If your childhood was anything like mine (or if your adulthood is anything like my sister’s) you probably looked forward to getting the free samples of Panda Express’ famous Orange Chicken at the mall food court when you were 16 and shopping for platform sandals and cargo pants.
For me, Orange Chicken is a really nostalgic dish. It’s not my mom’s famous French Spaghetti or my dad’s homemade hamburgers, but it brings back memories of my adolescence all the same. It was a treat my sister and I used to look forward to every time we went shopping at the mall near where we grew up, where we bee-lined to Panda Express every time we hit the food court on a Saturday afternoon.
While I haven’t eaten at a Panda Express in over a decade, I have been making something resembling their Orange Chicken for a few years. I recently introduced my (British) husband to my riff on this classic, and he was immediately smitten with the stuff, which he’d never heard of seeing as Panda Express (gasp!) isn’t in England. He’s requested it again this week, and I’m not kidding when I say that – the first time he had it, after he’d finished his chicken and veggies – he drank the remaining sauce straight from his bowl. Is that a little gross? Yeah. But is it also a resounding endorsement for the dish? 100%.
Technically, this isn’t “orange” chicken, as I’ve found that apricot preserves actually work best for this sauce, but I don’t think there’s much of a flavor difference between my version and the real thing. When it comes to the chicken, I keep my riff a little healthier by avoiding breading the meat and deep frying it, and opting instead for a light coating of seasoned flour and a shallow fry. I like to serve this with steamed broccoli and white rice with spring onions and a drizzle of my crispy chili oil, but it would also be great on its own, although without the rice you lose the ability to soak up additional sauce and I don’t love the sound of that, to be honest.
However you decide to serve it, here’s how to make it:
Healthier Orange Chicken
- 1 lb chicken breast tenders or chicken breasts cubed
- 3-4 cups flavorless oil *I prefer sunflower
- 1 tbsp flour
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1.5 cups apricot preserves or apricot conserve *not jelly
- 1/4+ 1/8 cup standard soy sauce
- 2 tbsp light brown sugar *lightly packed
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tsp crushed chili flakes
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
Begin heating your oil in a heavy bottomed pan or skillet over medium high heat. You want enough oil to competely coat the bottom of the pan and cover the chunks of chicken almost completely, about 1.5 inches or so.
Meanwhile, lightly toss the chicken in the flour and garlic powder and set aside while the oil heats.
Prepare the sauce by combining the apricot preserves, soy sauce, brown sugar, white vinegar, chili flakes and ginger in a sauce pot. Heat over medium heat until all ingredients are thoroughly combined and the preserves have mostly broken up/dissolved into the sauce. Allow the sauce to simmer so that it thickens.
When the oil is hot (you will begin to see it ripple in the pan), and while the sauce simmers, place your coated chicken cubes into the hot oil (gently!) and allow them to cook for approximately 6-7 minutes, until the outside is light golden brown and the inside is cooked completely. *If your oil begins to darken significantly while the chicken is cooking, turn the heat down and momentarily remove the pan from the heat in order to ensure it doesn't burn. You don't need to turn the cubes from side to side – if they're all submerged in the oil, you only need to move them to make sure they aren't sticking to one another.
When the chicken is cooked, toss it in the sauce, reserving most of the sauce. Serve over rice or with steamed vegetables, topped with the remiaining sauce, some spring onions, peanuts, sesame seeds and/or any other garnish you prefer! Enjoy!