20-minute sesame chicken the whole family will be begging for

Sesame chicken is practically synonymous with Chinese takeout in the United States. While many Americans think of it as the quintessential Chinese food, sesame chicken is really more of an American dish than anything else. In fact, it's so American that you would be extremely hard-pressed to find a plate of sesame chicken anywhere in China. What we know as the standard takeout order is most likely a cousin of la zi ji, also known as Mala Chicken, a much spicier dish that hails from the Sichuan province in central China. 

Chinese food in America has its own vibrant history. If you want to dive deeper into the origins of your favorite takeout dishes, we recommend watching The Search For General Tso, a drool-worthy documentary about the history Chinese takeout in the United States. In fact, this recipe for 20-minute sesame chicken is perhaps best eaten while watching the film, for a homestyle dinner and a movie that's as delicious as it is educational. 

At most Chinese restaurants, sesame chicken is the milder sibling to General Tso's chicken, which tends to have a bit more spice and is more similar to Mala Chicken — though it's still nowhere near as spicy as the original Sichuan dish. Many restaurants use an egg and rice flour or cornstarch coating before deep-frying to make their sesame chicken extra crispy, but let's be honest: deep frying is not exactly quick or easy in a standard home kitchen. We've created a recipe that is just as delicious as takeout, but skips the deep-frying and comes together in just 20 minutes, start to finish. 

Gather the ingredients to make this 20-minute sesame chicken

To really make the best sesame chicken, there are a few key ingredients you'll want to have on hand. More likely than not, you'll already have the basics: boneless skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs, corn starch, orange juice, soy sauce, and rice. We recommend using a high-quality short grain white rice for this recipe, but brown rice or long-grain rice will work just fine. Rice vinegar adds a slightly sweet hit of acidity, but if you can't find it or don't have it, apple cider vinegar or white wine would be good substitutes. 

Garlic and ginger form the base of the sauce, and you'll want them in the form of a paste, rather than using dried ground spices. Many Asian or Indian grocery stores sell jars of pre-mixed ginger garlic paste, which is a real superhero of an ingredient to keep in your fridge at all times. If you can't find it at a store, you can order it online. You can also make your own by combining fresh, peeled ginger and garlic with a little bit of water in a food processor or high-speed blender: it will keep for three weeks tightly-covered in the fridge. 

We also recommend using MSG — it's optional, but delicious, and totally safe. More on that later. 

Yes, you do need to rinse your rice for this 20-minute sesame chicken

A lot of home cooks struggle with making rice, but there are a few things you can do to ensure that you can have perfect, fluffy rice that's even better than the stuff you get at a restaurant. First, if you cook rice often and don't already have a rice cooker, it will make your life much easier! You can always make rice on the stovetop, but using a rice cooker takes the guesswork out of the process. If you have an Instant Pot, you can also use that to make your rice

No matter how you decide to cook your rice, there's one crucial step you should never skip: rinsing. According to Nik Sharma over at Food52, it's a step you should never skip. Rice is very starchy, and if you don't rinse uncooked rice before starting the cooking process, the excess starch will make result in gummy rice that's stuck together. 

There are a few ways to rinse rice. You can put it in a colander or mesh strainer and hold it under running water for a minute or two. You can also put it directly in the pot or bowl you're going to cook it in, cover it with water, swish it vigorously with your hands, pour out the water, and repeat until the water runs clear. 

What kind of chicken should you use for 20-minute sesame chicken?

For the most flavorful version of our 20-minute sesame chicken recipe, we recommend using boneless, skinless chicken thighs. However, if your family prefers white meat chicken, boneless skinless breasts will work well too — the final result just won't be quite as juice or as flavorful. If you want a really authentic take-out experience, using a combination of chicken thighs and chicken breasts, that way you can get the best of both worlds. Chicken tenders, which are basically just pre-cut, uncooked chicken breasts, will work fine too if that's what you happen to have on hand. 

Whatever cut of chicken you choose, look for high quality, free-range chicken if you can find it. While you might not be able to taste the difference between an organic and a non-organic apple, chicken is one of those foods where a difference in quality really shines through. If the chicken you're eating had a relatively good life before it made it's way to your plate, it will taste better. 

For extra-crispy chicken, use this coating combination

Deep-frying is always a surefire way to get extremely crispy chicken, but deep fat frying can also be messy, time-consuming, and prone to unexpected issues like undercooked meat or meat that's too greasy. We've decided to skip this step in our recipe and instead do a shallow pan-fry that cuts down on prep, cook time, and cleanup — and it's a tiny bit healthier, too. 

So, how do we get our chicken super crispy? By using a coating made from rice flour and corn starch. If you can't find rice flour, you can skip it and just use corn starch, but the combination of these two ingredients will yield a light, crisp coating to your pan-fried chicken that also helps to thicken the sauce once it's added to the pan. If you want to amp up the flavor of your 20-minute sesame chicken, you can also add dried spices directly to this flour mixture. Garlic powder, back pepper, and Chinese five-spice are all great options. 

Prepare a quick sauce for our 20-minute sesame chicken recipe

Making the sauce for this 20-minute sesame chicken only takes as much time as you need to measure out the ingredients and give them a quick whisk. You don't need to do any pre-cooking, since the sauce will thicken and cook once you add it to the pan. You can add the ingredients in any order, just make sure they're thoroughly combined before you add them to the pan. If you want to make your sesame chicken a little on the spicier side (which is how we like it) you can add crushed red pepper flakes, chili garlic paste, or Calabrian chili oil, which boasts the added benefit of turning your chicken a fiery red-orange color. If you want to keep things on the milder side, just leave out the peppers! 

We recommend adding a little bit of MSG to your sauce, because it's delicious. If you still think of MSG as something that gives people headaches and makes them sick, it's worth noting that if you eat cheese or tomatoes, you eat MSG already, because those foods are natural sources of the substance. The acronym stands for Monosodium glutamate, and it's really just concentrated umami flavor. The myths surrounding MSG's supposed harmful effects have been widely debunked over the past decade. Of course, you can always leave it out if you prefer. 

Pan-fry your chicken before adding the sauce

To get the best results for this 20-minute sesame chicken recipe, be sure to pan-fry your chicken before you add the sauce. Shallow-frying uses less oil than deep fat frying, so you don't have to go through the extra step of draining the fried chicken pieces and disposing of the hot oil before moving on to the sauce. To pan-fry, heat about a quarter-cup of olive oil or another neutral cooking oil in a frying pan. While the oil starts to get hot, coat your chicken pieces in the cornstarch and rice flour mixture. Test the heat level by dropping one piece of chicken into the oil: if it sizzles and sputters when it touches the oil, then you know your pan is hot enough. If it doesn't, wait until that piece starts to sizzle before adding the rest of the chicken to your pan. It's important to make sure that your oil is at the right temperature, because if you add all of the chicken to a pan that's still too cold, you'll end up with heavy, greasy chicken instead of light, crisp chicken. 

Add the sauce to the pan and let it thicken

One of the hallmarks of good sesame chicken is its slightly thick, sticky, sweet-and-savory sauce. Our sauce for this 20-minute sesame chicken recipe contains tons of umami from the soy sauce, garlic, and MSG, acid from the vinegar and orange juice, and sweetness from the brown sugar. There's no thickener in the sauce itself, because the sauce will meld with the coating on the chicken (which has corn starch, a natural thickener) once you add it to the pan, resulting in a sauce that's rich and delightfully sticky, but never gloopy — which can sometimes happen if you add corn starch directly into the sauce. You'll want your chicken to be pretty much cooked through before you add the sauce to the pan, and then let everything cook together for another three minutes or so. Stir the chicken and the sauce together while it cooks to make sure your chicken piece are evenly coated, and that the sauce does not burn. 

How does our 20-minute sesame chicken recipe compare to takeout?

Honestly, our 20-minute sesame chicken recipe is just as good if not a little bit better than what you'd get from most takeout restaurants. Since our chicken is pan-friend and not deep-fried, you get more chicken and less breading in every bite, which is probably our favorite aspect of this recipe. As will all homemade food, we also love that our recipe can be customized to suit your family's tastes. Few recipes ever need to be followed exactly as written, and this one is no exception. You can make it spicier or sweeter as you prefer. Hate oranges? Leave out the orange juice! Want it sweeter? Add a little more sugar. The more you cook at home, the more you'll learn what you really like to eat, and how to create those flavors in your own kitchen instead of relying on someone else to do it for you. 

How should you serve 20-minute sesame chicken?

We think that this 20-minute sesame chicken recipe tastes best when it's served over rice and garnished with sesame seeds and scallions, which is what our instructions outline. However, you don't have to stick to the standard takeout preparation, you can also get creative! This sesame chicken recipe is actually really good as a taco filling, so if you happen to have some corn or flour tortillas in the house and don't feel like making rice, try a sesame chicken taco: trust us on this one. It's also good served over lo mein noodles if your family prefers pasta instead of rice. Want to sneak in some veggies? Add broccoli florets to the pan just before you add your sauce. And if you're cutting down on carbs or are feeling extra lazy, there is absolutely no reason why you can't just eat a plain bowl of sticky, sweet sesame chicken all by itself. This is a dish so good that it doesn't really need any sides. 

20-minute sesame chicken the whole family will be begging for
5 from 16 ratings
We've created a sesame chicken recipe that is just as delicious as anything you could order as takeout from your local Chinese restaurant, but skips the deep-frying and comes together in just 20 minutes, start to finish.
Prep Time
12
minutes
Cook Time
8
minutes
Servings
4
servings
Sesame Chicken
Ready in 20 minutes
Ingredients
  • 2 cups short-grain rice
  • 1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs (or boneless skinless chicken breasts)
  • ⅓ cup rice flour
  • ⅓ cup corn starch
  • 2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
  • ⅓ cup rice vinegar
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • ⅓ cup light brown sugar
  • 1 orange, juiced (about ⅓ cup)
  • ¼ cup olive oil
Optional Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon MSG
  • 1 teaspoon chili oil
  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • 2 scallions, thinly sliced
Directions
  1. Rinse your rice thoroughly under running water, then add to rice cooker with 3 cups of water and cook according to directions on the package.
  2. Cut boneless skinless chicken thighs and/or breasts into 1-inch cubes and set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together rice vinegar, soy sauce, orange juice, ginger, garlic, light brown sugar, MSG and chili oil, if using. Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk together rice flour and cornstarch. If you want to add additional seasonings to the coating, now is the time! Toss the chicken cubes in the flour mixture, and shake to remove any excess coating.
  5. In a medium frying pan, heat about ¼ cup of olive oil. Test the temperature by placing one chicken cube into the oil: if it sizzles, add the rest of the chicken.
  6. Cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring often, until the chicken is crisp and looks cooked through.
  7. Add the sauce mixture to the pan and cook, stirring often, for 3-4 minutes. When ready, the sauce should be thickened and the chicken pieces should be evenly coated.
  8. By this point, your rice should be ready. Serve chicken and sauce over rice, and garnish with sesame seeds and scallions, if desired.
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