What Is Oyster Sauce?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking With Oyster Sauce

hoisin sauce in a bowl

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Oyster sauce is a rich, syruplike sauce that is used in Chinese cuisine. It is made from oyster extract, but despite the name, it doesn’t taste like fish at all. Instead, oyster sauce has an earthy, slightly sweet, and salty taste. It is a mixture of boiled down oyster juices (which have caramelized), along with salt and sugar; some versions include soy sauce thickened with cornstarch. Oyster sauce is dark brown, almost black in color, and has a thick consistency. It is used in both meat and vegetable dishes, mainly in Cantonese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. Oyster sauce is similar in price to soy sauce but can range in cost depending on the brand.

Fast Facts

Main ingredient: oyster extract

Place of origin: China

Most common dish: Cantonese stir-fry

Oyster Sauce vs. Hoisin Sauce

It is possible to confuse these two sauces as they are both Cantonese, dark brown in color, and have a thick consistency. However, they are used in varying ways in Chinese cooking and are made of very different ingredients. Hoisin sauce is vegan, as it is made from fermented soybeans along with garlic, five-spice powder, chiles, and sugar. It is the condiment for the popular Chinese restaurant dishes moo shu pork and chicken lettuce wraps, and is also brushed onto duck and spareribs as they are cooked.

Oyster Sauce Uses

Oyster sauce is used straight from the bottle. It is added to other sauces, used as a sauce on its own, or drizzled on top of steamed vegetables (often Chinese broccoli in Cantonese cuisine) as a finishing touch. The most popular way to incorporate oyster sauce into a recipe is in a stir-fry sauce. Because of the sauce's velvety texture, the food to which it is added will take on a glossy appearance.

Oyster sauce
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Asian Style Peppered Beef and Vegetable Rice Bowl with Oyster Sauce
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Stir-fried Chinese Kale with oyster sauce.
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Fried spicy King Brown Mushroom with rice close-up on a plate. Horizontal
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How to Cook With Oyster Sauce

When cooking with oyster sauce, it is best to use a small amount at first. It has a strong flavor that can overwhelm a dish if too much is added. When part of a stir-fry, oyster sauce is combined with other ingredients such as mirin (rice wine), soy sauce, rice vinegar, and brown sugar and then briefly cooked along with the vegetables and meat to coat. If using as a garnish, the oyster sauce is simply poured straight from the bottle.

What Does It Taste Like?

Oyster sauce tastes like a combination of soy sauce and barbecue sauce. It is both salty and sweet; the salt comes from the brininess of the oysters while the sweet is complex, with hints of caramel. It is less salty than soy sauce and full of umami.

Oyster Sauce Recipes

Oyster sauce is commonly part of a stir-fry sauce but can also be used as an ingredient in a marinade, an Asian barbecue sauce, or as a glazing sauce.


Quick, Easy Chinese Chicken With Oyster Sauce Recipe

Where to Buy Oyster Sauce

Oyster sauce is normally sold in bottles, but it is sometimes packaged in cans. Popular brands are Hop Sing Lung and Lee Kum Kee. It may be found in the Asian section of the international food aisle of the supermarket, as well as Asian groceries and online. Oyster sauce brands will range in price; read the ingredient list of the cheaper brands as they may contain MSG and caramel coloring. Lower quality sauces will also have a fishy taste.

Although the Buddhist vegetarian diet does permit the eating of oysters, most vegetarians do not eat shellfish, and thus, the vegetarian brands, such as Lee Kum Kee, use mushrooms as a substitute for the oysters.


Unopened, oyster sauce can be stored in the pantry for one year, but once opened, bottled oyster sauce must be refrigerated, where it will last six months. Canned oyster sauce should be transferred to a closed jar and refrigerated.