Sweet black pepper chicken is a nice change of pace from the usual Chinese take-out. The sauce may be made in advance and the dish can easily be doubled for when friends come over. Let’s get started! This chicken recipe will have your guests’ tongues salivating for more. Sweet and decadent, this chicken yields the most savory and delicious meal you can gather around the table.
Caramelized Black Pepper Chicken
- 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
- About 1/4 cup nam pla (fish sauce)
- 1/4 cup water
- 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon coarsely ground pepper
- 2 fresh Thai chiles, halved, or dried red chiles
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 shallot, thinly sliced
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 cilantro sprigs
- In a small bowl, combine the sugar, fish sauce, water, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, pepper and chiles.
- Heat the oil in a large deep skillet. Add the shallot and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the fish sauce mixture and the chicken and simmer over high heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with the cilantro and serve.Working with chefs and their recipes has always been inspiring, from the most challenging dishes to the simple ones that become instant home classics. We asked Charles Phan, executive chef and owner of The Slanted Door in San Francisco, what he liked to cook at home, and he shared this take on caramelized black pepper chicken, a sweet and hot Vietnamese dish. It comes together in just minutes using ingredients that are common kitchen staples. © GREG DUPREE
Because fish sauces vary in their saltiness, Phan advises adding the fish sauce to taste.
Steamed jasmine rice.
An oaky, round and ripe Napa Valley Chardonnay will balance the pepper-sweet sauce of this chicken dish.
CHINESE BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN (黑椒鸡丁
Forget about Panda Express! This is the best Chinese Black Pepper Chicken recipe with the best black pepper sauce you can make from home easily. Juicy and flavorful cubed chicken breasts with intensely flavored black pepper sauce…you’ll want to drizzle it on everything! Throw in some crisp peppers and crunchy celery, so simple and easy to make, you can make this tonight!
CHINESE PEPPER CHICKEN RECIPE WITH THE BEST BLACK PEPPER SAUCE
My first experience with black pepper chicken was at the airport in Utah. I was on my way back from a conference and decided to give Panda Express a try. I can’t say if I remember how the dish tasted but the black pepper sauce vaguely reminded me of a sauce that we would use in steak houses in Taiwan.
WHAT GOES IN PEPPER CHICKEN?
- Cubed chicken breasts
- Red bell pepper
- Yellow onion
- Black pepper sauce (gluten-free, paleo, sweetened with jam)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sichuan peppercorn powder (optional. ink in the recipe card)
- Coconut aminos
- Fruit jam (apricot, peach, or pineapple. See recipe for Whole30)
- Chicken or vegetable stock
HOW TO MAKE BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN STIR-FRY
- Slice and season: Cube the chicken breasts to similar sizes and do a quick marinate.
- Dice the vegetables: This dish comes together quickly so prepare the vegetables and the sauce and set them aside ready to use.
- Coat: Lightly coat the chicken with arrowroot or potato starch right before pan frying.
- Pan fry: pan fry the chicken in a single layer without disturbing for about 2-3 minutes per side. Set the chicken aside.
- Add: Saute the vegetables until crisp but not mushy.
- Combine: combine the chicken and the black pepper sauce toss and serve!
MY SECRET BLACK PEPPER SAUCE…SUPER FLAVORFUL!
- Most pepper chicken recipes use oyster sauce, if you happen to have a bottle of my homemade vegetarian oyster sauce, you can use that to replace coconut aminos in the sauce.
- My black pepper sauce is sweetened with a touch of apricot fruit jam. It’s a little sweet and little tart, and the jam helps thicken the sauce therefore you can use less starch (i.e. less carb)!
- I added a secret pepper powder– Chinese Sichuan Peppercorn powder. It’s a ground version of the whole Sichuan peppercorns that I found on Amazon. The pepper powder is finely ground so it’s easier to use, eat, and less pungent. Although it is an optional ingredients, if, however, you are a big fan of Chinese pepper chicken fan, grab a bottle (product link in my recipe card)! Here are the black pepper sauce components:
FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER
Ground black pepper in a can won’t do the job for this recipe. The flavor won’t be as intense. I recommend you grind the peppercorns in your own pepper mill.
SICHUAN PEPPERCORN POWDER (OPTIONAL)
This is my personal touch to make the sauce extra fragrant. Sichuan peppercorn powder is milder in flavor than the whole peppercorns. It adds a nice floral flavor and with little tingly sensation in the mouthfeel. The sichuan peppercorn powder is also a good substitute for people who aren’t used to the whole peppercorn flavor. I ordered mine on Amazon (link in my recipe card). You can definitely skip this ingredient if you don’t have it handy.
FRUIT JAM (OR PITTED DATES/PRUNES)
A little touch of sweetness to balance the heat and the piney flavor from the peppercorns. The fruit jam also acts as a thickener to round the sauce together. I use St. Dalfour brand apricot, peach, or orange will work well for the sauce. If you are on Whole30, use soft pitted dates or prunes and blend them with the rest of sauce to make a sauce.
I use chicken stock to thin the sauce. If you aren’t on a specific dietary requirement, you can use Chinese shao hsing wine, Taiwanese michu, or Japanese mirin to replace the stock.
Coconut aminos taste naturally sweeter than soy sauce or tamari. It’s made from coconut blossoms. My recipe measurements are based on using coconut aminos and I follow my tastebuds to make a dish taste right. Regular soy sauce, particularly tamari, is way more salty and tastes more flat (i.e. less well-rounded flavor), and therefore it needs to be balanced with a sweetener (often sugar) to make a dish taste right
JUICY FLAVORFUL CUBED CHICKEN BREASTS
Most of the black pepper chicken recipes call for chicken thighs because thighs are usually more moist than breasts. However, I found that if you season the chicken correctly and control your stove top temperature well, chicken breasts can be equally tender and flavorful, and they crisp up beautifully because of less moisture content. So please read the recipe instructions from beginning to the end first before you start this dish. Often, I leave extra tips in the notes sections to answer some of the common questions my readers tend to have.
TIPS FOR THE BEST BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN RECIPE
- Dice the chicken to similar size so the cook time will be even.
- Slice the celery on a diagonal for more crunch
- Secret Black pepper sauce – this dish comes together quickly so prepare the sauce and vegetables first before you start cooking.
- A light coating of the chicken cubes before pan-frying – wait until the oil is hot then quickly coat the chicken right before pan frying. If you coat the chicken too early, they turn watery and gloopy.
- Small batch cooking – the recipe is written for 1 lb chicken. If you do a larger batch, I recommend you pan fry the chicken in a separate batch so each piece can crisp up beautifully.
BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN
BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN INSPIRED BY PANDA EXPRESS WILL HAVE YOU SKIPPING THE TAKEOUT FOREVER!
Forget about take-out because this Chinese inspired Black Pepper Chicken is healthier, tastes sensational and takes less time to make than running to your favorite restaurant! This Pepper Chicken is chock full of crunchy chicken, crisp-tender veggies and nutty peanuts coated in a sticky, sweet and peppery garlic stir fry sauce. The chicken is pan fried in minimal oil (but still emerges crazy crispy!) and is amenable to whatever veggies you like. Enjoy this Black Pepper Chicken with rice or low carb cauliflower rice and if you’re feeling even more gourmet, add a side of Ramen Noodle Salad and homemade egg rolls!
WHY YOU’LL LOVE PEPPER CHICKEN
It’s quick and easy to make in just over 30 minutes. No marinating required, no multiple breading bowls and no messy deep frying!
The chicken is crispy without deep frying. The chicken is tossed in flour and cornstarch (the secret to crispy chicken), then cooked in a nonstick skillet which requires minimal oil. You will be blown away at how crispy your chicken can become without deep frying!
The peppery sauce is nothing short of addicting. The
stir fry sauce boasts a scrumptious, complex balance between salty, savory, sour, sweet and spicy punctuated with plenty of freshly ground pepper, zesty ginger, punchy garlic and citrusy Szechuan peppercorn.
The peanuts! While the Panda Express Black Pepper Chicken doesn’t include peanuts, they make everything better! The peanuts are toasted in the skillet to deepen their nuttiness and then added back to the stir fry with the sauce so they remain delightfully crunchy in every bite.
Make this recipe your own! Skip Panda Express and instead customize this recipe just how you like while feeding the family at a fraction of the price. Use boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken thighs, whatever veggies you like, make the sauce tame or spicy and serve over white rice, brown rice, zoodles, or noodles, etc.
WHAT IS BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN?
Black Pepper Chicken is an American-Chinese dish made popular by Panda Express – but it’s easy to make at home! It’s made with chunks of chicken, traditionally deep fried, but we are going to pan fry the chicken in this recipe, tossed in an umami forward savory sauce punctuated with plenty of freshly ground pepper and Szechuan peppercorn. Additionally, the sauce is grounded by soy sauce and oyster sauce, sweetened by honey, enlivened by rice wine, with plenty of ginger and garlic. It’s more peppery than spicy, savory, slightly sweet with a numbing zing from the Szechuan peppercorns.
INGREDENTS FOR CHINESE BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN
This Black Pepper Chicken recipe is made with pantry friendly ingredients if you do much Asian cooking – which means it can be whipped up any time! That being said, there are quite a few ingredients, but remember they are just being whisked together or quickly stir fried – so please don’t be intimidated.
The ingredients can be broken into three sections:
- Stir fry sauce
- Stir fry vegetables
Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need (full measurements in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):
FOR THE CHICKEN
- Chicken: 1 ½ pounds chicken breasts or thighs cut into 1-inch pieces. Chicken thighs are inherently juicer and more tender so I recommend those over breasts because we are not marinating the chicken.
- Flour: I use all-purpose flour but I’m sure gluten free flour, almond flour, etc. would also work. The flour creates the base of the flavorful coating that insulates the chicken from high heat, ensuring every bite is juicy tender and forms a crispy, flavorful crust for the sauce to soak into.
- Cornstarch: This is combined with the flour to create the light breading. The cornstarch is the key to crispy chicken because it absorbs moisture and prevents gluten development, which makes the coating crispier!
- Egg: Two eggs are combined with the chicken to create a glue to bind the chicken and breading together.
- Seasonings: Salt, garlic powder, onion powder, ginger powder, paprika, and pepper are added to the cornstarch and flour to create a dynamically flavorful crust – you’ll want to devour the chicken plain!
- Oil: You’ll need a neutral oil such as canola, vegetable or peanut oil to pan fry the chicken. Please don’t use olive oil because it has a strong flavor which will distract from the Black Pepper Chicken.
FOR THE STIR FRY
- Onion: Half of a yellow onion chopped into 1/2-inch pieces will do the trick. You may also substitute with ½ teaspoon onion powder mixed right into the stir fry sauce.
- Bell peppers: You can swap in any desired veggies but I love the sweetness of the bell peppers alongside the peppery chicken.
- Celery: Again, you can swap in any desired veggies, but celery adds a delightful fresh crunch. Chop the celery into ½-inch thick slices so they remain crisp tender.
- Peanuts: The peanuts are optional, but I love the nutty crunchy they add. You must use unsalted peanuts otherwise your Black Pepper Chicken will be way too salty! I typically pick them up at the bulk bins at Sprouts.
- Garlic: This recipe calls for 6 cloves of garlic but you are welcome to use less if you don’t love garlic. If you are in a bind, you can add 1 teaspoon garlic powder to the sauce, but fresh is so much better!
- Ginger: One tablespoon freshly grated ginger adds another spicy, zingy depth to the sauce. You may substitute with 1 teaspoon ginger powder added directly to the sauce.
FOR THE BLACK PEPPER STIR FRY SAUCE
- Pepper: Freshly ground pepper is more flavorful than pepper sold ground, but you may substitute if needed. Take note that ground is finely ground and not coarsely ground or “cracked” which is larger. If you only have coarsely ground, you will want to add more to taste.
- Soy sauce: Use low sodium soy sauce so your recipe isn’t too salty. The sauce grounds the sauce with its salty depth.
- Oyster sauce: Oyster sauce is the base of almost ever stir fry sauce and bumps up the savory umami character. Oyster sauce is a thick, brown sauce with a balance between sweet and salty with an earthy undertone. You can find oyster sauce in the Asian aisle of any supermarket for only a few dollars. Please use QUALITY oyster sauce such as Lee Kum Kee or Kikkoman. You truly can taste the difference and will be sorely disappointed with less quality brands.
WHAT IF I’M ALLERGIC TO SHELLFISH?
If you’re allergic to shellfish/vegetarian, use LEE KUM KEE Vegetarian Stir-Fry Sauce instead of oyster sauce. You may also use soy sauce in a bind – just don’t expect as spectacular of results.
- Chicken broth: Use low sodium chicken broth otherwise the dish may be too salty. You can also use vegetable broth but chicken broth is more flavorful. Please DO NOT use water as I’ve tried this and will leave you with sad, wanting results.
- Honey: The sweetness of the honey balances the umami of the soy and oyster sauce. You may also substitute with granulated sugar. Use more or less to taste.
- Rice wine: I use “Kikkoman Aji-Mirin: Sweet Cooking Rice Seasoning” which is commonly found in the Asian section of most grocery stores or you can Amazon it. I highly suggest you google image before you head off to the grocery store so you know exactly what you are looking for. The best substitute for rice wine is pale dry sherry. Do NOT substitute rice wine with rice vinegar, they are NOT the same. Rice vinegar will add an acidic flavor without the sweetness.
- Sesame oil: Please use toasted sesame oil. Toasted sesame oil boasts a strong nutty aroma and flavor and underscores the nuttiness of the peanuts.
- Asian chili sauce: If you don’t want a spicy stir fry and just a peppery heat, then omit the Asian chili sauce, but I prefer both for a more complex heat. The chili sauce adds flavor, depth and is completely customizable. I use Sambal Oelek with the green lid but you can also use your favorite chili sauce such as sriracha.
- Cornstarch: Helps thicken the sauce to a glossy, sticky consistency.
- Spices: The recipe calls for ½ teaspoon yellow curry powder for another layer of deep, earthy flavor. If you don’t keep it stocked, just skip it.
- Szechuan Peppercorn: You will need ground Szechuan peppercorn for this recipe. It can be found on Amazon (my fav!) at most Asian markets (call first) spice stores, or sometimes specialty stores like Whole Foods and Sprouts. Be aware that Szechuan Peppercorn can be sold under different names: dried peppercorn, dried prickly ash, dehydrated prickly ash, Indonesian lemon pepper, flower pepper, or hua jiao.
USING FRESH SZECHUAN PEPPERCORN
Toasting and grinding fresh Szechuan peppercorn yourself produces a more potent peppercorn than store-bought pre-ground. If you choose to toast/grind them yourself, start with HALF the amount then add more to taste as needed.
WHAT IS SZECHUAN PEPPERCORN? IS IT SPICY?
Szechuan peppercorn (“peppercorn” is the correct plural form) are a berry from the husks of Chinese Ash trees in the citrus family. It actually doesn’t come from the same family as black pepper nor is it related to chili peppers. Instead, it is its own fabulous entity.
Szechuan peppercorn taste perfumy, complex, and peppery with a citrus zing and pine, lavender notes coupled with a tangible mouth-numbing sensation. They remind me of a complex cross between pepper, cardamom, ginger, clove and lemon.
Contrary to popular belief, Szechuan peppercorn are not spicier than black peppercorn, but they do boast a more complex peppery zing. The spicy illusion comes from the fact they are always cooked with chili peppers.
The tingling sensation associated with Szechuan peppercorn is caused by the molecule hydroxy-alpha-sanshool in the peppercorn that interacts with the nerve cell receptors in your lips and mouth – but don’t be alarmed! The molecule is simply telling the brain that the area is being touched and the brain confuses this with sensation of numbness.
CAN I SUBSTITUTE SZECHUAN PEPPERCORN?
Szechuan peppercorn adds peppery heat and complex citrus notes that is hard to replicate. Still, you may use a Szechuan peppercorn substitute if don’t have access to it. There are many substitutes such as grains of paradise, Tellicherry peppercorns and Tasmanian pepper but the most accessible is freshly ground pepper and coriander.
Pepper + Coriander: The pepper brings the peppery heat and the coriander brings the fresh, pungent citrus flavor. Use both freshy ground pepper and freshly ground coriander for best results when possible.
HOW TO MAKE BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN
This Black Pepper Chicken comes together quickly even though there are a few steps: 1) toast the peanuts, 2) bread the chicken, 3) cook the chicken, 4) simmer the sauce, 5) toss the chicken with the sauce.
- Step 1: Make the Black Pepper Stir Fry Sauce. Whisk together all of the stir fry sauce ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside.
- Step 2: Toast the peanuts. Toast the peanuts a dry, large nonstick skillet over medium heat until toasted golden in spots, stirring a few times.
- Step 3: Bread the chicken. This is the absolute quickest breaded chicken you will ever make! First, combine the chopped chicken and eggs in a freezer bag and turn to coat. Second, add the flour, cornstarch, and seasonings to a separate large freezer bag. Remove chicken from the eggs, dab off any excess and add the chicken to the flour bag. Give it a good shake and all your chicken will be coated in minutes – without any gummy hands!
- Step 4: Lightly pan fry the chicken. Even though this method uses minimal oil, you will be amazed at how crispy it gets! Simply heat some oil in a nonstick skillet and cook the chicken in two batches until it’s golden and cooked through.
- Step 5: Stir fry vegetables and aromatics. Stir fry the onions, bell peppers and celery until crisp tender, then add the garlic and ginger and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Step 6: Combine. Add the stir fry sauce and simmer until thickened, about 1-2 minutes, then stir in the peanuts and chicken until evenly coated. Serve immediately with rice!
TIPS FOR MAKING CHINESE BLACK PEPPER CHICKEN
This Black Pepper Chicken is very simple to make, but there are some helpful tips and tricks for efficiency and flavor:
Don’t chop the chicken too small. Larger pieces are harder to overcook and dry out while the exterior gets nice and crispy.
Thoroughly bread the chicken. If you notice any of the chicken pieces aren’t fully coated as you remove them from the breading, just dunk them in the breading at the bottom of the bag and toss with your hands.
Set a timer and DON’T over-cook the veggies because they will continue to cook in the sauce – we want crisp tender veggies, not tender crisp.
Use a nonstick skillet. The chicken is cooked in minimal oil so you need to use a nonstick skillet so it doesn’t stick and burn.
Use more or less oil. For even crispier chicken, you can fill the skillet 1/4-½ inch deep with oil. You can also use as little as one tablespoon of oil but the chicken won’t be as crispy.
Cook the chicken at high enough heat. The chicken should sizzle as soon as it touches the oil, otherwise it is not hot enough and will not get crispy.
Cook the chicken in batches. Give the chicken some space in the pan so the pieces have room to crisp up instead of steam.
For the juiciest chicken, don’t overcook! Test a piece at the earlier end of the cooking window.
The consistency of the sauce is up to you. For thinner sauce, simmer for less time or add a splash of broth, for thicker sauce, simmer for more time.
POSSIBLE RECIPE VARIATIONS
- Customize the Black Pepper Stir Fry Sauce: The sauce is perfect for us, but you may find you like it sweeter, tangier, or spicier. Taste the sauce after it has simmered and the flavors have concentrated, then adjust how you like. Sweeten it up with honey or sugar, make it tangier with rice vinegar or more peppery with additional freshly ground pepper.
- Swap the vegetables: You can swap the bell peppers and celery for other veggies such as carrots, broccoli, snow peas, mushrooms, etc. Water chestnuts would also be tasty.
- Cashews: Swap the peanuts for cashews.
- Spicy or Mild Chinese Black Pepper Chicken: Keep the Black Pepper Chicken mild by omitting the chili sauce or add up to 1 tablespoon Asian chili sauce or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes for spicier pepper chicken.
- Stir Fried Pepper Chicken: I highly recommend “velveting” the chicken if stir frying to create extra juicy, tender “velvety” chicken. Skip the breading and instead toss the chicken with 2 tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, 1 tablespoon rice wine and 1 teaspoon baking soda in a large freezer bag or bowl along with the same seasonings. Let the chicken rest for 15-30 minutes (no more or it can become mushy) before stir frying in a nonstick skillet.
- Crispy Deep Fried Pepper Chicken: Add enough vegetable oil to a Dutch oven or frying pan so it reaches 1-inch up the sides. Heat the oil to medium-high heat, between 350- and 375-degrees F. Once very hot, add the chicken in batches and cook until golden and cooked through, about 2-3 minutes. Remove to a paper towel lined plate to drain.
- Baked Pepper Chicken: Swap the cornstarch with an equal amount of flour in the breading for a total of 1 cup flour. Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly spray with cooking spray for easy cleanup. Let the baking sheet preheat in the oven so it’s nice and hot before adding the chicken. Carefully line the chicken in an even layer on the hot baking sheet and spray generously with cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes then move the baking sheet about 8″ away from broiler and broil until crispy, watching closely so the chicken doesn’t burn (about 2-4 minutes). Flip chicken pieces over and broil another 2-3 minutes, or until crispy if desired
- Gluten Free Black Pepper Chicken: Use gluten free flour, gluten free soy sauce or tamari, and gluten free oyster sauce.
- To make it vegan: Try out cubed tofu! Place firm tofu in a pie plate, top with a heavy plate and weigh down with 2 heavy cans (to release water). Set aside for 10 minutes, then chop into 1-inch cubes before breading. Swap the chicken broth for vegetable broth and the oyster sauce for Lee Kum Kee Vegetarian Stir-Fry Sauce.