2 medium onion
- 2 medium bell peppers any color
- 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt divided
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 tablespoons ginger grated
- steamed rice
- Drain the pineapple, but save keep 1/4 cup of the juice from canned pineapple. Set the juice aside in a small bowl. Set the pineapple aside.
- In the bowl with your pineapple juice, add ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, and soy sauce. Whisk to combine. Set aside.
- Cut onions and peppers into 1-inch pieces. Set aside. Cut chicken into 1-inch pieces. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt and cornstarch. Toss until well coated.
- Mince garlic with a knife. Using a cheese grater, grate ginger.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the peppers, season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and stir-fry for about 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the garlic and ginger to the vegetables and stir-fry until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the chicken and spread into an even layer. Cook without stirring until browned on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip and cook without stirring until the chicken is browned on the second side and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes more.
- Return the vegetables to the pan. Add the pineapple and sauce into the pan.
- Stir-fry until thickened and coats the chicken and vegetables, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve over rice.