What Really Makes Panda Express' Orange Chicken So Delicious

Authentic Chinese food is one of the most delicious cuisines on earth. Comprised of lots of fresh vegetables, flavorful meats, tantalizing spices, and innovative cooking techniques that involve minimal uses of oil, real Chinese food is healthy and delicious. And the orange chicken you can order from any of the 2,000 red, white, and black quick service restaurants emblazoned with a playful, chubby panda known as Panda Express is anything but authentic. Or healthy. But it is so good. 

Fried chicken swimming in a thick, sticky sauce that's sweet and slightly spicy, few things can compare to the Panda Express menu item that's considered its bestseller. So many customers agree on the orange chicken that Panda Express sells over 100 million pounds of this entree a year. It's the epitome of fast casual comfort food, reasonably priced, readily available, sweet, spicy, crunchy and addictive. So what makes this dish so incredibly yummy? Read on to find out, but you may want to locate your car keys first because it's real tricky to read about the orange chicken at Panda Express without wanting to rush out and order some yourself. 

Panda Express' orange chicken is made with dark meat chicken

Americans love white meat. Especially chicken breasts. And when prepared correctly, a boneless, skinless chicken breast can be a thing of beauty. But dark meat has its benefits, too, and Panda Express realizes this. Perhaps that's why dark meat chicken is the star of their orange chicken. 

Ask any home chef, and they'll tell you that when chicken breast is overcooked by even a minute, it can become stringy and flavorless, and sometimes even rubbery. Dark meat chicken, like chicken thighs, are more forgiving and can stand up to heavy sauces while still remaining tender, even after deep frying. Dark meat also contains zinc and vitamins B12 and B6. It's not only tastier, but not that much unhealthier than regular old white meat chicken

Dark meat is inherently more flavorful than white meat, so the chicken in your orange chicken is going to have a more intense chicken-y flavor than your standard white breast chicken nuggets. When combined with the rest of the orange chicken ingredients, this dark meat is simply magic.

Panda Express' orange chicken is created with delicious deep fried chicken

It's no secret that Americans love fried food, and fried chicken, the king of all fried foods, is no exception. Even though consuming fried chicken on a daily basis could end up being a deadly habit, there's just something so delicious about deep fried pieces of poultry that it's hard to ignore fried chicken's appeal. Crunchy, juicy, and tender on the inside, it's no wonder it's the main ingredient in the orange chicken sold at Panda Express. 

The humble chicken was said to be first deep-fried by either African slaves or European descendants living in Southern America. When chef Andy Kao invented orange chicken in 1987, it originally contained pieces of bone-in chicken. It wasn't until customers requested a boneless version that the orange chicken we know and love was invented. The fried chicken pieces in Panda Express' orange chicken stays nicely crunchy with those yummy craggy bits associated with fried chicken, despite being covered in the signature orange sauce. The dish has a subtly crunchy mouth-feel that is just one of the reasons this entree is so crave-worthy.

The sauce for Panda Express' orange chicken is made fresh daily

One would assume with the amount of orange chicken that Panda Express serves daily that the sticky, citrus-y sauce it's coated in would be shipped to each location in giant vats. But not so, according to Jimmy Wang, Director of Product Development for Panda Express. The sauce is made in each store daily, so you are getting all the fresh yumminess that you rarely find in fast casual restaurants.

A Panda Express chef on Reddit explains,"We make almost everything on site. Fresh veggies delivered 3 times a week are all sliced up and prepared each morning or during the day. We cook all of our non-breaded meats from raw in the woks and we use actual recipes that are difficult to follow sometimes. It's a pretty good food that takes a long time to prepare." 

A lot of grocery stores sell the orange chicken bottled sauce as well, but nothing can compare to getting it in-house at your local Panda. 

Panda Express' orange chicken is the perfect definition of the fifth taste

Umami is also known as the "fifth taste." It comes after sour, sweet, bitter or salty, and roughly translates to "yummy deliciousness" from the Japanese. It's basically just another flavor, but it's almost ethereal in how to describe it. If you've ever eaten some wonderfully aged Parmesan cheese, it's the same sort of feeling that hits the back of your throat and makes you crave more. It's not entirely sweet or salty or bitter or sour, it's all of the above. Just like orange chicken. 

Umami was discovered by two people on opposite sides of the globe, Escoffier, a Parisian chef in the 1800s who invented veal stock, and the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda who experimented in his lab to figure out what made dashi so delicious. The answer was glutamic acid, which breaks down to become L-glutamate, and that's when delicious umami happens. Ginger, garlic, and chicken are all rich in umami, and are all ingredients in our beloved orange chicken. 

Panda Express' orange chicken contains ginger

One of the key ingredients in the orange chicken from Panda Express is likely ginger. Panda Express hasn't released their ingredients in the dish, but almost every copycat recipe of the dish utilizes ginger, meaning that, more than likely, it's in the original, too. 

Ginger has a spiciness and an aroma which can't be compared to anything else. It's also high in umami, especially combined with the other ingredients in orange chicken. Not only is ginger amazingly delicious (and the smell of it cooking is divine!) but it also can help with many ailments, including indigestion, muscle pain, and it may even help in reducing cholesterol. The University Of Maryland Medicine Center also suggests that ginger may help in reducing blood clots. These are all good reasons to increase your daily intake of ginger, and if one of these ways is by enjoying some orange chicken so be it. 

Granted, the fact that the chicken is deep fried isn't great for your health, but it's not like we'll be eating orange chicken for every meal of every day. Even though that does sound truly amazing! 

Panda Express' orange chicken also contains a lot of sugar

One distinct characteristic of orange chicken is that it is sweet, and that comes from the addition of brown sugar (and honey), which gives the sauce it's sticky, caramelized glaze. 

The addition of brown sugar in many Asian recipes helps to balance out sour flavors and spices added to the dish. It also helps the sauce adhere to the chicken, so you get that addictive umami hit every time you take a bite. There's no nutritional difference between white and brown sugar, except a slight rise in minerals due to the molasses in brown sugar. Brown sugar has a slightly warmer flavor, especially if you taste it straight. 

An entree serving of orange chicken from Panda Express contains 19 grams of sugar, roughly the same amount as two and a half Oreo cookies or the same amount in a standard strawberry yogurt. And we all know you can't eat yogurt or cookies with a pair of chopsticks! 

Panda Express' orange chicken has a hint of spice due to red pepper flakes

There's just enough heat in orange chicken to give it a bit of a kick, but not so much that the taste buds of your average 5-year-old couldn't handle eating it. And that spice comes not only from the addition of ginger, but also due to a pinch of red pepper flakes. 

Dried red pepper flakes are one of the most versatile kitchen weapons out there, and they can be added to everything from pizza to chocolate cake. It also enhances the flavors of the brown sugar and orange peel oil in the dish. Because the heat level isn't that extreme, diners can add sweet chili sauce to their entrees. 

Chef Jimmy Wang told NPR that "You want to draw out tingling sensation with heat, with garlic, with ginger. We use a little bit of crushed chile to give it just a little kick, but not too much." 

For those wishing to deviate from orange chicken, Panda recently added Sichuan hot chicken to their menu. Or better yet, just order orange chicken with a side of the new hot chicken strips and add the chicken to your entree for even more chicken-y goodness!

Panda Express' orange chicken contains soy sauce

Another ingredient in the beloved orange chicken sauce is soy sauce. Koji mold breaks down soy beans and wheat which then converts into glutamic acid, which is... you guessed it! Umami. Just another reason Panda Express' orange chicken is so delicious.

Soy sauce appeared in China over 2,500 years ago when salt was fermented with soy beans and fish because salt was both expensive and scarce at the time. Soy sauce was the third best selling condiment in the United States as of 2016, after mayonnaise and ketchup. It can be used on everything from marinating your steaks to whipping up some double chocolate brownies

Although soy sauce is high in sodium, it's also high in vitamin B3 and iron. For people watching their sodium intake, substituting soy sauce instead of regular table salt in processed foods may be the answer. The Wageningen Food and Biobased Research company found that adding soy sauce instead of salt to foods reduced their sodium content by around 30 percent

The fresh orange taste in Panda Express' orange chicken comes from orange peels

The secret to Panda Express' orange chicken is the citrus-y tang of the orange sauce, which comes from using the oil from orange peels. 

Orange peels contain a substantial amount of vitamin C and beta-carotene. A version of orange chicken from the 1800s had a vaguely citrus component to it, from boiling lemon and orange peels along with soy sauce and garlic. It was vastly different from the orange chicken we know today because the chicken wasn't breaded or fried, and orange citrus oil has a stronger fragrance and taste than orange peel. 

Most of the Panda Express orange chicken copycat recipes you find online call for using orange juice, orange juice concentrate, or a bit of orange zest. Even though most of these recipes yield pretty delicious results, it's just not the same as ordering it in-house. This may be because recreating it at home is a bit more time consuming of a process than simply deciding if you want rice or chow mein noodles in your to-go order. But it also might be because at Panda Express, they use the real stuff.

Panda Express' orange chicken was developed for an American palate

You'd be hard pressed to find the orange chicken equivalent in a traditional Chinese restaurant, much less another fast casual Chinese food chain. It's inherently Panda Express, and it was developed specifically for a Western palate. Which explains why we find it so irresistible.

Americans enjoy sweet food, and The CEO and founder of Panda Express, Andrew Cherng, says the reason this sweet and vaguely spicy entree is so popular with Americans is because "They like the dessert before dinner or during dinner." 

Because of how sweet it is and how it's really just a bastardization of authentic Chinese food, our beloved orange chicken has its own congregation of haters. But these haters are missing the point. Orange chicken isn't here to educate people about wonderfully authentic Chinese cuisine or challenge anyone's palate. That's not its job. Orange chicken from Panda Express is for when you want a cheap dinner everyone can agree on, you're sick of feeding your kids macaroni and cheese, you're between flights at an airport, you're tired from shopping at the mall, you're hungry, or heartbroken or hungover. That's when you let the sweet and slightly spicy aroma of orange chicken welcome you with wide-flung sticky arms. And you'll be so happy you did, just like a chubby little cartoon panda. 

It's the sauce that makes Panda Express' orange chicken

More than 50 percent of all orders placed at Panda Express are orange chicken, even though chef Jimmy Wang says the company is always hard at work developing new recipes at their "innovation kitchen" located in Pasadena, California. It's hard to beat the traditional best-seller, and Wang explains the secret sauce is all about.. well, the sauce. 

"As a chef, we all strive to try and top what's the best. But in the three years I've been with the company, everything I've worked on seems to not be able to beat our orange chicken." 

Wang also says it's the sauce's combination of savory and sweet that makes it so popular with customers, and that beloved tang and fresh orange taste comes from orange peel oil. The company has played with the ratios of garlic and ginger included in the sauce, but they always revert back to the tried and true familiar recipe. Why mess with panda perfection?