This restaurant-style Kung Pao Chicken recipe pairs crispy chicken with veggies and a savory-sweet sauce that can be as fiery (or not fiery) as you want it to be. Bonus: Because you’re making it at home, it’s lighter than takeout!
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Why You’ll Love This Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
- The Hands-On Time Is Minimal. Only 10 minutes of prep and 10 minutes to cook. Yep, this is a dinner perfect for busy weeknights (same with Kung Pao Shrimp).
- It’s a Healthier Version of the Original. Takeout is usually loaded with sodium, unhealthy fats, and sugar. Make it yourself and avoid unwelcome ingredients.
- It Has All the Flavor of Takeout. There are no sacrifices here! No compromises! None! Just like my Shrimp Fried Rice, Orange Chicken, and General Tso Chicken, this kung pao chicken is healthier than takeout and just as delicious.
- You Can Have It Your Way. Yes, that’s a line from a restaurant commercial, but it’s true for this kung pao chicken too! You can make it fiery hot or skip the red pepper flakes altogether to keep it mild.
About This Kung Pao Chicken Recipe
Kung pao chicken is a classic Chinese dish that is tangy, sweet, and spicy all at the same time.
It’s one of those staple dishes that nearly every American Chinese restaurant has on the menu—which is how you know it’s good stuff.
To make a lightened-up version of the restaurant staple, I cut the oil in the stir fry, swapped in low-sodium soy sauce, and used honey for sweetness.
The result is a homemade kung pao chicken with all the bold flavors you love, but in a much healthier package. Win!
How to Make Kung Pao Chicken
- Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts. Chicken thighs or chicken tenders also work in this recipe.
- Low-Sodium Soy Sauce. You can substitute regular soy sauce if that’s what you have on hand, but I prefer low-sodium to keep the salt level in check.
- Rice Wine Vinegar. Also known as rice vinegar. Make sure you use unseasoned; seasoned rice vinegar is sweetened.
- Sesame Oil. You can use toasted or regular; toasted sesame oil will add more prominent sesame flavor to the dish.
- Cornstarch. You’ll use some to get the chicken nice and crispy, while the rest will thicken the sauce.
- Kosher Salt. If you use regular soy sauce, omit the salt.
- Honey. I use just a touch to keep the sauce from being cloying.
- Crushed Red Pepper Flakes. Feel free to use more or less. Some recipes call for dried chiles or Sichuan peppercorns, but I use red pepper flakes because they’re a pantry staple most of us have on hand already.
- Canola Oil. Or another cooking oil with a high smoke point like grapeseed or avocado oil.
- Bell Pepper. Choose any color you like; yellow, orange, and red bell pepper will add sweetness to your stir fry, while green has a bit of a vegetal bite to it.
- Yellow Onion. Make sure you cut this into uniform pieces so it’s all done cooking at the same time.
- Celery. This adds some texture and fresh flavor to your kung pao chicken.
- Peanuts or Cashews. Roasted peanuts are the classic choice, but I love cashews in this recipe too.
- Garlic. Always a key ingredient for stir fry recipes.
- Fresh Ginger. Fresh ginger contributes to the warmth in this dish. Even if you omit the red pepper flakes entirely, you’ll still get a bit of heat thanks to the hefty tablespoon of ginger used here.
- Green Onions. Separate the white ends from the greens.
- Cooked Brown Rice. I love using Instant Pot Brown Rice for stir fries.
- Marinate Chicken. At least 20 minutes or up to 4 hours.
- Make the Sauce. Whisk it up well to dissolve the cornstarch.
- Cook the Chicken. Transfer the chicken to a bowl.
- Cook the Vegetables. Only for a minute or 2 so they stay crisp-tender.
- Stir it All Together. Cook until the sauce coats the chicken and veggies.
- Serve. Plate the kung pao chicken with rice and green onions, then ENJOY!
- Kung Pao Tofu. For a vegetarian version of this dish, swap the boneless skinless chicken breast for extra-firm tofu. Follow the method in my General Tso Tofu recipe.
- Kung Pao Shrimp. Shrimp is also tasty with kung pao sauce! Swap the chicken for peeled, deveined shrimp.
- Switch Up the Veggies. Substitute the bell pepper and celery with other vegetables that work well in stir fries—eggplant, snap peas, mushrooms, broccoli, or whatever is hanging in your refrigerator.
- To Store. Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
- To Reheat. Reheat on the stove or in the microwave.
What to Serve with Kung Pao Chicken
- Grains. You don’t need to stick with brown or white rice! Try serving it over quinoa or farro for something different.
- Fried Rice. Make my Homemade Fried Rice or keep it light with Cauliflower Fried Rice.
- Salad. Pair your kung pao chicken with an Asian-inspired salad like my Ramen Salad or Asian Cabbage Salad.
Recommended Tools to Make this Recipe
- Small Whisk. This small whisk is perfect when you’re whisking something in a small bowl or saucepan.
- Nonslip Cutting Board. You’ll be cutting a lot of veggies for this recipe, so a good cutting board is a must!
- Wok. A skillet works just fine for making kung pao chicken, but if you love making stir fries, you’ll appreciate having a wok on hand.
Recipe Tips and Tricks
- Whisk the Sauce Well. If there are clumps of cornstarch in the kung pao sauce, you’ll end up with clumps of cornstarch in your stir fry. It’s not a disaster, but it’s not very appetizing—and it means your sauce will be less sticky because the starch isn’t evenly distributed.
- Make It Customizable. Cooking for people with different spice level preferences? That can be tricky! I recommend catering to the person with the lowest heat tolerance and letting everyone else add extra red pepper flakes when they sit down to eat.
- Have a Mise en Place. In other words, make sure everything is prepped and ready to go before you start cooking because stir fries are fast and you won’t have time to stop and cut veggies in the middle of the recipe. Prep all of your ingredients while the chicken marinates.
Kung Pao Chicken
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts , cut into 1/2-inch pieces (or chicken thighs or tenders)
- 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce divided
- 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil divided (toasted or untoasted)
- 3 teaspoons cornstarch divided
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes use more or less to taste
- 2 tablespoons canola oil or grapeseed or avocado oil
- 1 large bell pepper diced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 medium yellow onion diced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 celery stalks diced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup peanuts or cashews optional
- 3 garlic cloves minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon minced or grated fresh ginger from about a 1-inch piece
- 3 green onions thinly sliced, white and green parts separated (about 1/2 cup)
- Cooked brown rice for serving
- In a medium bowl or zip-top bag, combine 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and the salt. With a fork, whisk to combine and dissolve the cornstarch.
- Add the chicken and toss gently to coat. Cover or seal closed and marinate in the fridge for at least 20 minutes and up to 4 hours.
- When you’re ready to cook, in a small bowl combine the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, honey, red pepper flakes, and 2 teaspoons cornstarch. Whisk to combine and dissolve the cornstarch.
- In a large skillet or wok, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot and shimmering, add the chicken along with its marinade. Cook, undisturbed, until the chicken is golden brown on one side and releases from the pan, 1-2 minutes. Toss the chicken to redistribute it with a spatula or large spoon. Continue to cook until the chicken is golden brown on all sides (the chicken will not yet be cooked through), 1-2 more minutes. Transfer chicken to a bowl.
- To the skillet, add the remaining tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the bell pepper, onion, and celery and cook, stirring constantly, until the vegetables are bright and crisp-tender, about 1-2 minutes. If using nuts, add them now.
- Add the garlic, ginger, and white and light green parts of the green onions. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet, along with the sauce mixture. Cook, stirring constantly, until everything is well coated in sauce and the chicken is cooked through, about 1 more minute.
- Garnish with sliced dark green onions and serve over rice.
- TO STORE: Cool and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
- TO REHEAT: Reheat on the stove or in the microwave.
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Frequently Asked Questions
General Tso’s chicken is a dish with deep-fried chicken coated in a sticky-sweet, spicy sauce. Kung pao chicken, on the other hand, is stir-fried in a lighter sauce with vegetables and peanuts.
Kung pao can be quite spicy, depending on the amount of red pepper flakes you add to the dish. Feel free to adjust the heat level according to your taste preferences.
No, kung pao chicken is not the same as sweet and sour. Sweet and Sour Chicken often consists of battered deep-fried chicken, and the sauce is both tangier and sweeter than that of kung pao chicken. While some versions of sweet and sour chicken have a bit of heat from red pepper flakes, it’s typically a mild dish compared to kung pao.