Exploding with all the sweet, salty, and spicy flavors that we’ve come to crave from our favorite Chinese take-out restaurant, this easy 30-minute Kung Pao Chicken Recipe is filled with tender, juicy bite-size pieces of chicken, sweet bell peppers, and buttery peanuts in a luscious flavorful Kung Pao sauce.
Kung Pao Chicken
Now that my son has discovered the big, bright, beautiful world of Chinese-American take-out, it’s all he wants to eat these days. I mean, who can blame the kid? Chinese take-out is so amazingly simple and flavorful, who am I to tell him no? Plus, Chinese take-out comes with a cookie that tells you all about your fortune, making it excellent bribing power for me and motivation for him.
When I realized that this blog was lacking in the Chinese food category, I figured what better time to turn my kitchen into my favorite Chinese restaurant? No other time, that when! So I did. And I started with one of my personal favorites- Kung Pao Chicken.
While Kung Pao Chicken is a favorite of mine and my husbands, I can’t say the same for my son who, unfortunately, detects any hint of chili pepper, powder, or flakes like a dog to a bone. And, in the case of this stir-fry? Well, there’s more than just a hint, so he wouldn’t come anywhere near it. If you’re sensitive to spicy foods, read the recipe notes in the recipe card below for modifications.
What is Kung Pao Chicken?
The Kung Pao Chicken we have come to love and crave today is quite different from the classic version of this recipe.
Originating in the Sichuan Province of south-western China, the classic Sichuan version is always made with chicken and generous amounts of Sichuan peppercorns. Sichuan peppercorns, a popular ingredient in Sichuan cooking, produces a unique numbing or tingling flavor. This classic version is also made with dried Sichuan-style chili peppers, peanuts, and leeks as the primary vegetable addition.
The popular Westernized version of this stir fry, known as Kung Pao Chicken or Kung Po, may consist of marinated chicken with orange juice, ginger, and garlic, or, as in this version, a combination including both classic ingredients (Shaoxing wine with Sichuan peppercorns) and western ingredients (ginger, garlic, soy sauce, bell peppers).
Kung Pao Chicken Ingredients
This Kung Pao Chicken Recipe requires several ingredients common to most stir-frys (fresh ginger and garlic) plus a handful of ingredients that make this recipe unique. Since I think that we all know what chicken broth and bell peppers look like, I’m going to dive into the details of the lesser-known ingredients.
- Light soy sauce – most common, light soy sauce is typically saltier and thinner than dark soy sauce due to the absence of sugars.
- Dark soy sauce – richer and, contrary to what you may expect, less salty than light soy sauce. Often, dark soy sauce will be sweetened with sugar or molasses. Dark soy sauce helps give richer, more flavor sauce.
- Chinese Black Vinegar – available online or at your local Asian supermarket, Chinese black vinegar looks and tastes somewhat similar to balsamic vinegar. Make sure when you’re shopping to read the label and only use Chinese black vinegar in Kung Pao Chicken (not Taiwanese black vinegar, for example). Easily substitute with rice wine vinegar, distilled white vinegar, or yes, even balsamic vinegar.
- Chinese Shaoxing wine – an essential ingredient to nearly all Chinese stir-fry recipes, Shaoxing wine is there to add depth and intensity to the Kung Pao sauce we all love to love. You don’t need a lot, but it is definitely a stand-out ingredient in terms of overall flavor. Is there a substitute for Chinese cooking wine? Yes, absolutely. Simply substitute with Dry Sherry.
- Hoisin Sauce – made from ingredients such as soybeans, fennel seeds, garlic, and Chinese Five Spice, Hoisin Sauce simply intensifies the already amazing flavors in Kung Pao Chicken.
- Dried Red Chillies – common to many Chinese stir-frys, dried chilies are an easy way to add extra spice without a lot of extra work. If you’re sensitive to spicy foods, add half the recommended amount of dried red chilies (or none at all). The heat level of these dried red chilies varies greatly, making them somewhat unpredictable. Or add them to the dish, but don’t eat them. You’ll get all the flavor benefits, minus the attack to your taste buds.
- Sichuan Peppercorns – In order of importance, Sichuan Peppercorns come in first. These peppercorns are what make this dish uniquely Kung Pao Chicken. Unlike a hot and spicy chili powder, Sichuan Peppercorns have a somewhat tingling or numbing effect, rather than a burning hot effect on the mouth. If you can find pre-toasted and ground peppercorns, that is the best option. Otherwise, you’ll want to toast them in a dry pan over medium-low heat just until fragrant and then grind them.
Chicken Breasts or Chicken Thighs?
Technically, you could use either chicken thigh or chicken breast meat for this recipe. Chicken thighs will produce juicier pieces of meat with better overall flavor, but chicken breasts, being white meat, are lower in fat and calories.
I chose to go with chicken thighs for this round of Kung Pao Chicken as thigh meat is both my husband and sons favorite. If you do decide to use breast meat, I recommend marinating for at least 30 minutes or so, time allowing, or use the “velveting” technique described below.
What is Velveting?
“Velveting” is a Chinese cooking method often used in stir-fry recipes to help tenderize meat and lock in the juices, keeping the meat moist. Although this cooking technique could be used with all types of meat, it is most commonly used with chicken breast due to its low-fat content.
So what exactly does it mean to “velvet” chicken?
First, chop your chicken into small cubes and transfer to a medium mixing bowl. For every 1 pound of chicken, mix with 1 (well-whisked) egg white, 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, and rice vinegar. Keep the chicken stored in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add approximately 1 tablespoon of oil to the boiling water.
When you’re ready to cook your chicken, reduce the boiling water to a simmer and add the chicken. Cook for just 1 minute– the chicken will turn completely opaque on the outside, but uncooked in the middle.
Finally, remove the chicken from the boiling water and drain well before adding to any stir-fry.
How to make Kung Pao Chicken
There are three main steps to this Kung Pao Chicken Recipe – the chicken, the sauce, and putting it all together.
- Start by preparing the chicken. To do this, mix the chicken with the soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium mixing bowl. Cover and allow the chicken to marinate for at least 10 minutes.
- As the chicken marinates, prepare the Kung Pao sauce. Start by first whisking together the cornstarch with the soy sauce until completely dissolved. Then add the remaining ingredients – Chinese black vinegar, wine, hoisin sauce, brown sugar, and low-sodium chicken broth.
- Brown the chicken in a hot skillet or wok. Once the edges are golden brown, immediately remove to a clean plate to rest.
- To the same skillet over medium heat, cook the ginger, garlic, and chilies, stirring constantly, for approximately 30 seconds. Ginger likes to stick, so make sure to add extra oil to your skillet. Add the white parts of the green onions, the red and green bell peppers, and the Sichuan peppercorns to the aromatics and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Return the chicken to the skillet and pour the Kung Pao sauce directly into the pan. Mix well and bring the sauce to a low boil. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook until sauce thickens. Stir in the green parts of the green onions and peanuts.
I always love to serve Kung Pao Chicken with white or brown rice as it is the perfect complement to the dark and flavorful sauce. That said, I have also been known to enjoy this recipe with rice noodles or zucchini noodles, for a fun and veggie-filled low-carb version!
If you try making this Kung Pao Chicken Recipe, please leave me a comment and let me know! I always love to hear your thoughts.
For more Asian-inspired recipes check out,
- Easy Korean Beef Bibimbap Recipe (Mixed Rice)
- Easy Thai Fried Rice Recipe (Khao Phat Kaphrao)
- Bulgogi Korean BBQ Beef Lettuce Wraps
- Pho Recipe- How to Make Vietnamese Noodle Soup
- Kimchi Ramen Noodle Soup (30 minutes)
For more stir-fry recipes check out,
- 10 Minute Garlic Bok Choy Recipe
- Low Carb Chicken Cabbage Stir Fry Recipe
- Korean Glass Noodle Veggie Stir Fry
- Shrimp and Asparagus Stir Fry
- Marmalade Tofu Stir Fry with Cashews
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Kung Pao Chicken
For the Chicken
For the Sauce
For the Stir-Fry
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil, divided
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp fresh ginger, minced
- 8-10 dried red chilis, more or less to taste
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 5 green onions, green and white parts divided
- 2 tsp sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted and ground (optional)
- 1/2 cup peanuts, roasted unsalted
- Prepare the Chicken. Combine all ingredients for the chicken (cubed chicken pieces, soy sauce, and cornstarch) in a medium mixing bowl. Mix well to evenly coat the chicken with the soy sauce and cornstarch. Cover and allow the chicken to marinate for at least 10 minutes, time permitting.
- As the chicken marinates, prepare the sauce. In a medium bowl whisk together the cornstarch with the soy sauce until completely dissolved. Whisk in the remaining ingredients (Chinese black vinegar, wine, hoisin sauce, brown sugar, and low-sodium chicken broth) until completely combined. Set aside.
- Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil to the pan and allow it to get nice and hot (olive oil is not recommended). Add the chicken to the skillet, cooking for approximately 5 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Stir often. Remove chicken to a clean plate and set aside.
- Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and chilies. Cook for approximately 30 seconds, stirring continuously.
- Stir in the white parts of the green onions with the red and green bell peppers. Mix well to combine. Cook for approximately 1-2 minutes, stirring often. Mix the ground Sichuan peppercorns in with the peppers and return the chicken to the skillet. Continue mixing until everything is combined.
- Give the sauce a final stir and pour directly over the chicken and peppers. Stir continuously and bring the sauce to a low boil. You will notice the sauce start to thicken. Reduce heat and continue to cook, stirring continuously, until desired consistency is reached.
- Stir in the green parts of the green onions and the peanuts, mixing well to combine. Serve with your favorite rice or noodles. Enjoy!
- Chinese Black Vinegar- available at many Asian supermarkets, you can also find it on Amazon. Substitutes include rice wine vinegar (1.5 tbsp) or distilled white vinegar (1 tbsp). Be sure to purchase a Chinese Black Vinegar that is "made in China" for best results.
- Sichuan peppercorns- these are optional but recommended if you can get your hands on some. They are not spicy. If you can find pre-toasted and ground peppercorns, that is the best option. Otherwise, you'll want to toast them in a dry pan over medium-low heat just until fragrant and then grind them.
- If you're sensitive to spicy foods, add half the recommended amount of dried red chilies (or none at all). The heat level of these dried red chilies varies greatly, making them somewhat unpredictable.
(Nutrition information provided is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and specific brands of ingredients used.)