Why do orange chicken vapors make me cough?
March 8, 2007 7:34 AM   Subscribe

This question is about chinese fast-food orange chicken (the deep-fried amorphous nuggets with a thick tangy glaze). When I take a deep smell from a hot bowl of this chicken, or hold it in my mouth and breathe around it, some sort of irritating vapor makes me cough (or stings my nose). Just one cough – enough to keep it from getting into my lungs. Once the chicken cools down (to mouth temperature, even) it doesn't happen. It reminds me of the reaction I've had sniffing acid in lab – could it be lots of volatile vinegar? I've experienced this with fast-food chicken in more than one college food court.
posted by lostburner to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and sniffing acid = smelling low-pH solutions. Get your minds out of the gutter, MetaFilter.
posted by lostburner at 7:36 AM on March 8, 2007

Capsaicin in the orange sauce, probably.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:44 AM on March 8, 2007

I'd go for the vinegar rather than the capsaicin, or perhaps there's just enough of the capsaicin vaporized with the vinegar to make it more irritating than vinegar alone.

I notice a similar effect when making barbecue sauces that use vinegar but don't necessarily have any hot peppers in them.
posted by briank at 7:50 AM on March 8, 2007

Response by poster: Blazecock Pileon: I'd lean away from the capsaicin because the sauce isn't spicy (at least not in any way that causes the mouth a stinging discomfort).
posted by lostburner at 7:54 AM on March 8, 2007

When something is hot, the vapor point of the sauce is reached and basically anything volatile in the sauce that can vaporize will reach your nose.

Most of the orange chicken I've had in my life has had some measure of chile or pepper sauce in the glaze. I've looked at some recipes online and don't see vinegar listed as an ingredient. YMMV.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2007

It's probably capsiacin. There may be citric acid in it as well -- it's used in fast food and junkfood to augment the spiciness without increasing the capsiacin content.
posted by ardgedee at 8:16 AM on March 8, 2007

Is this like a sweet-and-sour style orange sauce? If so, it definitely has vinegar, and that's probably it.
posted by raf at 8:16 AM on March 8, 2007

Vinegar. Definitely the vinegar. There's scant little raw capsaicin in the sauce...certainly not enough to vaporize and still remain strong enough to evoke the response you describe.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:31 AM on March 8, 2007

Why not citric acid? I assume there are at least a couple of oranges in there....
posted by mr_roboto at 8:40 AM on March 8, 2007

Cooking hot peppers makes me cough like crazy. So I'd go for capsaicin.
posted by walla at 8:40 AM on March 8, 2007

The orange-flavor chicken I get delivered has little hot red peppers in it, and when it's still steaming it can make my eyes water.
posted by nicwolff at 9:03 AM on March 8, 2007

Is this the product you're talking about? This is a copycat recipe, looks like it has chili flakes and vinegar.
posted by peep at 9:07 AM on March 8, 2007

Sounds like a reaction to the vinegar vapours.

The same thing would happen to me when my aunt would make homemade pickles, involving lots of boiling vinegar. Also when she would sometimes load up the drip-style coffeemaker with vinegar and run it to clean out the mineral deposits.
posted by CKmtl at 9:12 AM on March 8, 2007

It's the vinegar.

On a side note Trader Joes has some pretty decent frozen orange chicken. Add some sriracha and you are good to go!
posted by Big_B at 9:50 AM on March 8, 2007

I'm pretty sure it's the vinegar. I get the same "one cough" thing from both vinegar and orange chicken if I breathe too deeply.

Capsaicin always makes me cough multiple times, but the "one quick cough" thing is usually vinegar for me.
posted by chimaera at 9:51 AM on March 8, 2007

Best answer: It could be a vinegar odour.

It's unlikely to be capsaicin, which has a mild herbal odour. Capsaicin is an irritant in solid form (as an aerosol) but doesn't go easily vapourize, it's too heavy.

I'm going to guess that it's the terpenoids from the orange. It's common in chinese cooking to use the orange peel to infuse flavour into sauces. The frangrant orange sauce is mostly the smell of the citrus terpenoid compounds. One of the major ones is limonene, which is the active agent in citrus cleaners.

Terpenoids usually have very strong smells and can be a real inhalation irritant. Smell a bottle of citrus cleaner, for example. Even better, peel an orange near a cat and watch what happens (you'll only be able to do this once with each cat, so watch carefully. Also, make sure that the cat isn't sitting ON you before you start).

The dish being hot only makes the smell more intense (about ten times or so, for a typical serving temperature). Heat also drives the aroma out of the dish. A fresh, hot dish is going to give off many more terpenoids than an old, cold one, which is why you don't have a problem the next day.
posted by bonehead at 10:16 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

peel an orange near a cat and watch what happens
I wouldn't try this, but if anybody can find a link to video, I'll watch it.
posted by sswiller at 11:55 AM on March 8, 2007

Here you go sswiller. Maybe not as dramatic as you might have expected, but a clear indication that kitties don't like the oranges.
posted by quin at 12:41 PM on March 8, 2007

I love going to Panda Express when I'm getting over a cold. Great for clearing out the shnozz.
posted by dantekgeek at 7:00 PM on March 8, 2007

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Orange Chicken have whole dried chillies in the sauce? I know Casaicin is what makes chilies hot, I do NOT know if that's what's irritating your nose, but I vote for the chilies being the culprit all the same, and here is why... I cook a lot of Chinese and Indian food and frequently use whole dried chillies. Often you fry them up by themselves in the oil a bit first to pass some of the flavor into the oil. Done wrong (i.e. for too long) this will clear all living things out of the kitchen FAST... whatever it is that is released when you fry dried chilies is slightly less pleasant than tear gas.

Frying fresh chillies doesn't have the same effect, unless you fry them long enough for them to start burning. "bonehead" thought that the culprit wasn't capsaicin because it was "too heavy to varporize". I don't know much about this, but capsaicin is oil soluble and there are probably volatile oils in the chili that can carry the capsaicin out with them. Or something.

I suggest an experiment... get a single dried chili and fry it up in some oil over medium flame, sniffing carefully until you notice something noxious (you will). Then let us know if it's the same irritation you sensed from the Orange Chicken.

posted by jbotz at 2:38 PM on March 9, 2007

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