Sweet and sour chicken with pineapple, peppers, and onions is the perfect combination of flavors, textures, and ingredients that represent Chinese-American cuisine. Make it for dinner and discover how much better homemade Chinese can be than take-out!
Though an undisputed classic of the Chinese-American culinary repertoire, the origins of sweet and sour chicken are actually rather murky. According to Condé Nast Traveller, what is now known as Hong Kong-style sweet and sour chicken actually originated in Shanghai and used to be black thanks to the inclusion of black vinegar. Somewhere along the way, sweet and sour chicken shed some of its ingredients, acquired a dose of American ketchup and white vinegar, became reddish-orange, and was packed full of canned pineapple (via Chowhound). And, in many ways, we are all the richer for it, as there are now multiple versions of this dish out there to experience and love.
Make your own portion of American-style sweet and sour chicken for dinner tonight, and find out how amazing homemade Chinese food can actually be when made with good ingredients and lots of love.
Gather the ingredients for sweet and sour chicken
The ingredient list of sweet and sour chicken is a bit long, but trust us when we say that everything is necessary. You’ll end up with a perfectly balanced, tangy, and sugary dish that hits all the right notes.
First, to make sweet and sour chicken, you’ll need 1 pound of chicken breasts or thighs. Either meat will work, though make sure that, whatever type you buy, the cut of meat is boneless.
We will be coating our chicken in cornstarch mixed with salt and pepper, so make sure you have a lot of that, too. The second layer of coating will be made up of regular all-purpose flour, seasoned with more salt and pepper. You will need two eggs to act as the binder between the two coating layers. For the marinade, you’ll need the juice from a can of pineapple, rice vinegar or white vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, and garlic cloves.
And last, for the final sauce in which the sweet and sour chicken will be coated, you’ll need ginger, onion, pineapple chunks, and red and yellow bell peppers. The bell peppers add a nice bit of color too, though know that you can really use two bell peppers of any color. For serving, you’ll top the sweet and sour chicken with diced scallions, and it will be served with rice.
Prep ingredients for sweet and sour chicken
As the preparation of sweet and sour chicken can be rather involved, it helps to prep all the vegetables and chicken ahead of time. So let’s get our mise en place set up, just like professional chefs do, for making this ridiculously delicious dish.
Separate the pineapple chunks from the canned pineapple juice. Remember to keep both the fruit and juice to use later. Cut the bell peppers and onions into bite-sized chunks of a similar size to your pineapple chunks. This will likely be about ½-inch to 1-inch in size. Dice the scallions and set them aside.
Dice chicken into 1-inch bite-size pieces, then transfer them to a large bowl while you get started on your sweet and sour sauce.
Mix the sweet and sour sauce and batter for chicken
With all the ingredients prepped and cut, we can move on to making the ubiquitous sweet and sour sauce that gives this dish its name and iconic flavor. We will also season the chicken with its first coating.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix the sauce ingredients. You will combine the pineapple juice, vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, minced garlic, and salt. Whisk well to combine and then set aside.
Then, let’s get ready to season the chicken. To the bowl already containing the prepared chicken pieces, add the cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of pepper. Mix these ingredients thoroughly, until all the chicken pieces are well coated.
Coat the chicken in batter
Sweet and sour chicken is known for its crispy, fried chunks of chicken that are then coated in a deliciously sticky, shiny sauce. To attain that crispy shell, the chicken requires a coating in batter and a quick sojourn in the deep fryer. If you don’t happen to have a deep fryer handy, then a quick dunk in a pan with sizzling oil will also work. We’re not picky.
First off, combine 2 eggs in a bowl, and season with a pinch of salt. Whisk well to combine. This will serve as the binder between the initial cornstarch coating you’ve just completed and the second, flour-based crispy coating. To make that final coating, transfer the flour to another bowl or large plate, mixing it with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Dip chicken pieces first into the egg mixture, and then into the flour. Set on a large baking sheet where the pieces can wait until you’re ready to fry.
Fry the sweet and sour chicken pieces
Fill a large, wide-rimmed pan with 2-3 inches of oil. Since we’re frying these chicken pieces, a Dutch oven or a cast-iron pan with a heavy bottom would work well here. Bring your plate of prepped and coated chicken and set it beside your frying station so you’re ready to work quickly and efficiently.
Set the pan to medium-high heat and wait until the oil is sufficiently heated through before adding the chicken. If you’re not sure that the oil is hot enough, you can test it by throwing a small bit of water in there. If it’s up to temperature, the oil should bubble around the water immediately.
Working in batches, fry a few chicken pieces at a time for 2-3 minutes, turning over once. Do not crowd the pan, which can impede cooking and browning, making for sad fried chicken. Yes, it may take a bit more time, but it’s ultimately better to work in batches. Transfer fried chicken bites to a plate or baking sheet and let them rest. Do not worry about soaking up the oil from the chicken.
Cook chicken in sweet and sour sauce
When you’re done cooking the chicken, turn off the pan and let the oil cool down. When the oil has sufficiently cooled off, remove most of the oil except for one tablespoon. Alternatively, if you have another large pan and you’re short on time, then you can get started with a new pan and add 1 tablespoon of oil to it, remembering to let the oil heat up before adding your ingredients.
Set whatever pan you chose to medium heat. Add minced ginger, onions, peppers and pineapple chunks, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the sauce you prepared to the pan and stir well to combine. Add the chicken to the pan and stir together until the chicken is well coated in sauce and the vegetables and pineapple are interspersed all throughout. Cook for 1 minute.
Serve sweet and sour chicken over rice
Remove the sweet and sour chicken from the pan and transfer to a large serving bowl. Mix one more time to ensure that the chicken chunks are well-distributed with the pineapple and vegetables and that there is a serving of fruit, vegetables, and chicken in every bite.
Top the fried sweet and sour chicken with sliced scallions. The scallions will provide a nice green contrast to the yellow and red colors of our dish.
The resulting sweet and sour chicken should be glistening with sauce, colorful from a healthy mix of pineapple, bell peppers, and scallions, and perfectly balanced in its flavors – tangy, sweet, and slightly spicy. Serve the sweet and sour chicken immediately over rice, like basmati or jasmine rice.
- 1 lb chicken breasts or thighs
- ½ cup cornstarch
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ¼ cup juice from canned pineapple
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- ¼ cup ketchup
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 4 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup flour
- 1-inch piece of ginger, grated
- ½ onion
- 1 red bell pepper
- 1 yellow bell pepper
- 1 cup or 14-oz can pineapple chunks
- 2 scallions
- Rice, for serving
- Cut peppers and onions into bite-sized chunks of a similar size to your pineapple chunks. Dice scallions.
- Dice chicken into 1-inch bite-size pieces. Transfer chicken pieces to a large bowl.
- In a medium-sized bowl, mix sauce ingredients: pineapple juice, vinegar, ketchup, brown sugar, soy sauce, minced garlic, and salt. Set aside
- To the bowl with the chicken, add cornstarch and ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper and mix thoroughly, until all chicken pieces are well coated.
- Transfer eggs to a bowl, and season with a pinch of salt. Pour flour in another bowl or large plate, mixing it with a pinch of salt and pepper.
- Dip chicken pieces first into the egg, and then into the flour. Set on a large baking sheet until ready to fry.
- Fill a large, wide-rimmed pan with 2-3 inches of oil – a Dutch Oven or a cast-iron pan would work well. Set the pan to medium-high heat and wait until the oil is sufficiently heated through (you can test it by throwing a small bit of water in there – the oil should bubble around it immediately).
- Working in batches, fry a few chicken pieces at a time for 2-3 minutes, turning over once. Do not crowd pan – it’s better to work in batches. Transfer chicken bites to a plate or baking sheet.
- When done cooking chicken and oil has sufficiently cooled off, remove most of the oil except one tablespoon (or get started with a new pan and add 1 tablespoon of oil to it).
- Set pan on medium heat. Add ginger, onions, peppers, and pineapple and cook for 2 minutes. Add sauce to the pan, and stir well to combine. Add chicken to pan, stir together until chicken is well coated in sauce and the vegetables and pineapple are interspersed all throughout. Cook for 1 minute.
- Top with sliced scallions and serve immediately over rice.