When it comes to building flavor quickly in a stir-fry, we reach for oyster sauce without hesitation. Call us predictable or boring or dedicated, but we’re never get tired of how effective it is. So please, just let us live. We love this stuff. But what is oyster sauce, anyway? Allow us to explain.
Oyster sauce is, as advertised, made from oysters. It’s a mixture of caramelized oyster juices (a byproduct of cooking oysters in water for a prolonged period of time), salt, sugar, and sometimes soy sauce that is thickened with cornstarch. What you end up with inside the bottle is a dark, syrupy sauce that resembles whatever the love child of soy sauce and barbecue sauce would look like.
And as you might guess, it’s sweet. And salty. But the flavor goes further than that. The sweetness isn’t one-noted; it’s dark and developed, like caramel. The saltiness is less like table salt and more like briny ocean water. And those oysters lend tons of umami and rich savoriness to the sauce. Despite being full of seafood, the flavor actually isn’t as fishy and funky as fish sauce is, and it’s surprisingly a little less salty than soy sauce. And when you mix it with a few other pantry staples, it balances things out quite nicely.
Which other staples you ask? How about mirin, rice vinegar, and soy sauce? That sounds like a killer sauce for a stir-fry or some noodles. You could also add a little sambal oelek and use it as a marinade or glaze for some grilled meats, or as a sauce to coat veggies bound for the roasting pan. And on its own, oyster sauce works great as a broth booster—just stir a dollop into a soup that tastes a little thin and watch it all come together.
But what if you get to the store and can’t find any? Yes, even after leaving the aisle it’s supposed to be in, asking an employee for help, and then having them bring you back to the same aisle to pointlessly look again. Well, we have a substitute that works, even if it isn’t the easiest sub of all time. If you mix soy sauce and hoisin sauce at a 1:1 ratio, the result will be close enough to oyster sauce to get you by. You’re creating a sweet, salty, umami-forward sauce, with just a bit of funk. It’s not the simplest substitution, but it gives you exactly what you’re looking for.
Is it love you’re looking for? Happiness? Fulfillment? Family? Validation? The inspiration to wake up every morning and do your very best to bring the most flavor to the lives of others? Then you’re looking for oyster sauce. And now you’ve found it.