Kung Pao Chicken
Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁) is easy to make at home with customizable heat, plus, it takes less time than driving to your favorite Chinese restaurant – and tastes even better! This recipe boasts juicy, undeniably tender chicken, crisp tender veggies and crunchy peanuts blanketed in an irresistible fiery, salty, savory garlic chili sauce with a kiss of sweetness. This Kung Pao Chicken recipe allows you to adjust the heat from mild to numbingly hot and to use chilies, red pepper flakes or chili sauce – whatever is easiest for you! You can also use whatever veggies you love from bell peppers and celery to water chestnuts, bok choy, carrots, mushrooms and zucchini. This Kung Pao Chicken is easy to make with a quick chicken marinade while you chop the veggies then it’s just a quick stir fry to dinner. I love to serve this Kung Pao Chicken recipe with homemade egg rolls and cream cheese wontons for a complete takeout fakeout feast.
Servings 6 -8 servings
- peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup roasted, UNSALTED peanuts
- 4 green onions white parts thinly sliced; green parts sliced into 1-inch pieces
- 1 red bell pepper chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 1 green bell pepper chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 stalks celery halved lengthwise then thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 3-4 cloves garlic minced
- 15 whole Thai dried red chilies *see Notes for substitutions
- seeds from 5-10 Thai dried red chilies *see Notes for substitutions
Add the velveting/marinade ingredients to a large freezer bag or bowl; whisk to combine. Add chicken and turn until evenly coated. Let sit at room temperature while you prep the rest of the ingredients; 15-30 minutes (no more). Meanwhile, whisk Sauce ingredients together in a medium bowl; set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once very hot, add chicken in a single layer and cook until golden then stir and cook chicken just until opaque. Transfer to a plate (chicken will not be cooked through).
To the now empty skillet, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. Once very hot, add peanuts, white parts of onions, celery, bell peppers, ginger, garlic, dried chilies and chili seeds and stir fry one minute.
Return the chicken to the skillet. Whisk the sauce to recombine then add to the skillet. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thickened and chicken is cooked through, about 1-2 minutes. Stir in in green parts of green onions. Taste and add additional chili seeds or chili sauce if desired.
Serve with rice and garnish with green onions and sesame seeds if desired.
WHAT CHILI PEPPERS SHOULD I USE?
- You want DRIED, Thai chilies. Thai chilies typically can be found at an Asian market or on Amazon. Dried Thai chilies are one-half to two inches long. These chilies range from 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units which is 23 times the average heat of a jalapeño!
- In order to not burn our mouths off, we stir fry the chilies whole and only add some seeds to taste. This is akin to using the flesh of the jalapenos without the seeds - you still get the flavor and some of the heat but not the numbing heat.
- *You do not eat the dried chilies. They release heat as they cook and are left in the finished dish for garnish.
HOW TO CUSTOMIZE SPICE LEVEL USING CHILIES
Kung Pao Chicken is meant to have a kick from chilies, ginger and garlic. That being said, it is very EASY to customize the heat of this recipe.
- MILD KUNG PAO CHICKEN: Stir fry 15 Thai chili peppers without cuttings any of them open (and of course, don't eat the whole chilies!). This will produce mild Kung Pao Chicken that will probably be too mild and taste like it’s missing something - which is heat! You can add heat by adding chili sauce, red pepper flakes or seeds from some of the chilies.
- MODERATE KUNG PAO CHICKEN: Stir fry 15 Thai chili peppers without cuttings any of them open and seeds from 5 additional chilies, or more to taste. To add the seeds, simply cut the dried chilies open and shake the seeds out. You can also add additional seeds after you've tasted the finished dish if it's not spicy enough or add seeds to individual servings.
- SPICY KUNG PAO CHICKEN: Stir fry the Kung Pao Chicken with the 15 whole Thai chilies but instead of adding seeds from 5 chilies, add more to taste. I would say 10 chilies adds a nice kick of heat but is not crazy spicy. For super spicy, use seeds from more than 10 chilies. Of course, you can always start with less and add more to taste.
THAI CHILIES SUBSTITUTE
- If you can’t locate Thai chiles, you can substitute them with Asian chili sauce (such as sambal oelek) which is made from a combination of chilies, including Thai chilies.
- I recommend 1 tablespoon Asian chili paste plus ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes for medium spicy and 2 tablespoons Asian chili paste plus ½ teaspoon for spicier. Always start with less heat and add more to taste - because you can add heat but it's hard to take away!
- If you know you don’t like very spicy food, then I would only use 1 tablespoon Asian chili sauce and eliminate the crushed red pepper flakes. From there, you can add back a small pinch of red pepper flakes or Asian chili sauce to taste to the entire Kung Pao Chicken or to your individual servings.
TIPS AND TRICKS
This Kung Pao Chicken recipe is pretty straightforward, but here are some tips and tricks to make it a sizzling success:
- Don’t use salted peanuts. Only use UNSALTED peanuts or your Kung Pao chicken will be far too salty. Also, purchase roasted, unsalted peanuts for an added dimension of flavor, otherwise, toast the peanuts yourself in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden in some pots.
- Szechuan peppercorn: You will need 1 teaspoon ground Szechuan peppercorn. You can purchase whole ones and toast and grind them yourself, although I find it easier to just purchase ground Szechuan powder. Szechuan peppercorn can be found on Amazon (my fav!) at most Asian markets (call first) spice stores, or sometimes specialty stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts.
- Use QUALITY oyster sauce like Lee Kum Kee or Kikkoman because you literally can TASTE the difference!
- Chop chicken into large pieces. Go for about 1 1/2 inch pieces of chicken. Larger pieces of chicken are harder to overcook and dry out and will taste far juicier.
- Customize veggies. You can substitute the bell peppers for your favorite veggies. Cut long cooking vegetables small and short cooking vegetables larger.
- Don’t skip the marinade/velveting. This ensures that the chicken is tender just like Chinese restaurants. If you need to skip it, then go with chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts.
- Don’t marinate chicken for too long. The bite-size pieces of chicken should not be marinated longer than 30 minutes or else they can become mushy.
- Don’t overcook chicken. For the juiciest chicken, don’t overcook! Brown it in the skillet but let it finish cooking in the sauce.
- Don’t overcook bell peppers. I suggest setting the timer for 60 seconds so you don’t overcook the bell peppers. It is better to under-cook them when stir frying then allow them to reach desired-crisp tenderness once you add the sauce.
- Add sauce to the sides of the pan. Pour the sauce around and down the sides of the pan instead of directly into the center. This will prevent the pan from cooling down too much.
HOW TO PREP AHEAD
Kung Pao Chicken has a few steps, but you can prep almost everything ahead of time for a speedy dinner. Here’s how:
- Chop chicken. Chop chicken into large bite size pieces any time before marinating then store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- Make sauce. Whisk the ingredients together up to 24 hours in advance and store, covered in the refrigerator. Let the sauce sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so before using.
- Chop veggies. You can chop your garlic, grate your ginger and chop your celery and bell peppers 24 hours in advance and store in separate air tight containers in the refrigerator.
- Cook! Within the next 24 hours, proceed with the recipe starting with marinating the chicken for 20-30 minutes.
HOW TO STORE and REHEAT
Kung Pao Chicken reheats very well if not initially overcooked.
- How to store: Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- How to reheat in microwave: Transfer small portions to a microwave safe dish, heat for one minute, stir then continue to heat at 30 second intervals.
- How to reheat on the stove: For larger portions, rewarm gently in a large skillet, stirring often. You may need to add a splash of water (better yet chicken broth if you have it) to thin the sauce as needed.