Sweet and Sour Chicken (Paleo, Gluten Free)

Let’s talk about Sweet and Sour Chicken for a second. It is probably not surprising to read that while this dish is served in Chinese restaurants in many Western countries, it doesn’t really exist in China. There are several sauces in China that incorporate both sweet and sour tastes, the most common being from the Hunan province, but they’re still a far cry from what you can get at your local Chinese-American restaurant. The reality is that this dish is now nearly more of an American dish than Chinese. On the flip side, the Chinese have their own interpretation of Western tastes – like flying fish roe and salmon cream cheese stuffed crust pizza (Hong Kong Pizza Hut).

But at the end of the day, it’s still a unique and comforting meal, and I thought it would be fun to try and replicate it using Paleo-friendly ingredients. My first order of business was figuring out how to make the sauce without resorting to ketchup as a base; instead, I used a combination of chicken stock, tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, tamari, honey, and spices. For the chicken, I used my new breading technique highlighted in Tuesday’s chicken nugget recipe. Lastly, I found that gently simmering the sauce while I cooked the chicken helped the sauce ingredients to perfectly marry, resulting in a balanced, delicious flavor.

For this recipe in particular, I teamed up with the folks at Vitacost; they offered to have me experiment with their online store and see what I could come up with. I had been thinking of trying out this Sweet and Sour Chicken recipe for a while now so it seemed like a good fit. I was surprised at how easy and cost-effective it was to use their shop; many of the items in their store were comparable or even cheaper than what I can find locally. Not only that, they had many of the brands we already buy. It was a lot of fun to conceive an entire meal using only their store items (minus the produce and meat). I think Vitacost would be a great resource for three types of people: (1) those who don’t live near a gourmet or international market, (2) those who have a high cost of living (big cities, for example), and (3) those who don’t have time to rummage through the aisles of several stores to find the right ingredients.

Okay, let’s get cooking.

Paleo, Gluten-Free Sweet and Sour Chicken

  • Servings: 4
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tbsp honey
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp tamari (coconut aminos okay)
1/2 tsp salt, more to taste
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp white pepper, more to taste

everything else:
1/4 cup refined coconut oil or lard, more if needed
2 lbs chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp arrowroot starch, divided
1 tsp salt, more to taste
1 tsp white pepper, more to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp sesame seeds
2 stalks green onion, sliced

1. In a saucepan, combine the sauce ingredients. Bring to a simmer over med/low heat, then reduce the heat to low to gently simmer as you prepare the rest of the meal; stir occasionally.

2. Preheat your oven to 250F. In a wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Combine 1/2 cup arrowroot starch and 1 tsp each salt and pepper. Toss the chicken pieces with the starch mixture, until evenly coated. With your fingers, dip a starchy chicken piece in the egg, shake off the excess egg, then add to the oil. Repeat until you have filled your skillet; be careful not to overcrowd the chicken pieces. Fry the chicken until cooked through, flipping every two minutes, about 6-8 minutes per batch. As you finish each batch, place the cooked pieces on a plate lined with paper towels; put them in the oven to stay warm. You should be able to cook the chicken pieces in about 3 or 4 batches, depending upon the size of your skillet. The oil should reach halfway up the chicken pieces, add more oil if needed.

3. Once the chicken has cooked through, finish the sauce. At this point, the sauce’s flavors should have married nicely; taste the sauce and add more salt or white pepper if needed. If the sauce is too dark and strong tasting, add a little more chicken stock to thin it out. At this point, the sauce should be about as thick as tomato soup and should have a sharp but not overwhelming flavor. In a small bowl, add 1 tbsp of arrowroot starch and a little cold water; stir together to make a slurry. Raise the sauce temperature to medium; once bubbling, add the arrowroot starch slurry and stir until thickened. Remove from heat.

4. Toss the chicken pieces with the sauce, then garnish with sesame seeds and sliced green onions. Serve with white rice or cauliflower rice.

** While the idea of adding egg to the batter after the starch seems counterintuitive, it’s the secret behind the chicken’s crisp yet spongy texture. Just be sure to cook the pieces at no higher than medium heat, otherwise the egg will burn before the chicken is cooked through.

** This technique will work with any number of proteins – sliced steak or pork chop, or shrimp.

** For even more tender chicken, brine the chicken in 1/2 cup water mixed with 1 tbsp kosher salt for an hour before starting this recipe. Be sure to drain and pat dry your chicken after brining.

** Use this starch-then-egg batter technique for any number of chicken nugget recipes. When not tossed in sauce, they have a texture similar to the same nuggets you’d find in Happy Meals. Experiment by adding other ground spices to the starch to give the chicken flavor even when “naked”; marinate the chicken pieces in pickle juice beforehand for an even tastier experience (recipe here).

“naked” chicken nuggets

84 thoughts on “Sweet and Sour Chicken (Paleo, Gluten Free)

  1. There’s also sweet and sour the way a few of the Thai restaurants I’ve been to do it: they stir-fry the chicken with the sauce without breading and deep-frying it first. It’s delicious.

  2. So I have noticed a few of your recipes containing white pepper so I went ahead and bought some and it has a really strong smell, some one pointed out it smelled to them like chicken litter.. Do they all have a strange smell or is it just mine?

    1. Hi Anne, white pepper definitely has a distinct, pungent smell to it. I wouldn’t worry about it, unless you don’t care for the taste in the final product. Black pepper is fine, my main reason for using it in this recipe is to maintain a clear looking sauce while adding the extra bite that pepper brings.

    2. Pre- ground white and mixed color pepper smells like goats! Buy whole peppercorn, only a hint of goat.

  3. Russ, this looks so delicious! The chicken nuggets were a big hit with both my husband and older son (my 4 YO is trying them tonight – no doubt he will love them!). I love making Chinese at home and this will add nicely to my kitchen repertoire. My whole family thanks you.

    1. A followup: this recipe was a hit with everyone. There wasn’t enough sauce!! Note to self: double sauce recipe next time. Finger-lickin’ good.

  4. The idea of eating what our ancestors ate sounds good, but when you go to the supermarket and buy eggs, chicken, pork, beef, most any meat, you can’t buy the type of eggs and meats our ancestors ate. They don’t exist in modern farming. Centuries of breeding and current animal husbandry practices have created animal products that are nothing like what our ancestors age.
    I’ve been raising heritage chickens for eight years now, and these chickens are out at the crack of dawn and spend all day foraging through grassland, brush and forest. The hens hatch and raise their own chicks. The result are eggs that are rich with yolks so flavorful they don’t need salt. And their meat is dense. Chicken you eat with a steak knife. It’s nothing like store chicken. So I wonder sometimes if it’s correct to call these modern meat passed diets Paleo as Paleolithic humans would not recognize them. This is what a roasted rooster looks like: http://wp.me/p44c6k-5n

    1. Hi, I understand your argument, but as I put in my “About” page, I see Paleo not as a reenactment of prehistoric diets, but rather the use of scientific study and evolutionary evidence to figure out the optimal diet for our modern age. The chickens on your page look great!

    2. Yet your olive oil comes from a can and you’re using an oven… Your argument against paleo is the most common and the most unreasonable. I don’t think anyone who eats paleo thinks they are eating what Paleolithic peoples ate.

  5. hi Russ! I’m originally from Hong Kong, growing up I always thought the sweet and sour sauce is Cantonese or at least southern Chinese. as many noted that the sauce usually goes with pork not chicken, either way, they are both really tasty!
    re the Pizza Hut ad – I would think it’s a localized taste than an interpretation of western flavour… sometimes we get Peking duck pizzas in other pizza chains… if that makes any sense!

    1. Hi, you’re right that there is a definitely Cantonese origin to sweet and sour sauce, and many food historians believe that the Cantonese version was originally influenced by the Hunan sauce I mentioned in the post. I also totally agree about the pizza thing, and I think that’s half of the point I was trying to make – taking a foreign food and tweaking it to local tastes and expectations. That’s what the Western world did with Sweet and Sour Chicken – just added a ton of ketchup and sugar :( Overall, pizza is a great example of this phenomenon worldwide, like the cheeseburger crusts in the Middle East (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/24/pizza-hut-middle-east-crown-crust-carnival_n_1448413.html)!

  6. DELICIOUS! I made this tonight and in addition to being super easy to make, it was so yummy. To save time, you may want to cut your chicken ahead of time, if you’re planning your meals out. If you’re on the fence about whether or not to try this recipe, don’t be! Make it – I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed. =)

    1. Hi Debra, I would not recommend virgin coconut oil for frying, it has such a low smoke point that you’ll end up burning it. I would use refined coconut oil, ghee, lard, or tallow.

      1. You learn something new every day! This is my first introduction to you and I gotta say, you seem pretty awesome! I’ll be eating up the info you have and sharing lots! Thanks!

  7. Looks delicious and I’m stoked about the possibility of creating “McNugget-like” tenders for my kiddos!

  8. My family loved these! I didn’t try them because I am on GAPS. It was VERY hard to not try them! The coating fried up beautifully! Thank you for the work you are doing ! 😊

  9. I made this over the weekend. Added steamed broccoli and pineapple to it and took an amazing recipe and made it stupendous. This is one of my favorites so far.

  10. Russ – I made this tonight, with some egg-fried cauliflower rice and stir fried greens… it was amazing!!! Living in small town Germany after years in the food wonderlands of Paris, New York and London I am forever craving interesting combinations of flavour but finding it hard sourcing the ingredients. You constantly amaze me with your recipes, but tonight’s ‘take-away and a movie’ earned you special kudos from my husband as well.
    A big ‘Danke’ to you.

  11. I’m a novice cook, but couldn’t wait to try it when I saw the picture. I echo the suggestions to double the sauce, but I can’t believe something that I cooked turned out so well! This dish is as tasty as any Chinese take-out without the MSG!

  12. Made this one last night – granted MAYBE just a BIT much for a single, but oh so good. Thanks for posting, Im always looking for ways to get different flavors on/around chicken.

  13. I kept looking for why the oven was supposed to be set to 250 degrees, but must have missed that or maybe it was to keep the chicken warm but nothing was said in the recipe. But it’s 95 deg F right now here , and I’m glad I don’t need to bake this.

  14. Looks great! Just trying to figure out why you said to preheat the oven though, I can’t seem to see any instruction to then use the oven? Please tell me I’ve not gone mad:-) can’t wait to try this! Cheers

  15. This looks wonderful! I was unable to find arrowroot starch (or arrowroot anything) at my local grocery. Do you know if tapioca starch would work as a sub? I’m still new to this whole paleo deal so I am still learning proper substitutes. TIA!

    1. Hi Melissa, in terms of frying, I have found that arrowroot and tapioca work as fair substitutes; potato starch is also similar but harder to work with because it tends to burn more easily. So feel free to use tapioca!

  16. Made this this evening and it was a complete success. I added 1/2 cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, 1tbsp orange zest and a splash of sriracha to the sauce and it turned out great – gave Panda Express orange chicken a run for its money! Russ your recipes are always insanely good and you know you can always rely on them to deliver – thanks for another beaut!

  17. This sweet and sour sauce is so good! My family loves the idea of Asian take out, and we are always looking for a simple, clean at home method. I just made this and we DESTROYED IT! Nice job Russ. I find every recipe of yours to be outta this world tasty, wholesome, and pretty simple to recreate. Always looking forward to your next post.

  18. Hi there, just been introduced to you and your recipes, made the sweet and sour chick but used prawns (shrimp as you guys say). It was very good thanks. Just a mention about virgin coconut oil…I use this in all my frying even at high heat and so far no burning. I use organic raw virgin coconut oil. Looking forward to trying all your other recipes

  19. this is better than Chinese take out and no red dye or processed sugar. I did add some pineapple and onions to sauce. Amazing, thank you!!

  20. Hi Russ, how would you prepare a batch of chicken all dipped in the egg so they can go in the pan at the same time? I did one at a time and of course the first one in the pan cooked longer than the last one.

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