Although this Chinese restaurant staple is named for a 19th century Hunan military officer, its 1970s New York City provenance hits a little closer to home. Alternately known as General Gau’s, Cho’s, and Tsang’s chicken, the dish features boneless chicken pieces marinated in soy sauce, then battered, deep-fried, and smothered in a sweet and spicy sauce.
ELEMENTS OF DISTRESS
Unfortunately, this chicken marches to the beat of its own drum when replicated at home. Instead of crispy, sauced perfection, the at-home version is all too often a gummy, soggy protein cloaked by a saccharine-sweet sauce.
LINE OF ATTACK
We wanted to bring crispy back to this Chinese-restaurant mainstay. We’d also aim to wage war on its flat, sugary sauce by building complex layers of flavor.
While most recipes call for dipping the chicken in egg whites, coating it in cornstarch, and deep-frying it, we found this tactical maneuver produced a pale batter that undoubtedly turned soft when sauced. Adding baking soda to the cornstarch helped the chicken brown better, and fortifying the mixture with flour kept the coating crisp even when bathed in sauce.
We’d conquered the coating, but how would we defeat the one-dimensional sauce? Dried chiles yielded inconsistent results—searingly hot in one batch, meek in another. So we ditched them for red pepper flakes sautéed with fresh garlic and ginger to round out their heat. We also deserted tomato paste, a recipe ingredient common to many versions of the dish, and recruited spicy hoisin. In combination with soy sauce, white vinegar, and sugar, this sauce was a surefire success. In fact, the sauce was so good, we staged a marinade coup. We used it in place of the traditional soy-only marinade. It won tasters over with its super-charged flavor.
We were almost there, but had one final skirmish: Our recipe required frying the chicken in two batches. We noticed the second batch always came out darker and crispier than the first. To get that same result in our first batch, we added some of the marinade to the cornstarch mixture we were using to dredge the chicken. Success: The craggy bits of marinade made for extra crunch.
The result? A General Tso’s Chicken worth the battle.