I love oyster sauce. It’s rich, thick, full of flavor, and adds a huge hit of deliciousness.
Everyone knows about soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and fish sauce, but oyster sauce is slightly more mysterious. Does it have oysters in it? What is it used for? I’m here to answer all your pressing oyster sauce questions.
What is oyster sauce?
Oyster sauce (蚝油 háo yóu in Mandarin or ho yeow in Cantonese) is a thick savory sauce with a hint of caramel sweetness and umami. Lee Kum Sheung, an oyster chef, invented it in 1888 in China. It was a complete accident: he left a pot of oyster soup on a simmer and when he finally checked on it, it was a thick brown paste of caramelized sauce. He called it oyster sauce and the rest is history. Lee went on to start Lee Kum Kee, an incredibly successful Chinese sauce empire, and it all started with with a simple accidentally overcooked sauce.
What does oyster sauce taste like?
Oyster sauce is sweet and salty, thick, and full of complexity. It reminds me of hints of the ocean and is full of umami and savoriness. It doesn’t taste super seafood-y, but it definitely adds an extra oomph to your dishes that you won’t be able to put your finger on. It’s best used to highlight other flavors.
What is oyster sauce made of?
Oysters! Lee Kum Sheung priginally made the sauce by boiling down whole oysters with seasoning. These days it’s made from oyster extract along with sugar, salt, cornstarch, flour, and MSG.
A note on MSG
MSG, or monosodium glutamate is completely safe and naturally occurring. If you love tomatoes, cheese, meat, dairy, corn, or nuts, you love MSG. MSG is the the pure salt version of glutamic acid, which is found in so many foods and made simply by fermenting things like sugar beets, sugarcane, and molasses.
Think of it like yogurt, but instead of the fermentation making the end result sour, the end result is umami. There is absolutely no chemical difference between the MSG found in food and chemical MSG. The FDA recognizes MSG as perfectly safe.
How to use
Oyster sauce is incredibly versatile. It’s basically an all purpose seasoning sauce. You can use it pretty much everywhere and it’s a key ingredient in Chinese cooking. A little goes a long way, so start off with a teaspoon or two and go from there. You can use it:
- In stir fries – its velvety thick texture adds flavor and a beautiful gloss to stir fried dishes like vegetables, noodles, or meats.
- In braises or stews – add a teaspoon or two to enhance any long simmered dish.
- Straight from the bottle – drizzle it onto cooked vegetables or use it to marinate or brush onto grilled and barbecued meats.
Recipes with oyster sauce
Vegetarian oyster sauce
If you’re vegetarian or allergic to shellfish, a vegetarian version that uses mushrooms instead of oysters is available. It has the same color and a similar texture to the real deal. The mushrooms give it a meaty, umami flavor. If you’re looking for Lee Kum Kee brand, they don’t call it vegetarian oyster sauce, instead it’s labeled as Vegetarian Stir-Fry Sauce.
Is it the same as Hoisin sauce?
Oyster and hoisin sauces look the same but they are vastly different in flavor. Oyster sauce is saltier and less sweet and with a thinner texture. On the other hand, soy bean based hoisin sauce is thicker and much sweeter.
Where to buy oyster sauce
It’s available in the Asian aisle of pretty much every grocery store. If you see the Lee Kum Kee bottle with the two people in boats, go for that one. Basically, it’s the premium version which lists oysters as its first ingredient, unlike the one with the red panda label which has oysters listed further down the list. The premium oysters sauce packs more of a punch and the one with the panda is slightly more mild. You can also purchase it easily online.
How to store
After you open it, keep it in the fridge. It should keep for up to a year.
Oyster sauce substitutes
To be honest, there aren’t any sauces out there that is a one-to-one substitute, flavor-wise. If you’re looking for the dark caramel coloring portion of the sauce, use dark soy sauce mixed with a tiny bit of fish sauce. It won’t be quite the same (and definitely doesn’t have the same texture) but it’s a decent replacement for the coloring and umami.
To be honest, the commercial version is really affordable, tasty, and lasts forever in the fridge. Order a bottle on amazon and you’re set. If you’re worried about the oyster flavor, try the Lee Kum Kee bottle with the panda on it or the Vegetarian Stir Fry sauce to ease into it.
- 1/2 lb shucked oysters with liquid
- 1 tbsp water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 4 tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbsp sugar
Chop the oysters into small pieces and place them in a sauce pan, along with the juices and 1 tbsp water. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally.
When the oyster water mix comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer to reduce the liquid.
Remove the heat from the pan and strain out the oysters, pressing to squeeze out the liquids.
Stir in the salt, soy sauces, and sugar. Simmer for another 10 minutes to thicken and reduce, stirring occasionally. Let cool and use immediately. Sauce will keep in a air tight container in the fridge for 1 week.
Oyster Sauce Recipe
Amount Per Serving (1 tbsp)
Calories 23 Calories from Fat 5
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 0.2g1%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.