You could be forgiven to think that oyster sauce tastes like, well, oysters.
But the truth is, not really!
Oyster sauce resembles a mix of soy, hoisin and barbecue sauces, with only a small tinge of the ocean’s brine and fishiness. More sweet than salty and more meaty than fishy, it’s a textbook case of umami flavor.
And this is just the beginning.
The more you eat it, the more you’ll be amazed at just how deep and complex the taste can get. Depending on the brand, it can be more or less tangy or smoky, bitter or nutty, creamy or coppery.
Its rich flavor is not all I’ll talk about in this article, though. You’ll also learn about many different ways to use it in cooking. Also some common concerns people have around the Asian staple sauce!
How Is Oyster Sauce Made?
Oyster sauce is made with a mix of oyster extract (you guessed it!), sugar, salt and often corn starch. Oysters are boiled until the liquid caramelizes and darkens into a flavorful concentrate.
But what’s the role of sugar?
Chinese cooking often uses sugar to balance out saltiness, and that’s what gives oyster sauce its unique sweetness. The corn starch is then added to thicken it up into the nice creamy texture that makes such a great base for Asian dishes.
So next time you pick up a bottle, try to grab one from your local Asian grocer. Many sauces these days are made with oyster flavoring rather than genuine oyster extract. While either works, it’s always nice to have some authenticity in cooking.
Does Oyster Sauce Taste Like Fish?
Don’t let the name fool you!
I myself am not a fan of oysters, but oyster sauce remains a staple in my pantry because it provides a rich flavor without being overwhelming.
In fact, most of the time you can’t even detect any fishiness because the ingredients are usually oyster flavoring. If you purchase an authentic sauce, you might get a tad more taste of fish, but it is perfectly balanced with the added sugar and salt.
And when mixed in with other ingredients, you’d never even know it came from fish!
Does Oyster Sauce Taste Different from Fish Sauce?
Oyster sauce and fish sauce are a bit like you and your distant cousin. The two of you kinda know you’re related, but nobody else can tell that!
They come from the same family (Asian cuisine), but don’t look (or taste) anything alike. Fish sauce is typically derived from anchovies and is extracted through a fermentation process which takes several months. This fermentation is what creates its watery consistency, completely different from oyster sauce.
Where oyster sauce also adds color to its dishes, fish sauce pales in comparison (literally). It only has a tinge of brown or red to it, so it mostly serves the purpose of flavor. And unlike oyster sauce, fish sauce isn’t sweet at all but mostly salty.
How to Cook with Oyster Sauce
It’s Asian alright, but oyster sauce is one of those magic foods that can be used across many cuisines.
In fact, the first time I learned about oyster sauce is when my mom walked me through her recipe for my favorite grilled chicken. Something akin to this recipe!
Packed with sweet and salty flavor, oyster sauce is a great ingredient to include in any marinade for a pop of umami. The sauce gets soaked up in no time, making it perfect for quick weeknight dinners.
Simply mix with some olive oil and any other seasonings you like, and marinate your meat for about 30 minutes. (This is the IDEAL time – any longer and you might only taste the salt and no sweet!)
I prefer using chicken – a quick grill on a non-stick pan leaves you with tender, juicy chicken breasts. And the best part is, you can always drizzle some leftover marinade into the pan for extra flavor.
This is the most standard use for oyster sauce – as a base for stir fry sauces.
Combine with soy sauce (another Asian cooking staple), some garlic, ginger and chili flakes, and you’ve got yourself a dish that tastes like it just came from your neighborhood Asian restaurant.
You can use this in any combination you like – rice, veggies, noodles, and more. I personally love to use this sauce with ramen noodles. The texture of the noodles with the consistency of the sauce just blends into a perfect meal to satisfy late-night cravings.
Last but certainly not least, the simplest way to elevate a dish you’ve already made is to add some additional flavor with a nice side sauce. This works particularly well with meats, veggies and dumplings.
Oyster sauce makes a great addition on its own, or you can combine some garlic and chili flakes for an extra kick.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still not completely convinced about oyster sauce? Here are answers to a few questions that may still be lingering in your mind.
Is oyster sauce unhealthy?
The most precise answer is: oyster sauce is both healthy and unhealthy! For the most part, oyster sauce doesn’t have any bad effects on your health, and could in fact improve it. It contains almost no calories, no fat and even has some nutrients such as calcium.
That being said, it does pack a sodium punch. So for those trying to follow a low-sodium diet, moderation is key.
What’s the difference between hoisin sauce and oyster sauce?
This is an easy mix up since the two sauces have very similar thicker textures and brownish color. But don’t judge a sauce by its appearance – these two provide different levels of flavors and can change up your dish completely.
If oyster sauce is sweet, hoisin sauce is even sweeter! Where oyster sauce is balanced, hoisin’s salt is definitely overpowered by the sweet. Hoisin sauce is also completely vegan, which brings us to the next question…
Is oyster sauce vegetarian/vegan?
Oysters are directly used in the making of oyster sauce. So no, oyster sauce isn’t vegetarian or vegan. But luckily for us, you can find a vegan or vegetarian substitute for almost anything these days.
Some vegan/vegetarian oyster-without-oyster sauces will use other ingredients such as shiitake or oyster mushrooms (yes, that’s a thing!), along with other additions to enhance the flavor.