Kung Pao Chicken

Skip the take-out order and the MSG, and make your own Kung Pao Chicken in the slow cooker.

From “Easy Culinary Science for Better Cooking“
June 2018

  • Dried whole chilis give more complex and concentrated flavors.
    Photo by Anne Watson
  • Use simple science to transform good dishes into great dishes with “Easy Culinary Science for Better Cooking” by Jessica Gavin.
    Cover courtesy Page Street Publishing

Total Hands-On Time: 2 - 4 hours

Yield: 4 servings

Easy Culinary Science for Better Cooking (Page Street Publishing, 2018) by Jessica Gavin breaks down the practical science behind great food without overwhelming the reader. Learn the science how foods interact from a cooking or baking perspective and how to make flavorful, flawless meals consistently.  This recipe can be made in the slow cooker for your convenience, giving you a healthier and more affordable alternative to take-out. 

No need to order Chinese food takeout with this homemade spicy Kung Pao Chicken recipe! When you do not have a wok available, a slow cooker can give tasty results. To add some extra flavor and color to the chicken, the chopped pieces of meat are quickly sautéed in a hot pan before adding to the slow cooker. The chicken is simmered in a sweet and savory sauce for a kick of flavor and heat to each piece. Adding in the fresh bell pepper and mushrooms near the end of cooking ensures that they stay crisp and tender. The dish is garnished with green onions and peanuts for an extra crunch.

Cook’s Note

Dried whole chilis give more complex and concentrated flavors. They are split in half rather than chopped so that the spice doesn’t overpower the dish. The seeds are removed to better control the heat, but if you like your food spicy, keep them in the dish!

Recipe Science

Tender chicken breast is first marinated in a soy sauce mixture with cornstarch, which helps the sauce adhere better to the surface of the meat. The light coating of cornstarch also helps to accelerate the browning of the chicken and add a golden crust. The characteristic heat of this Kung Pao Chicken dish comes from the dried red chili peppers. A chemical compound called capsaicin found in the rib or white pith of the chili, gives the peppers the spicy heat and varies in intensity between different varieties measured in Scoville units. The seeds and flesh of the peppers do not contribute as much capsaicin; however, the seeds will absorb some capsaicin from the rib. Dried chilis also tend to be a little sweeter than fresh because they are picked and dried at peak ripeness.


  • 2 lb boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tsp cornstarch, divided
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce or tamari (for gluten-free option), divided
  • 3 tbsp plus 1 tsp sesame oil, divided
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp water, divided
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 10 dried red chili peppers or dried guajillo, cut in half lengthwise, seeds removed
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 cup diced red bell pepper, 1-inch dice
  • 1 cup diced green bell pepper, 1-inch dice
  • 4 oz brown mushrooms, cut into ¼-inch slices
  • 1 cup sliced zucchini, 1/4 inch slices
  • 1/2 tsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp peanuts
  • 1 tbsp thinly sliced green onion
  • Rice, optional


  1. In a medium-size bowl, combine the diced chicken, 2 teaspoons of cornstarch, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of sesame oil. Allow the chicken to marinate at room temperature while preparing the sauce.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of water, 6 tablespoons of soy sauce, vinegar and honey. Add the chili peppers, stir to combine and add the sauce to a slow cooker.
  3. Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the vegetable oil, and once hot, add the marinated chicken in a single layer. Sear until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer the chicken to the slow cooker. Cover and cook the chicken on high for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or 2 1/2 to 4 hours on low.
  4. Switch the slow cooker setting to high to help raise the temperature of the sauce to almost 203 degrees Fahrenheit, so that the starch granules can effectively swell, thicken and not leave a raw starch flavor. Whisk together 1/4 cup of cornstarch and 6 tablespoons of water in a small bowl. Add to the slow cooker and whisk to combine. Cook on high for 30 minutes.
  5. Add the bell peppers, mushrooms and zucchini, and stir to combine. Cook on high until the sauce is thickened and vegetables are tender, 30 minutes.
  6. Garnish the chicken with the sesame seeds, peanuts and green onions. Serve the Kung Pao Chicken with rice, if desired.

More from Easy Culinary Science for Better Cooking:

Reprinted with permission from Easy Culinary Science for Better Cooking by Jessica Gavin, Page Street Publishing Co. 2018.

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