What is a Master Sauce?

Bowls of Chinese Spicy Chicken Dish and Rice
Westend61 / Getty Images

The phrase master sauce conjures up images of a chef huddled over the kitchen stove, experimenting with endless combinations of spices and seasonings, in an effort to come up with the perfect blend.

Actually, ​master sauce is the term used for the soy sauce-based liquid used to make Chinese Soy Sauce Chicken. Braising food in soy sauce (also called "red-cooking") is a cooking technique found in Shanghai and the surrounding provinces in Eastern China. Many families have their own special master sauce recipe, handed down through the generations, the recipe as carefully guarded as the precise combination of spices that season the batter in Kentucky Fried Chicken. For this reason, master sauce is also called "Thousand-year Sauce."

Ingredients and Usage

What ingredients typically make-up a master sauce? Licorice-flavored star anise, pungent Szechuan peppercorn, and sweet rock sugar (granulated or brown sugar can be substituted) are a few of the seasonings that are commonly added to the soy sauce base. Chicken cooked in this manner is very moist and tender, practically falling off the bone. A small amount of the braising liquid can be reheated and served as a sauce over the cooked chicken if desired. The remainder can be frozen and re-used several times; just add more soy sauce and/or spices as needed. Over time, the sauce becomes even richer, with a fuller flavor.

Recipes Using Master Sauce

  • Cold Cooked Chicken. A family favorite from a reader, with dark soy sauce, star anise and ginger, garnished with scallions and Asian sesame seed oil.
  • Spicy Soy Sauce Chicken. With Szechuan peppercorn and a cinnamon stick.
    Feel free to follow the recipes as written or to experiment, adding or substituting ingredients, to come up with your own master sauce.