Food & Wine (May 2011)
Is there any dish out there that screams "Chinese take-out" more than General Tso's Chicken?
We don't think so. With its flash-fried pieces of chicken lacquered in a sticky spicy-sweet sauce, General Tso's Chicken is, to us, the quintessential dish of Chinese food in the United States. (It's also a dish that's almost completely unknown in China. For a really fascinating look at the history of General Tso's Chicken and several other standards of Chinese-American cuisine, check out Jennifer 8. Lee's excellent book, The Fortune-Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, which we actually wrote about on the blog a while back.)
Anyway, General Tso's is so linked in our minds with Chinese restaurants that it hadn't really occurred to us that it's a dish you can make at home.
So when we saw a recipe for it in the May Food & Wine, we were more than a little intrigued. (Incidentally, it's part of a really great F&W feature, which we mentioned yesterday, in which food blogger Zach Brooks of Midtown Lunch recreates his favorite lunchtime ethnic dishes.)
But what if we made things a little more interesting?
What if we did a head-to-head comparison of this recipe with the General Tso's from our favorite Chinese delivery place?
In fact, what if we started cooking at the exact same time we called in our order, to see if we could cook the dish ourselves before the delivery guy rang the doorbell?
Who would win on speed? Who would win on cost? What about flavor?
Ladies and gentlemen: the General Tso's Chicken Challenge!
First, let's meet the competitors.
Lau, the delivery guy from our favorite Chinese restaurant in D.C., Meiwah.
Let the battle begin!
As we said, we started cooking the dish the moment we called our go-to restaurant for Chinese takeout, Meiwah. We hadn't done any prep work in the kitchen, but we both dove in immediately.
Even with four hands in the kitchen, we were nowhere near being done when our door buzzed only 22 minutes later. Twenty-two minutes! Yeah, Meiwah is fast.
The 45 minutes of prep time listed in this recipe does seem to be spot on, though, and the process itself is easy and straightforward. And we happen to think that going from zero to the dinner table in 45 minutes is still a fast meal. But there's just no way to compare to Meiwah's 22-minute delivery time.
We paid $10.95, plus tax, for the General Tso's from Meiwah. However, there's a $15 minimum for delivery orders, so we threw in some spring rolls, too. In the interest of comparison, though, we'll just focus on the chicken. We did give Lau a $4 tip. (Maybe that's steep, but come on: It's weird to ask a delivery guy to let you take his picture.) So let's say the chicken from Meiwah cost us fifteen bucks.
Figuring out the cost of making this at home is a little trickier. For one thing, other than the pound of chicken, you use very little of each ingredient. For another, we already had a lot of the ingredients -- garlic, sugar, sesame oil, cornstarch and so on -- in our pantry.
But here are our best guesses for if you had to start from scratch, based on current prices at Peapod.com:
1 1/2 tbsp sesame oil: 78 cents
1 large egg white: 32 cents
1/4 cup soy sauce: 48 cents
1/4 cup plus 3 tbsp cornstarch: 28 cents
1 pound chicken thighs: $2.99
1 cup chicken broth: 72 cents
1 tsp Chinese chile-garlic sauce: 5 cents
3 tbsp sugar: 6 cents
vegetable oil for frying: $2.50
2 tbsp fresh ginger: $1.20
2 garlic cloves: 20 cents
4 scallions: 50 cents
With Meiwah winning on speed, and our at-home dish winning on cost, it all comes down to taste. And really, it probably should anyway, right?
First off, let us reiterate that we really do like classic General Tso's chicken. We're suckers for that addictive sweet sauce!
But as we were tasting the delivery version versus our homemade dish, we noticed some major differences. For starters, the homemade version had a much, much more complex set of flavors. The ginger, garlic, sesame and chile-garlic paste made for a sauce that was packed with various nuanced flavors. The delivery dish, in contrast, only seemed to taste "sweet." That's it. Just a flat, one-note sweetness, and kind of a sickly sweet one at that.
And perhaps not surprisingly, the homemade version tasted much fresher overall. The scallions added a terrific fresh note to the end, and the ingredients just tasted better in general.
The biggest contrast, in terms of ingredients, was the chicken itself. Again, we really like Meiwah's food, but in tasting the two dishes side by side, the chicken itself was no comparison. The delivery chicken was tough and dry in places, greasy in others, and rather chewy in a way that made it seem like it had been sitting out for a long time. In the homemade dish, the chicken was tender and moist, with a crisp golden skin slathered in delectable, subtly sweet sauce. And our chicken wasn't anything special, just some chicken thighs we had picked up at Trader Joe's.
One thing the delivery version had going for it: That gorgeous sticky lacquer. Our at-home version didn't quite capture that. Also, we have to say, if we were served the at-home version without being told what it is, we're not sure we could have identified it as General Tso's. Without the knock-you-down sweetness and the sticky lacquer coating, our homemade dish just wasn't quite the same as the takeout classic.
In the end, we just came out liking the homemade Food & Wine version much better. The sauce, the quality of the ingredients, the taste of the actual marinated chicken itself -- it just all stacked up to make the at-home dish the clear winner on flavor (even if it didn't taste exactly like classic General Tso's).
There are tons of reasons to love the takeout version of General Tso's: It's quick, pretty cheap, and sometimes that sticky-sweet sauce is just what you're craving. But if you want a twist on the General that's healthier, more affordable and full of delicious flavors, you should definitely try making this General Tso's at home!
(This image: Food & Wine)
Total time: 45 minutes | Servings: 4
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 large egg white
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 pound skinless boneless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon Chinese chile-garlic sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for frying
2 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh ginger
2 large garlic cloves, minced
4 scallions, thinly sliced
In a medium bowl, combine the toasted sesame oil with the egg white, 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the cornstarch. Add the chicken, stirring to coat. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk the chicken broth with the chile-garlic sauce, sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup of soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of cornstarch.
In a large saucepan, heat the 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the ginger and garlic and cook over high heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir the broth mixture, add it to the pan and cook until thickened and glossy, about 3 minutes. Keep the sauce warm over low heat.
In a large, deep skillet, heat 1/2 inch of oil until shimmering. Carefully add the chicken, one piece at a time, and fry over high heat, turning once or twice, until very browned and crisp, about 4 minutes.
Drain the chicken on paper towels and immediately add to the sauce along with the scallions. Cook just until coated, about 30 seconds. Serve right away.