Considering your meal options between Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken? While these two fried chicken dishes may look similar, with their delicious glaze of flavors, it is actually the flavor base that sets them truly apart. Orange Chicken has a base of citrus in its sauce, hence the name Orange Chicken. Sweet + Sour Chicken, on the other hand, has a base of vinegar to provide the tang in its sweet and sour sauce. Both dishes are sweet but ultimately they have a different flavoring, thus different ingredients that go into the process of making them. Interested in trying these dishes at home? Keep on reading to learn more. 

In this post, we’ll take a look at the history of these recipes as well as the modern variations. You’ll learn about the nutritional profile of the classic Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken. We’ll give you a few ideas for how to adjust some ingredients for your dietary needs and you’ll be a pro in the chicken with these dishes in no time. Let’s get into some of those important detailed sauce differences in the debate of Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken.

Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken: How Are They Different?

The major difference between Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken comes down to the sauce flavoring. While both sauces have an overall sweet effect with a tangy aftertaste, Orange Chicken gets its name from both its coloring and the base of its citrusy sauce. Sweet + Sour Chicken on the other hand provides a sweet and tangy sauce with the use of brown sugar and vinegar. The process for making each of these dishes also has some key differences, let's get into it.

Sweet and sour chicken with pineapple and tomatoes.
Sweet and sour chicken with pineapple and tomatoes.

©Dolly MJ/

What Is Orange Chicken?

Orange Chicken is a fried, battered chicken dish with a sweet Orange sauce that glazes and gives the dish its brilliant color. There is often chili sauce or powder added to the sauce, which gives this breaded chicken dish a citrus and spice kick to it. This dish is often served with a side of steaming white rice, which is great for soaking in some of those saucy flavors.

History And Origin of Orange Chicken

Firstly, it's important to establish that while Orange Chicken is served in Chinese restaurants, it is a decidedly American version of other more authentic Asian fried chicken recipes. Panda Express is credited with the invention of the dish, as a variation on General Tso's Chicken. The original dish originated from the Hunan province of China and would've had an emphasis on the spices over the sweetness that is prominent in the American version of Orange Chicken (via Taste Atlas).

How To Make Orange Chicken

To start, you'll make your Orange Chicken sauce with a combination of rice vinegar, soy sauce, orange juice, and vinegar. Combine in a saucepan over medium heat before adding brown sugar, orange zest, ginger garlic, pepper flakes, and green onion. Once this mixture is boiling, allow it to cool.

Onto your chicken! Coat your skinless, boneless chicken with your now-cooled sauce. Allow to marinate for at least 2 hours. Once that is finished, you can coat your chicken with a breading mixture of flour, pepper, and salt.

Next, pour the remaining orange sauce into a skillet, and bring to a boil. Add in a mixture of blended cornstarch and water, before adding the chicken and cooking until done all the way through. This part should take about 5 minutes. Serve with a side of white rice and marvel at your Orange Chicken creation (via Allrecipes)!

What Is Sweet + Sour Chicken?

Sweet + Sour Chicken is also a fried chicken dish, however, not all recipes emphasize the frying portion of the recipe. This dish focuses heavily on the vinegar and sugar combination that gives this dish its iconic glaze. Paired with lots of sautéd veggies, this dish creates a crunchy, tangy, sweet, and salty symphony of textures and flavors.

History and Origin Of Sweet + Sour Chicken

Like Orange Chicken, Sweet + Sour Chicken is a modified version of a dish that actually originated in Shanghai. The original recipe used black vinegar. Somewhere along the journey of this recipe through the U.K. and to the States, ketchup replaced black vinegar, changing the color and overall taste of the dish. Sweet + Sour Chicken is a great example of cultural blending with a recipe changing based on the ingredients and taste preferences of a region from where it was originally created (via Condé Nast Traveller).

How To Make Sweet + Sour Chicken

While some modified recipes use Ketchup in the sauce, Allrecipes uses pineapple chunks as the sugar substitute. For the sauce, combine water, pineapple, vinegar, sugar, and (optional) orange food coloring, in a saucepan. Bring this mixture to a boil and then set aside to cool. Add combined cornstarch and water to the sauce and stir until it has thickened.

Now, onto the chicken. Combine flour, oil, cornstarch, salt, pepper, and eggs along with water to form your batter. Coat the chicken pieces, preferably a boneless and skinless cut of meat. Take your batter-coated chicken and fry it in a hot oil skillet. This should take about 10 minutes and the pieces should be golden brown all over. Sauté chopped veggies like snow peas, carrots, mushrooms, peanuts, onions, bell peppers, and almonds. Plate these along with cooked pineapple chunks. Pour the thickened sauce over the top and plate with some steamed rice. Add whatever garnishes you wish and enjoy your homemade Sweet + Sour Chicken!

For an alternative to frying, Simply Recipes recommends combining egg white, salt, pepper, and cornstarch to form a lighter batter variation which will hold flavor equally as well.

Nutritional Value

A lot of the nutritional value of these dishes comes down to how they are made. Making them at home allows you more control to moderate the sodium, sugar, and fat content in these fried chicken dishes. My Fitness Pal breaks down 8 ounces of traditional fried Orange Chicken as follows. There are a whopping 380 calories, 13 grams of carbohydrates, 21 grams of fat, and 22 grams of protein. Compare this to 8 ounces of takeout Sweet + Sour Chicken which clocks in at 488 calories, 51.2 grams of carbohydrates, 23.2 grams of fat, and 19.2 grams of protein. The difference in numbers here is likely due to the sauce used in this particular version of Sweet + Sour Chicken.

Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken: Are They The Same Thing?

When considering Orange Chicken vs. Sweet + Sour Chicken, it is clear they are not the same thing. They are plated differently and have clearly different flavor profiles. The biggest similarity they share is their brilliant, vivid, artificial coloring and the fact that they are decidedly Americanized versions of Asian dishes. These dishes emphasize thick, sweet, and tangy sauces, whereas their original dishes would've likely emphasized the spice factor in classic Asian fried chicken.

Possible Alternatives To Orange Chicken Or Sweet + Sour Chicken

If the biggest issue here is the chicken aspect, it's totally plausible to cook other kinds of meat in the same sauce to create a similar dish. However, keep in mind that the cooking time may be longer depending on the cut and type of meat. For meat alternatives, try out fried tofu, seitan, or tempeh. With the advances in Beyond Meat, there are likely some great variations on Orange Chicken and Sweet + Sour Chicken that use Beyond Meat. For a total veggie version, try a hearty serving of vegetables in either of these delicious sauces. Serve over rice and enjoy the same flavors with less meat and more greens!

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