The Ingredients That Give Perfect Sesame Chicken Its Sweet Finish

Of all the classic Chinese takeout dishes, few rival the popularity of sesame chicken. Crispy breaded and fried chicken is given a bath in a wok full of hot oil and sauce that creates a coating that is sweet, savory, and wonderful. Notably, sesame chicken isn't quite as cloyingly sweet as sweet and sour or orange chicken, which are also popular dishes from Chinese-American restaurants.

Recipe developer Cecilia Ryu's recipe for sesame chicken is exceptional because it maintains such a gorgeous balance between ingredients: acidic rice vinegar, umami-rich soy sauce, and nutty sesame oil base. These are then packed with extra flavor from fresh and lightly spicy garlic and ginger, and of course, the holy trinity that gives sesame chicken its signature sweetness: brown sugar, honey, and ketchup. Yes, ketchup.

Often, we think of ketchup merely as a hamburger topping. But ketchup is actually an incredible sauce that can be used as a marinade, finishing sauce, and so much more. Made from tomatoes, which naturally contain MSG (a flavor booster), ketchup is also fortified with spices, vinegar, and a sweetening agent like high fructose corn syrup. These convenient and complex flavors make ketchup a perfect choice for a sesame chicken glaze. The other two sweet ingredients bring their own depth of flavor — brown sugar carries the tang of molasses, and honey its lightly earthy and fresh notes. These, combined with rice vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil, make for an outstanding flavor combination unique to sesame chicken.

How the sauce comes together

Garlic and ginger have their flavors heightened with one simple trick — instead of just adding them to the sauce, our recipe calls for them to be tossed in hot oil in the wok for a few seconds before the other ingredients are added. This will lightly caramelize them and allow their fragrant oils to fully release.

While ketchup does have some vinegar, sesame chicken sauce also calls for a generous addition of rice vinegar. That's because this adds brightness to the dish without the additional sugar that would come along with the use of citrus juice, as called for in orange chicken. Sesame oil helps keep the sauce from becoming too syrupy, which is important from a textural viewpoint. Sesame oil has a warm, nutty flavor that keeps the combination in a perfect harmony. All of these ingredients combined create a sauce that is sweet, lightly spicy, tangy, bright — and spectacular.

After you've double-fried your chicken, you can dress your chicken in your homemade sesame chicken sauce. Ryu says, "Definitely serve with rice," and notes that steamed vegetables are also delicious with this dish. This meal is best served hot and fresh, but you can easily reheat it, says Ryu. "Place [the room temperature chicken] on a sheet pan in the oven or toaster oven at 350 degrees until heated through," or use an air fryer, but avoid the microwave.