Oyster sauce, as the name suggests, is a sauce made using oysters. It is used to add depth of flavor, savoriness (umami), and a mixture of sweetness and saltiness to a number of dishes. It is widely used in Cantonese and other Asian cuisines.
If you’re looking for an oyster sauce substitute there are plenty of things you can use.
What is oyster sauce? Is it made from oysters?
As the name suggests, oyster sauce is made from oysters.
Oyster sauce was discovered by accident by a man named Lee Kum in China in 1888. By mistake, he overcooked his oyster soup and found that his normally clear soup had turned into a thick brown sauce. He tasted it, it was delicious and oyster sauce was born.
Oyster sauce was traditionally made by simmering oysters in water, just as Lee Kum discovered it. Later on, additives were used to enhance the savoriness (or ‘umami’ as it’s called), sweetness, and saltiness.
Nowadays, there is usually only a small amount of actual oyster in most sauces. Today most oyster sauce is made using a base of sugar and salt which has soy sauce and then oyster extracts or essences added to it. Corn starch is then used to thicken it.
Good quality oyster sauce, made using traditional techniques, is still available. Asian supermarkets are a good place to find the best ones.
Is oyster sauce the same as fish sauce?
These two sauces are not the same thing.
Fish sauce is made by coating fish in salt and fermenting it for up to two years. It has a strong flavor, compared to oyster sauce and is generally used as a condiment. Fish sauce is closer to soy sauce or Worcestershire Sauce in the way that it’s used.
The strength of flavor and the flavor itself are quite different and so they don’t usually work as like for like swaps in a recipe. However, used in small quantities fish sauce can be similar.
What is a good substitute for oyster sauce?
If you’re recipe calls for oyster sauce as an ingredient but you don’t have it, then here are some similar sauces.
Mix soy sauce and hoisin sauce
If you happen to have hoisin sauce and soy sauce then mix them together in a ratio of 1 to 1 and that should make a good oyster sauce substitute. The hoisin sauce mainly adds savoriness (umami) and sweetness, while the soy sauce adds a fitting salty flavor. It also adds a similar dark brown color to the dish and is generally a good substitute.
Top tip: you may also like to add a little fish sauce to imitate the fishy oyster flavor. Alternatively, some people like to add a few drops of Worcestershire Sauce to add another element.
Soy sauce lacks the oyster flavor and sweetness. For a both sweet and salty alternative try soy sauce with brown sugar. This will make a basic, even tasting oyster sauce substitute and will make a good swap for your dish.
Hoisin sauce has a sweet-salty and umami taste in itself.
It lacks the briny and oystery taste of oyster sauce but is still one of the best oyster sauce substitutes. It’s a close match for the dark brown color and you can use it in exactly the same way. For most recipes and cooking applications you can swap it in at a ratio of 1 to 1.
Sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
This is hard to find but is one of the best oyster sauce substitutes. Kecap manis is sweet, salty, and savory but without any oysters.
Small amounts are key when you’re using this as a substitute for oyster sauce. Oysters aren’t used in the production so it has a different taste to but this can make a good substitute.
Pro tip: When you’re adding this to a stir fry or another Asian recipe always use it sparingly. You don’t need much.
While it’s not an Asian ingredient or commonly used in Asian recipes, some people like to add a few drops of Worcestershire Sauce to add a similar flavor to oyster sauce. Use this in the same way as soy sauce. You may need to add sugar as well to add some sweetness.
What’s my best oyster sauce substitute?
Of all my oyster sauce substitutes a mix of soy sauce and hoisin sauce is my best. Oyster sauce is mainly used to add a sweet, salty, and savory flavor to dishes and this is my closest match.
What is a vegan substitute for oyster sauce?
There are a few ways you can swap oyster sauce for vegan alternatives.
Vegan oyster sauce
If you can find them there are vegan oyster sauces available. Alternative ingredients are used to impart the flavor and properties that oyster sauce provides.
Mix soy sauce and hoisin sauce
These are both vegan sauces that mixed together make a good substitute for oyster sauce. The color and flavor are a close match and it’s a great alternative ingredient for vegan cooking.
Mixing these two sauces makes a great vegan alternative to oyster sauce.
Black bean sauce
Black bean sauce does well as a vegan substitute for oyster sauce in many recipes. It won’t really mimic the flavor of oyster sauce, but matches the coating and texture properties and makes a good alternative ingredient.
Note: You may well need a little extra sugar and salt for making dishes which require the salty sweet flavor that oyster sauce provides.
Mushroom sauce is a white or brown sauce made from the mushroom broth. It doesn’t really have the same salty umami taste that oyster sauce does, but people often use it mixed with soy sauce as a substitute. It will add a different flavor to food but has some similar characteristics.
The dark color can match and soy sauce adds saltiness. Making a mixture with a little sugar as an ingredient helps to add sweetness to the food.
Can you make oyster sauce at home?
You can make oyster sauce at home. Why not copy a traditional recipe?
Here’s what to do:
- Use a container of pre-shucked oysters
- Drain the liquid into a pan and chop the oysters into small pieces
- Put them in the pan with the liquid and add 2 tablespoons of water
- Bring it to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid on
- Make sure you stir it enough to stop it from sticking
- Add 2 pinches of salt
- Strain the liquid into another pan
Note: You can use the oysters left over in another recipe
- Add 4 tablespoons of light soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce to the liquid
- Boil the liquid again and simmer for around ten minutes with the lid off
- Add sugar to taste
- As the water evaporates the liquid will thicken and you will be left with oyster sauce
Hope this helps!