Oyster sauce stands alone! A simple shake of the bottle can transform any meat or vegetable with layers of umami flavors. Phat Sii Krong Neua, this Chicken and Corn Stir Fry or even this would be complete without some of the goodness. Just THINKING about going back for spaghetti (yes, spaghetti!). I get all grumby face emoticons when I see oyster sauce.
But, what’s this magical brown sauce? What is it made from oysters? How can you make it at home?
Oyster sauce was supposedly invented completely by accident. In 1888 Chinese food stall operator Lee Kum Sheung left a pot of oyster soup on to simmer for so long that it cooked down into a thick brown paste. Sheung had a cheeky look at the concoction and discovered that it was rich and delicious. He called it “oyster Sauce” and began to serve it to his customers as a seasoning. Then he went on to package it and sell it under the iconic Lee Kum Kee Asian sauce brand.
Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce
Good news: These days, oyster sauce is everywhere. Grab a bottle and make your favorite dish better by using it. Get wild! Experiment! You’ll be surprised at the unexpected.
Is the grocery store stuff made of oysters too?
This is one of those increasingly rare instances where a food product is, drumroll, as advertised. Even 133 years after Sheung’s discovery, Lee Kum Kee (as well as Kikkoman) is still making their sauces with something called “oyster extractives” (derived from oysters, water, and salt), along with sugar, salt, corn starch, flour, coloring, and my favorite ingredient, monosodium glutamate (MSG)–which is the same seasoning that makes Cool Ranch Doritos so difficult to stop eating. Oyster-flavored sauce is also known as oyster sauce. Make sure you read the label before buying. The ones that are worth their salt will have extracts from real shellfish.
Oyster sauce gives any dish a rich, dark caramel color. According to Jessie YuChen (assistant food editor), this is also known as the “sauce color” in Mandarin. This color is common in Chinese dishes such as stir-fried broccoli and Cantonese beef Chow Fun. It doesn’t matter if the color comes from oyster, soy, or any other brown sauce such as hoisin; it is a sign that a dish will be delicious. The equation is simple, according to YuChen: “Brown = sauce = flavor.”
What does oyster sauce taste like?
Unlike fish sauce, which is decidedly fishy, lick a dollop of oyster sauce off your finger and you won’t think, “Wow, oysters!” But it is “absolutely loaded with flavor,” according to test kitchen director Chris Morocco. It is sweet. It’s also salty. The flavors go deeper than that. It’s not cloying or one-noted sweetness; it’s deep and complex, almost like caramel. YuChen says that the saltiness is not as salty as table salt but more like ocean water. The sauce is similar to anchovies in that it has tons of oyster flavor, which lends a lot of umami and rich savoriness. Christina Chaey, senior food editor, says that it’s almost like having four sauces.
Oyster Sauce is undoubtedly a powerful sauce, but to Morocco it’s perfectly balanced and hits every note equally. He says that it adds tons of flavor [to sauces, stir-fries, and dressings], to the dish without overpowering other ingredients.
How do you cook with oyster sauce?
A versatile condiment for Asian cooking and beyond, oyster sauce can happily stand alone or blend into the crowd. It doesn’t matter how you use it. A little can go a long ways. Chaey says, “I just finish quickly cooked meat or veg with an oyster sauce and call that a day.” It’s delicious as a marinade for any meat, drizzled over steamed greens, or used in soups or stews.
More of a recipe kinda guy? Here are some of our oyster sauce-y faves:
- Chicken and Corn Stir-Fry
- Pineapple Pork Adobo
- Tri-Tip Steak With Tiger Bite Sauce
- Blistered Green Beans With Fried Shallots
- Bo Zai Fan (Chinese Chicken and Mushroom Clay Pot Rice)
- Phat Sii Krong Neua (Thai-style short ribs)
- Grilled Brisket with Scallion-Peanut Salsa
Which brands of oyster sauce are the best?
Of course, not all oyster sauce is created equal! Our food editors all prefer Lee Kum Kee Premium Oyster Sauce because it has that OG savory taste. Chaey says it’s “the safety blanket of my condiment cupboard.” According to Lee Kum Kee’s website, you can try their Panda Brand Oyster Sauce if your preference is milder. YuChen also recommends Kikkoman Oyster Flavored Sauce or Wan Ja Shan’s vegetarian mushroom-based recipe for those who are not a fan of shellfish.
Lee Kum Kee Panda Brand Oyster Sauce
Kikkoman Oyster Flavored Sauce
Wan Ja Shan Vegetarian Mushroom Oyster Sauce
What can be used instead of oyster sauce?
While there really is nothing quite like oyster sauce out there, if your local supermarket is fresh out of the good stuff and you’re in a bind, choose your own adventure:
- Sub in the vegan “brown sauce” in this Bok Choy With Brown Sauce and Crispy Garlic recipe by Fat Choy chef and owner Justin Lee.
- Opt for the Indonesian sweet soy sauce Kecap Manis, which has the same starchy-thick texture and a similarly sweet-salty flavor, just without the shellfish-y notes.
- Use a dark (aged) soy sauce, or something like Healthy Boy Brand Mushroom Soy Sauce, which has similar transformative power–albeit a different flavor.