The key to better sweet and sour chicken? Make it crispy and bright -- and at home.

  • Takeout-Style Sweet and Sour Chicken is best when freshly made, but leftovers aren't bad either.

    Takeout-Style Sweet and Sour Chicken is best when freshly made, but leftovers aren't bad either. Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post

By Becky Krystal
The Washington Post
Updated 9/11/2019 6:43 AM

They say marriage changes you, but never how much. A lifetime of compromises, concessions and sacrifices.

Nearly a decade into my marriage, one such change sticks out: sweet and sour chicken.


There is a lot, food-related and otherwise, that my husband and I agree on, but sweet and sour chicken, the iconic Chinese-American takeout dish, is not one of them. You know the type -- typically very heavily battered, very sweet and very, very red. Because I can understand why those attributes don't appeal to everyone, and because I prefer to eat our takeout family-style and order dishes we'll both eat, I pretty much cut sweet and sour chicken out of my repertoire. Like I said, sacrifices.

I have tackled at-home versions of pad thai, fried rice and butter chicken, and sweet and sour chicken seemed like an ideal next candidate. I remembered a very good recipe from former catering kitchen cook Sheila Chang that I made once, years ago, and set about testing it and a few other contenders. That recipe was a crowd favorite based on the flavor and texture of the sauce, but we also liked a modified sweet and sour pork recipe from blogger and cookbook author Diana Kuan. Her recipe earned plaudits for its more restrained, citrusy sweetness (almost more like an orange chicken) and relatively thin but satisfying coating of batter. A lot of restaurant versions have so much batter that you lose the chicken. Not this one.

I pursued a hybrid version, with a scaled-back version of Chang's recipe -- less chicken with less sauce, made with less sugar -- and Kuan's batter. As to that batter, yes, we thought it was key to the spirit of the takeout classic. Of course, you can cook the plain chicken and then add the sauce, like a more traditional stir-fry. But this is an easy shallow fry that only uses 1 to 2 cups of oil, for a 10- or 12-inch cast-iron skillet. The coating of batter provides something for all that delectable sauce to cling to, although a nice bowl of rice helps with that, too.

In the end, my tinkering paid off. My tasters lapped it up, down to every last drop of sauce, which strikes a great balance between the sugar and vinegar. No, it's not faster than takeout, although at less than an hour, I think the effort is worth it, especially if you have some sweet and sour skeptics to placate. Like my (extremely agreeable and generous) husband. Now that I have found my new go-to recipe, this might be the time to try to win him over.

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