Freezer Week

I Tried Every Bag of Frozen Orange Chicken I Could Get My Hands On — Here’s the Best One

updated Aug 19, 2020
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Bowls of mandarin orange chicken and rice with scallions, sesame seeds, soy sauce, utensils
Credit: Sarah Crowley

A well-stocked freezer can extend the time between grocery store visits and save you some serious coin on nights when cooking from scratch just isn’t in the cards. That’s why every home cook needs a lifeline of heat-and-eat meals to serve as a takeout alternative.

The good news is that these days the supermarket freezer section is stacked with almost every kind of family-style and individually portioned meal meal you can imagine. For many frozen food fans, the crown jewel of restaurant-inspired meals is crispy fried chicken dressed in a sweet and tangy orange sauce.

While orange chicken is extremely popular at Chinese restaurants throughout the U.S., it is not an authentic dish that you would find served at restaurants in China. In fact, many believe the dish to have been created in 1987, by Chef Andy Kho at Panda Express, a fast-casual American Chinese food chain, inspired by flavors from the Hunan Province in China. The restaurant dish has become so widely beloved that there are now multiple copycats at other restaurants and on grocery store shelves. Which one should you buy for dinners at a moment’s notice at home? Let’s take a look.

Credit: Patty Catalano

How I Chose the Frozen Orange Chicken

For this taste test, all but one of the orange chicken options that I found came family-style sized, providing enough food for at least two people. Only one contender was a single-serve meal. All of the entrées consisted of breaded frozen chicken morsels and sauce package(s). The sole single-serving option was mixed with rice and vegetables, and there was one stovetop skillet dinner that also included vegetables.

I shopped at a variety of stores including Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Kroger, Publix, GreenWise Market, and Whole Foods to procure every orange chicken option in my area. All of the varieties chosen were made with chicken — no meat substitutes or cauliflower for this test. And all were breaded, not grilled. Most of the packages suggested a variety of preparation options including guidelines for the oven, microwave, air fryer, skillet, and deep fryer. I prepared the entrées according to the preferred instructions as indicated on the package — most in the oven, one in a skillet on the stovetop, and one in the microwave.

Credit: Patty Catalano

The Winner: Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken, $4.99 for 22 ounces

Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken consistently tops their annual Customer Choice Awards as the best entrée in their store. Well, I’m here to report that it is the best orange chicken in any store.

While a too-thick coating leaves some brands of orange chicken with a gummy, pasty texture, the ratio of crispy, crunchy breading on Trader Joe’s version is perfectly portioned. Bake these golden fried chicken morsels until the outside is crisp and crunchy and chicken is juicy inside. In my test, I didn’t have a single piece of “bouncy” chicken (you know that not-ideal texture I’m talking about).

As for the sauce, each bag comes with two separate packets of sweet and spicy orange-ginger sauce. Thaw the sauce as the chicken bakes, then toss with the chicken to coat in the glossy orange sauce once it comes out of the oven. One flaw with almost every option I tested was an excess of super-sweet sauce (although I guess that’s better than coming up short). The best way to finish this orange chicken is to add the sauce to taste, knowing you might not use all of the sauce provided. Although the package says otherwise, expect one packet to be enough sauce to serve two for dinner with steamed rice and veggies.

What is your favorite brand of orange chicken? Have you tried any from this list?