MoM Feb. ‘09 – Best of America’s Test Kitchen: General Tso’s Chicken

We’re still plowing through our February Magazine of the Month, America’s Test Kitchen – Best Recipes and Reviews 2008. If you haven’t had a chance to run out and pick up this magazine, it’s available on the stands until the end of April 2009. ATK does not publish their recipes on the website unless you are a paid subscriber and a lot of what’s included in the publication is a must have, so I would strongly suggest you pick this up.

Before choosing the February MoM, Citizen Chef suggested two magazines, both of them America’s Test Kitchen publications. I looked at the first one. It looked great. Then I opened up the Best Of. The first thing I saw was the General Tso’s Chicken, and the MoM was instantly decided. When I have a weak moment and I am not in the mood to cook, I always request Chinese take out, specifically, General Tso’s Chicken.

ATK General Tso's Chicken
Photo courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen

Against my better judgment, I’m actually going to share this recipe with everyone. This is one of the better recipes in the magazine, and the reason I’m sharing it is because I don’t make it to spec.

General Tso's - Ginger, Garlic & Pepper Flakes

The most daunting aspect of making my own breaded and fried chicken is the whole deep frying process: The breading never comes out right. Taste and texture are soggy, gummy messes of breading and oil.

The test kitchen had this problem, too, and went to work fixing it. And boy, did they ever.

Frying Breaded Chicken 2

I could have eaten the chicken alone with just a little rice, that’s how good it was. I’ve never made a breaded and fried chicken with such a fantastic texture before, and that’s really what wowed me. The secret to their breading is a cornstarch-flour mixture, with a few teaspoons of the uncooked sauce mixed in for added flavor.

As you can see, I didn’t deep fry mine. I did put a few tablespoons of oil into a frying pan, but tried to cut down on the amount of oil it called for.

What ended up being a little too strong was the sauce. The General Tso’s Chicken I enjoy has a bit of sweetness to it, and the test kitchen went into great detail about how the sauce is usually made, and how their taste testers eventually determined the formula.

Tomato Paste is usually the key ingredient for the dish and provides the sweetness that I prefer. Instead, the recipe substitutes the paste and uses hoisin instead. Thanks to the discourse that accompanies the recipe, I was able to figure out the combination of ingredients that worked best for me. I halved the hoisin and added the paste back in for a dish that was both savory and sweet and disappeared from the table within minutes.

General Tso’s Chicken
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen
Serves 4

Marinade and Sauce
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup white vinegar
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 cups water
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Coating and Frying
3 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 cups vegetable oil

For marinade and sauce:
Whisk hoisin, tomato paste, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and water in a bowl. Combine 6 tablespoons of the hoisin/tomato paste mixture and the chicken in a zipper-lock bag; refrigerate 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Cook the garlic, ginger and pepper flakes until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add 2 cups of the hoisin mixture and simmer, whisking constantly, until dark brown and thickened, about 2 minutes. Cover and keep warm.

For coating and frying:
Whisk the egg whites in a shallow dish until foamy. Combine the cornstarch, flour, baking soda, and remaining hoisin/tomato paste mixture in a second shallow dish until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Toss half of the chicken with the egg whites until well coated, then dredge the chicken in the cornstarch mixture, pressing to adhere. Transfer the coated chicken to a plate and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium high heat. Fry half of the chicken until golden brown, about 3 minutes, turning each piece halfway through cooking. Transfer the chicken to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining chicken.

To serve:
Warm the sauce over medium-low heat until shimmering, about 1 minute. Add the crisp chicken and toss to coat. Serve.

General Tso's Chicken

Overall, the dish is delicious and the texture of the breading is dynamite, but making it is a little cumbersome and takes a lot of ingredients to make. When I’m finished, I’ve made quite a mess and the cooking time is so short that I don’t get a chance to clean it up until after dinner is over. I will make this again because it’s so great, but it’s one of those where I need to be prepared to have a small mess on my hands when I’m done. Even though I really enjoy this and will be making it again, I have to knock it down a few pegs because of the messy factor and because it’s not the healthiest thing to eat. I will eat this periodically, but there are other, more nutritious things to put on the table. Then again, who gives a crap about that? I don’t order General Tso’s to be healthy. I order it because it’s delicious.

Weeknight Cooking Grade: B
Overall Meal Grade: B+

Best of America's Test Kitchen

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8 responses to “MoM Feb. ‘09 – Best of America’s Test Kitchen: General Tso’s Chicken

  1. Thanks for posting this recipe, I’m definitely going to try it. I’m a little confused though, because in the paragraphs before the recipe you mention that you didn’t deep-fry, but then your recipe listing below calls for 4 cups of cooking oil. I assume you just just a couple of tablespoons of oil when you pan-fried the chicken.

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  2. Sorry for the confusion on that. Yes, I just put in a couple of tablespoons and, if I needed to fry in separate batches, simply added. I didn’t cut the oil quantity back because your mileage will be different. Hope you enjoy it!

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  3. I made this a few times already (I halve the recipe since I’m cooking just for two people), and it came out better and better each time I made it. The first time, I made it according to the posted recipe, but I put too much of the marinade into the dry coating mix (the recipe doesn’t say how much, just to use “the remaining hoisin mixture”), so it was like working with putty instead of a coating powder. I tossed that out and got creative, leaving out the hoisin mixture from the coating mix, and instead added some pepper, salt, cinnamon, and allspice as seasoning to the cornstarch/flour/baking soda. Finally, I tossed in a few tablespoons of Italian-style panko breadcrumbs; this let the coating have that desirable “chunky” texture as seen in the photos.

    I sort of stir-fried the coated chicken in my mid-size Calphalon wok, using about 3 tablespoons of olive oil to fry in. I added a little more olive oil and let it heat up, prior to each small batch I made.

    As for the sauce/marinade, the posted recipe is really delicious, though time-consuming to make. If you’re looking for a shortcut that still tastes pretty good, you can mix equal parts of hoisin and ketchup, then dilute a bit with white vinegar or seasoned rice vinegar, and if you like a little spice you can add a teaspoon or so of hot chili sauce (I used Sriracha hili sauce because it’s readily available here in Calif.). You can substitute a little water for the added vinegar, and/or leave out the chili sauce if you like a milder sauce. Taste the marinade along the way, to decide what proportions are right for you. 🙂 I’m a slow cook, so simplifying the marinade/sauce is a great time saver for me.

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  4. First, the tomato paste modification ruined this dish. I should have known what every fiber in my being told me: Don’t mess with the ATK recipe. The use of tomato paste gave this an odd, pastey reddish-orange color that was not appealing to the eyes. If you want a sweeter version that the ATK recipe (why?) there are better ways to achieve it. The only reason the author had to modify this recipe was to rationalize posting someone else’s copyrighted material.

    Second, frying the chicken in a few tablespoons of oil rather than deep frying is absurd. Don’t kid yourself, you’re going to get a completely different result. If you want General’s chicken like your neihgboorhood Chinese joint, do what they do and deep fry it. If you’re concerned about calories, you should be reading this anyways.

    Third, David K, the recipe says exactly how much Hoisin mixture to use where – you measured wrong. Just because your experiment in creativity “improved” doesn’t mean it came out good. Stick to the recipe folks! They spend endless hours perfecting it and testing over and over. If you want to get creative, take up finger painting. If you want the best food at home, stick to the god damn recipe. Pay attention, and measure properly. Geesh.

    Btw.. if you don’t have Hoisin sauce, you can make your own. It’s not difficult, and the ingredients are in every half-decently stocked pantry. Google the recipe. But, if you want your General’s to taste more like your local joint, use a mass-made Hoisin.

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  5. Hey doug dude, chill out. I think you woke up on the wrong side of the panhandle this morning, or you’ve been watching Chef Ramsey on TV too much lately. Your complaints are somewhat helpful, and it seems like you’re a good recipe-follower, but I take it you’re not exactly loads of fun to be around in the kitchen. 😦

    We’re not sheep; there is no reason to stick exactly to any recipe, or to curse at cooks who are trying to get creative. We’re “Amateurs With Knives”, not professional wannabees with knives, having some fun and sharing our results with other friendly folks.

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  6. Wow, our first troll. We’re a real website now!

    doug, I’m sorry you didn’t care for the version I posted. As DavidK graciously pointed out, this is a blog written by regular people who like to cook. Personal preferences, tastes, and styles vary. It’s subjective. Amateurs with Knives. It’s in the title. If you don’t care for that, go pick up a copy of The French Laundry.

    Also, since you were so quick to jump on DavidK for misreading, I’d like to point out the original text I wrote, just above the ingredient list:

    “Thanks to the discourse that accompanies the recipe, I was able to figure out the combination of ingredients that worked best for me. I halved the hoisin and added the (tomato) paste back…”

    I halved the hoisin because that’s how I like it. When I copy and paste a recipe straight on, I am sure to note “courtesy of”. When I adapt, I say so. Apparently your math skills and reading comprehension are as bad as your interpersonal skills. Want the original version? Multiply the hoisin by 2 and cut back on the tomato paste.

    At any rate, good luck in your role as the Champion of Rabid Hoisin Lovers Everywhere who are apparently offended by my version of this recipe.

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