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What Is Oyster Sauce & How Is It Used?

What Is Oyster Sauce & How Is It Used?


If you’ve been looking for ways to use that oyster sauce you bought, look no further. Umamicart is all about those savory flavors, and oyster sauce is definitely on our list. 


With a dollop of oyster sauce, you can transform any meat or vegetable dish into layers of complex salty-sweet umami flavor. What would Pad Kra Pao and stir-fry be without the good stuff? 


But part of being comfortable with using a sauce is knowing, understanding, and appreciating all of its ingredients. So that’s what we want to do today. We will explain where oyster sauce comes from, what flavors you can expect, and some of its most popular uses. By the end of today, you’re going to know everything you need to start creating. 

 

What Is Oyster Sauce?

 

Oyster sauce is a thick, dark caramel-colored sauce that is used in Chinese cooking, but can translate to almost any dish. 

 


Discovered in Guangdong Province in 1888, food stall operator Lee Kum Sheung, simmered a pot of oyster soup too long, and it was reduced down to a thick savory paste. After trying the paste, his taste buds were enthralled by this caramelized concoction that was rich, savory, and perfectly delicious. So he called it “oyster sauce” and began serving it to his customers.


That brand still exists today and is sold under the now-iconic Lee Kum Kee Asian sauce empire.

 

Does Oyster Sauce Contain Oysters?

In short, no. But also, yes? Oyster sauce is made using oyster extractives (derived from oysters, water, and salt) along with sugar, corn starch, flour, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) – not whole oysters. 


However, there are products that sell oyster-flavored sauce, so be sure to check the label before you buy.

 

What Does Oyster Sauce Taste Like?

Oyster sauce is the perfect example in rich savory sauces. It has just the right amount of tanginess, sweetness, and saltiness to balance out and achieve maximum umami. The earthy balance from the oyster juice provides the right amount of backbone to make this sauce delicious and overall satisfying. 

 

Is Oyster Sauce Vegetarian?

Oyster sauce is not vegetarian. While it does not contain whole oysters, the juice from these oysters is used. For this same reason, oyster sauce is also not vegan. If you are on a pescetarian diet, you are good to go. 


If you need a good vegan-friendly option, order mushroom sauce. It is savory and robust and also provides the same consistency, so you won’t lose any texture. The best part? Lee Kum Kee also makes mushroom sauce!

 

How Is Oyster Sauce Used?

The options for oyster sauce are endless. It is a versatile sauce that can be used for dressings, marinades, sauces, and dips. In the beginning, as you feel out your level of flavor preferences, be sparse. The flavor is powerful, so it can be overwhelming if you don’t use it often. 

 

Savory Stir-Fry

Oyster sauce makes a great stir-fry. As it heats up, the sauce will thin out a bit and coat the ingredients in the pan. Meats work well with the sauce as they are hearty and can utilize the flavors of oyster sauce to stand out. Add bell peppers to your mix to bring bright notes and cut through savory intensity. 

 

Quick Marinades

Oyster sauce will work well with milder flavored proteins as a marinade. A little goes a long way. Add meat, like steak or chicken, and whisk oyster sauce into a simple marinade.

 

Great with Veggies

While oyster sauce could be great for any vegetable, Chinese broccoli is an excellent choice if you need some guidance. It has a slightly bitter and earthy flavor and will keep that fresh crunch even after being cooked. Oyster sauce has enough sweet and salty to complement the natural flavors of Chinese broccoli without overpowering it or getting lost. 

 

Variety of Sauces

Oyster sauce is robust and full of umami. It’s a rich sauce by itself but also pairs well with soy sauce, chili oil, rice vinegar, and fish sauce.

 

A black bean paste would bring some heat to the table without creating confusion in the palate. Thai cooking is all about the heat, so if you don’t want to add more sauce, try a few Thai peppers to mix it up. 


Oyster sauce will also do well with broths and in noodle dishes. It will add a depth of flavor that traditional broths and noodles sauces won’t have otherwise. These mild dishes will be taken to new levels with a bit of oyster sauce added to the mix. 

 

As a Dipping Sauce

Using oyster sauce as a condiment will leave you satisfied. Shrimp spring rolls, meat satays, fresh veggies are just a few examples. 


Due to the intense flavor of the sauce, let it stand out when you’re using it as a finisher like this. Also, dip lightly. The flavors are amazing, but too much of a good thing is never all that good. 

 

What Can I Substitute for Oyster Sauce?

If you’re looking for an oyster sauce substitute, you’ve come to the right place. There are a few ways to emulate the umami qualities of oyster sauce when you don’t have any on hand. 

 

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce has the salty robustness of oyster sauce in a lighter texture. Try adding some sugar and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce to achieve more umami. Add a cornstarch slurry to your sauce to give it a velvety consistency.

 

Sweet Soy Sauce (Kecap Manis)

This is an Indonesian staple item that can be substituted for oyster sauce in a pinch. Kecap manis, or sweet soy sauce, is thicker than traditional soy sauce due to the added molasses. Because of this extra ingredient, the flavor has a bittersweet quality that traditional soy sauce doesn’t have. Adding sesame oil, toasted or traditional, will add a nutty quality to help balance flavors better. 

 

Hoisin Sauce

Hoisin sauce is typically equated to an Asian BBQ sauce but can be swapped for oyster sauce if need be. There will be more tangy-sweet notes, but it still provides a nice balance with savory qualities. To boost that umami flavor, add some full-flavored mushrooms to a simmering hoisin sauce and enjoy the magic. 

 

Fish Sauce

Fish sauce will have very similar qualities to oyster sauce, given the seafood juice base. However, fish sauce relies more heavily on fish flavors than oyster sauce does. Fish sauce is also thinner, but you can achieve a thicker consistency with a cornstarch slurry. 

 

The Bottom Line

Oyster sauce is a staple ingredient that should not be overlooked. If you don’t have an Asian grocery store near you, you can find all your favorite Asian ingredients right here at Umamicart



Sources:

Antioxidant and anti‐inflammatory peptide fraction from oyster soft tissue by enzymatic hydrolysis | PMC 

Can I Eat This-Oyster Sauce | Suit and Apron

Ingredient Spotlight: Oyster Sauce, Hoisin Sauce, and Fish Sauce | Cooks Illustrated

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