Delicious Quick and Easy Sweet and Sour Sauce in Minutes!

No order in a Chinese restaurant or takeaway is complete without at least one sweet and sour dish. A recent government survey found that Chinese was, far and away, the most popular takeaway in the UK. One in four Brits chose Chinese over the second and third placed favourites, Indian and good old fish and chips. Just-Eat, the largest online food order and delivery service in the West, took a look at their data to find the five most popular dishes ordered from the British Chinese restaurants and takeaways using their platform and, unsurprisingly, sweet and sour dishes made the cut. If you’re interested and I’m sure you are, the others were: chow mein, crispy aromatic duck, egg fried rice and spring rolls. Order the lot with a few cans of Tsingtao beer and we’ve got a night out!

Kissing Cousins to Sweet and Sour Dishes

Before we move onto the recipe for delicious, quick and easy sweet and sour sauce you can make at home in minutes, I want to take a brief look at some dishes that use very similar sauces. 

General Tso’s

In America, the most popular Chinese dish is one that is rarely found here in the UK. In fact, the only time I have eaten it myself is when I have cooked it at home. The next time I’m over there, I’ll have to order some to see how close I managed to get! What is this mysterious dish? General Tso’s Chicken.

General Tso’s is very similar to the sweet and sour dishes we are used to. The meat is battered and deep-fried chicken (although there’s no reason why you couldn’t batter and deep fry something else: pork, fish, tofu, etc.) And the sauce is very similar to sweet and sour but with a greater emphasis on ginger and heat.

Kung Po

Another dish that is similar to sweet and sour is kung po. The main difference between kung po and sweet and sour dishes is that the meat is typically not battered and seared in the wok. In addition, it is very common to add peanuts to kung po dishes.

Crispy Shredded Beef

Also known as crispy chilli beef, the sauce found on this dish in many Chinese restaurants and takeaways is more often or not a variation on sweet and sour. Typically, chefs will use the same base as their sweet and sour sauce and add sweet chilli sauce or even HP brown sauce.

Orange Chicken

Another dish that is enormously popular in America but rarely found in the UK is orange chicken. The most popular dish at Panda Express, the largest Asian restaurant chain in the US, orange chicken is very similar to our beloved sweet and sour chicken. With deep fried battered chicken but, as the name suggests, the addition of orange zest to give a powerful citrusy flavour.

Lemon Chicken

Lemon chicken is more commonly found on menus in the UK than its orangey cousin. More often than not, the chicken is battered and fried as a whole piece of breast (or cut in half lengthways to make it a thinner portion) and then cut widthways into slices before serving. The sauce is more of a move away from sweet and sour but the principles are the same. Making delicious, sticky lemon sauce is just as quick and easy as preparing a sweet and sour.

Now, the reason I’ve taken you all along on this whistle-stop tour of popular Chinese dishes is that the quick and easy sweet and sour sauce recipe that I’m about to share with you can be very easily tweaked into sauces for the dishes mentioned above. The very best thing about my sweet and sour recipe is that it can be so easily adjusted to match the flavours you and your friends and family love.

Not all sweet and sour sauces are created equally

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this far that whenever I go to a Chinese restaurant or order a takeaway, I get me some sweet and sour. But not all sweet and sours are equal. Every restaurant and every takeaway will have their own recipe. In some places the sauce will be very sweet with only a hint of sour and in others it will be the reverse. Some recipes will have quite a mild flavour and some almost overwhelmingly powerful. There are restaurants that prefer to make their sweet and sour sauce quite thick, almost gloopy, and others that barely thicken their sauce at all. My recipe below is made up of four parts: the sweet, the sour, the fruity and the bonus flavours. You are completely free to adjust the flavourings to match your particular palette and when it comes to the bonus flavours you can choose where you go. This means you can tailor the base sauce to match the dish you want to prepare whether it’s a traditional sweet and sour chicken or kung po, chilli beef or even a General Tso’s or orange chicken.

One final word before we move on to the recipe for delicious, quick and easy sweet and sour sauce. This, as the name suggests, is a quick and easy recipe. Most Chinese restaurants and takeaways will use a far more complex recipe with lots of aromatics that is prepared over several hours in huge quantities. The recipe below is the quick and easy version. The sauce can be prepared in minutes rather than hours and with ingredients you probably already have in the store cupboard. And while there is nothing to stop you preparing huge batches, this recipe can just as easily make a single portion as enough to feed an entire family. Obviously, there will be some loss in terms of depth of flavour, but the difference would only really stand out if you had the two sauces side-by-side for a taste comparison. In fact, I once put together a quick sweet and sour sauce to supplement a particularly insipid sweet and sour ordered from a newly opened Chinese takeaway in town. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that a weak sweet and sour was the cause, but this takeaway closed down shortly after opening.

Delicious Quick and Easy Sweet and Sour Sauce

As I said above, there are four parts to this recipe. Fortunately, things are kept simple because the first three are in equal portions and the fourth, what I call the bonus flavour round, is added to taste. So, let’s take a look at these parts.

The Sweet

The sweet is sugar. You can pretty much use any sugar you like. Sweet and sour sauce is not a healthy recipe. There is, in my opinion, no worthwhile ‘diet’ version, so be prepared to use a lot of sugar in this recipe. For three to four people, use 1 cup. It doesn’t really matter what you use to measure the ingredients as long as it is consistent. You can literally use half a standard coffee mug or a ramekin to measure it out.

The Sour

The sour is vinegar. Like with the sugar you can use whatever vinegar you like. The thing is to experiment with flavours. Do not be afraid of diluting your vinegar if you do not want too strong a sour taste. I most often fill the cup two-thirds of the way up with vinegar and then top off with water. However, as we shall see, I add another kind of vinegar in the bonus round! Sometimes, I omit the bonus vinegar (usually if I’m having guests and I don’t know if they like the distinctive taste of my bonus vinegar) so I fill the cup three-quarters full of vinegar before topping with water.

The Fruit

Let’s get something out of the way! Tomatoes are fruits that are considered vegetables by nutritionists. Therefore, I am fully justified in including tomato sauce in my fruit section. The tomato sauce I use is Heinz Tomato Ketchup. You can use your preferred sauce. Just in case you think it’s odd to have ketchup as a key part of the recipe, the secret ingredient used by Chinese chefs to make the ‘authentic’ sweet and sour sauce that takes hours to cook is none other than undiluted orange squash. One thing to be aware of is that heated or cooked tomato ketchup can taste very different that having it straight from the bottle. For some ketchups, the heating process really brings out the cinnamon flavour in the sauce. It is best to experiment. But if you already use Heinz, the cooked flavour is just richer and silkier. Another thing to bear in mind is that some ketchups are more vinegary and sugary than others. If you are whipping up a batch of sweet and sour with a different ketchup to the one you usually use, make sure to taste it first!

When preparing your sweet and sour sauce, the three main ingredients are equally proportioned. So in this case because I want to make enough for three or four people, I’ve used a cup of sugar, a cup of vinegar mix (1 part water to 3 parts vinegar) and one cup of tomato ketchup.

There are more fruit flavours in the bonus round. These are optional, but all sweet and sour sauces contain ketchup with one exception. Remember that I mentioned lemon chicken above and said it was slightly further away from sweet and sour than the other dishes? For lemon chicken you replace tomato sauce with lemon zest and juice.

The Bonus Flavours

If you were putting this sauce together on the fly, you could just pour the sugar, the vinegar and the ketchup into a pan and heat. This will make a basic sweet and sour sauce. However, unless you have no other ingredients and have no time to get down to the shops, why settle for basic?

All of the following flavours can be added to deepen thus improving the flavour of your sauce. If you are trying to make a similar dish to traditional sweet and sour pork, these flavours will help make the sauces you are familiar with. For each ingredient suggestion, start off with a teaspoon and taste, then add more until you get the flavour you like.

Soy sauce. Light soy sauce can be added for more flavour. I don’t add soy to my sauce unless I’m making it solely as a dipping sauce for, say, spring rolls. The reason being is that I want to be able to control how salty the entire meal will be and soy sauce can always be added later. Dark soy can be added to colour the sauce, deepening the orangey-red to a darker more pleasing colour.

Chinese black vinegar. I love this stuff but I have discovered it to be a bit of an acquired taste. To see if you like it, mix a teaspoon of black vinegar with a teaspoon of light soy sauce and stir in some red pepper flakes. Now, dip a prawn cracker or spring roll into the mixture. Did you love it? Maybe not at first but if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself intrigued and trying more until you really acquire a taste for it. As a bonus flavour for sweet and sour sauce, simply add a teaspoon or two.

Hoi-sin sauce. This adds a rich flavour to the sauce. If you’re using one cup each of the base ingredients (enough for three or four) then I wouldn’t add more than a tablespoon of hoi-sin. But that’s my choice, you can add as much or as little as you like!

Sriracha or hot pepper flakes. Some heat for the sweet and sour. Sweet and sour dishes are not usually hot and spicy but you can add these if you’re making a kung po, General Tso or just like your dishes to have some heat to them. Korean red pepper flakes, widely available in Asian supermarkets, add a real Korean flavour to your sauce as well as heat.

HP or Brown Sauce. A few dollops of brown sauce adds an aromatic flavour to your sweet and sour and is perfect if you’re making a crispy shredded beef. HP sauce is so familiar to us that it’s easy to overlook its Asian inspired flavours. As well as the tomato and vinegar, the sauce is flavoured with tamarind, soy, garlic, cloves, ginger and shallots.

Sweet chilli sauce. This sauce, usually served as a dipping sauce, is often also included in the sauce for crispy chilli. You might want to go as much as half and half with your tomato ketchup and your sweet chilli.

Orange zest and juice. If you want to make an orange chicken then you’re going to need orange flavours. But even if you’re doing a regular sweet and sour chicken or pork, you might want to add an orange flavour to your sauce. As I mentioned above, undiluted orange squash is a key ingredient in most Chinese restaurant and takeaway sauces.

Pineapple juice (and chunks). I love pineapple juice in my sweet and sour sauce! Not only do I add some of the juice, I caramelize chunks of pineapple in butter and add those to the sauce as well.

Lemon zest and juice. I don’t add lemon to my sweet and sour sauce. However, if I am making a lemon chicken, I replace the tomato ketchup with lemon juice and zest. To be honest though, I’m not a massive fan of lemon chicken and only make it on request.

Plum sauceBought from the Asian supermarket or larger British supermarket, my favourite brand of plum sauce is from Lee Kum Kee but the more readily available Sharwood’s brand is perfectly acceptable. Adds an intriguing sweetness. If you’re going to add plum sauce you might want to reduce the amount of sugar you use.

Onion, ginger and garlic. If you’re already cooking a dish like sweet and sour pork or General Tso’s Chicken, then you will already have included the onion, ginger and garlic. However, if you’re making a dipping sauce, then you might want to add these flavours. Powders are fine.

Cornflour or potato starch. Your sauce will need to be thickened. How thick you want it is up to you. Personally, I like it so that if I hold up a piece of chicken coated in the sauce, it takes just a moment for some sauce to drip off back onto the plate. 

To Prepare

This recipe almost couldn’t be easier. Pour equal parts sugar, vinegar and tomato ketchup into a pan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add your chosen bonus ingredients. Finally, stir through a cornflour or potato starch slurry and thicken to your desired consistency.

My Go-To Sweet and Sour (for 3-4 people)

  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 cup of vinegar mix (1 part water to 3 parts white vinegar)
  • 1 cup of Heinz Tomato Ketchup (mixed with 1 tablespoon of Hoi-sin sauce)
  • 1-2 teaspoons of Korean red pepper flakes
  • 25ml of pineapple juice
  • 1 teaspoon Chinese black vinegar
  • Cornflour slurry for thickening

(If I’m making a dipping sauce)

Add:

  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon of ginger powder
  • 1 teaspoon of onion powder