Sesame chicken is a popular Chinese-American dish that consists of chicken pieces that are coated in a sweet, sticky sauce with sesame seeds. The sauce is what really makes this dish stand out and gives it its signature flavor. But what exactly goes into making this tasty sauce? Here is an in-depth look at the key ingredients that make up the sauce for sesame chicken.
One of the main components of sesame chicken sauce is soy sauce. Soy sauce is a staple condiment and seasoning in Chinese cuisine that is made from fermented soybeans and roasted grains like wheat or rice. It has a salty, umami flavor that enhances the sauce.
In sesame chicken sauce, soy sauce is typically combined with other ingredients like rice vinegar and hoisin sauce to create a balanced, sweet and salty flavor. The soy sauce also gives the sauce its dark brown color.
Soy sauce is rich in amino acids like glutamate that enhance the savory flavors of the chicken and sauce. It also contains antioxidants and compounds that promote browning and caramelization on the chicken for enhanced flavor.
Typically, a few tablespoons of soy sauce are used in sesame chicken sauce recipes. Light soy sauce is preferred over dark or thick soy sauce, since it has a less overpowering saltiness that balances well with the sweetness of the other ingredients.
Rice vinegar is another key ingredient used in making authentic sesame chicken sauce. Rice vinegar has a mild acidity and subtle sweetness that complements the flavors of soy sauce, sesame, and other aromatics.
The vinegar also helps thin out the texture of the sauce so it has a nice glossy sheen and coats the chicken properly. Too much rice vinegar can make the sauce too runny, while too little can make it overly thick and sticky.
Rice vinegar also adds a tanginess that balances out the sweetness from sugar or other ingredients in the sauce. The acidic taste stimulates appetite and makes you salivate for the juicy sesame chicken!
Usually, around 2 to 3 tablespoons of rice vinegar go into sesame chicken sauce. Seasoned rice vinegar works great for extra flavor.
Hoisin sauce is a thick, fragrant sauce that is commonly used in dishes like Peking duck or mu shu pork. It also plays an integral role in creating the complex flavor of sesame chicken sauce.
Hoisin sauce contributes sweet and salty notes from ingredients like fermented soybean paste, vinegar, garlic, chilies and sugar. It also lends a rich, caramel-like hue to the sauce.
The thickness of hoisin helps counter the runniness from the soy sauce and vinegar to achieve the ideal sticky texture for the sauce to coat the chicken. It also sticks to the sesame seeds better.
Hoisin sauce packs a punch of savory umami flavor from the fermented soybeans. Just a couple tablespoons of hoisin sauce are enough to take the sesame chicken sauce to the next level.
What’s sesame chicken without sesame? Sesame oil is the secret ingredient that gives this dish its nutty, aromatic flavor.
Sesame oil is pressed from roasted sesame seeds, giving it a dark color and rich, toasty sesame taste. It adds both flavor and fragrance to elevate the sauce.
Just a teaspoon or two of sesame oil goes a long way in providing that quintessential sesame essence without overpowering the other flavors. It also enhances the nutty taste of the toasted sesame seeds coating the chicken.
Make sure to use pure sesame oil rather than vegetable oil with sesame flavoring. The real deal provides the most authentic sesame chicken experience.
Chicken broth is the base that brings all the flavors of the sesame chicken sauce together. Good sesame chicken sauce has a balanced, velvety texture achieved by dissolving the ingredients in chicken broth.
The broth adds a savory, meaty background note while also thinning out the consistency of thicker ingredients like hoisin. This allows the sauce to properly cling to every nook and cranny of the fried chicken pieces.
Chicken broth also keeps the sauce moist and juicy. Homemade chicken stock is ideal, but canned or boxed chicken broth also works well for making quick and easy sesame chicken.
Around 1 to 2 cups of chicken broth typically goes into sesame chicken sauce recipes before reducing down to the perfect saucy consistency.
Garlic and Ginger
Garlic and ginger are two aromatics that are frequently used in Asian cuisines, including sesame chicken sauce. They add pungent, spicy and savory notes to the sauce.
Minced or grated garlic provides a robust kick and enhances the rich umami flavors. Ginger also livens up the sauce with its zesty, peppery taste.
When cooked briefly in sesame oil, the garlic and ginger release their aromatic oils to infuse the sauce without overpowering it. They balance and round out the soy, vinegar and hoisin.
The quantity can vary based on preference, but 2 to 3 cloves of garlic and about 1 tablespoon of grated ginger provide great flavor for the typical sesame chicken sauce.
Spices and Seasonings
Sesame chicken sauce is also seasoned with spices like:
- White pepper – for subtle heat
- Five-spice powder – for a complex blend of spices like cinnamon, clove, fennel
- Red chili flakes – for moderate spiciness and color
Small amounts of spices like a pinch or 1⁄4 teaspoon enhance the flavors of the sauce without over-seasoning. Granulated sugar or honey can also be added to balance the saltiness and round out the sweetness.
Cornstarch is an important ingredient for getting the thick, sticky texture perfect in sesame chicken sauce. Around 1-2 teaspoons of cornstarch help thicken up the liquid ingredients.
When dissolved completely in the cold sauce before cooking, the cornstarch gently thickens it up as it simmers without creating clumps. This leads to an ideal velvety texture that perfectly clings to the chicken.
Cornstarch also helps the sauce adhere to the chicken better when tossed and gives it a nice sheen. It prevents the sauce from being too watery while allowing it to properly coat each piece.
Putting It All Together
With all these components, you can see how complex the taste of sesame chicken sauce really is. Each ingredient builds on the others to create layers of sweet, salty, nutty, savory and spicy flavors.
Here are some tips for combining them perfectly:
- Heat sesame oil over medium heat and cook the garlic, ginger and spices briefly until fragrant.
- Whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, hoisin, chicken broth and cornstarch.
- Add the liquid mixture to the aromatics and simmer until thickened.
- Toss the cooked chicken pieces in the sauce until fully coated.
- Garnish with toasted sesame seeds and more green onions.
Experiment with the ingredient ratios until you get the ideal balance of sweet and salty flavor with a luscious texture that hugs every morsel of juicy sesame chicken.
Sesame chicken sauce transforms a plain chicken dish into an explosion of flavor. But with flavor comes calories, salt, sugar and fat that needs to be accounted for.
Here is the nutritional breakdown for a common recipe of sesame chicken sauce (3/4 cup):
As you can see, a typical sesame chicken sauce packs some impressive flavors, but also comes with high amounts of sodium, sugar and carbohydrates. The sauce makes up the bulk of the calories and sodium in a sesame chicken dish.
To lighten it up, use reduced sodium soy sauce, balance the sweetness carefully, and avoid over-dousing the chicken with sauce. Enjoy sesame chicken in moderation as the occasional indulgent treat.
Making Vegetarian/Vegan Sesame Chicken Sauce
Here are some tips for making vegetarian or vegan versions of sesame chicken sauce:
- Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth for the base.
- Add toasted sesame oil for rich, nutty flavor.
- Include umami-rich ingredients like mushrooms, nuts, or miso paste.
- Thicken with cornstarch, arrowroot or tapioca starch instead of egg white.
- Flavor with onion, shallots and vegan-friendly sweeteners.
- Use soy sauce or tamari to add savoriness.
- Skip hoisin sauce and use chili-garlic sauce for spice.
The sauce can be tossed with crispy tofu, seitan, or vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower or green beans to make vegetarian “sesame chicken.” With the right substitutions and seasonings, you can create plant-based sesame sauces that are just as flavorful.
Sesame chicken sauce is the soul of this popular Chinese chicken dish. It combines salty, sweet, nutty and savory flavors for an addictive sticky sauce that coats each tender piece of chicken. Soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin, sesame oil and ginger are just some of the ingredients that go into this complex sauce.
Understanding the components that make up sesame chicken sauce helps you recreate the flavor or tweak it to make your own signature version. Whether you prefer it sweeter, spicier, lighter or more aromatic, the variations are endless. So get creative with your homemade sesame chicken sauces!