If you are new to Asian cuisine, no one would blame you if you mistake hoisin sauce for oyster sauce. We get it, they look similar and taste similar – to an extent. But more than anything else, both are Chinese sauces that are used in all the mouthwatering Chinese dishes such as stir-fried beef, Kung Pao shrimp, or chow mein.
Having said that, it is important to know that there is a significant difference between the two. If you are planning a weekend Chinese food extravaganza, we recommend that you understand the differences between the two sauces that hold an important place in Asian cuisine.
One is vegan, the other isn’t
No prizes for guessing this one. Of course, oyster sauce is the non-vegan one. As the name suggests, it is made by a reduction of boiled oysters. To this reduction, salt, sugar, and soy proteins, and thickening agents (depends on the brand) are added for flavor. Though it is made with shellfish, let’s not compare it with fish sauce. Surprisingly, the oyster sauce doesn’t taste fishy at all. But what it has is a briny flavor that tastes like the ocean. This taste is different from that of plain salt, it is more subtle. You have to taste it to know it.
Good news for all the vegetarians and vegans who are reading this – hoisin sauce is pure vegetarian. The main ingredient in this sauce is soybeans. Salt, sugar, garlic, sesame seeds, chile peppers, and other spices (varies depending on the brand) are added to it to give it a strong flavor. It is part sweet and part tangy. As is known, Asian cuisine usually includes a lot of seafood or seafood extracts. So, to have a vegan option that brings in the taste of your favorite Chinese takeout is a miracle. It’s nice to have this stocked in your fridge as it is a more inclusive sauce.
The purpose of each sauce differs
Though at first look, both hoisin and oyster sauce just look like dark brown sauces with almost the same consistency, if you look carefully hoisin sauce is slightly thicker than oyster sauce. There is no doubt that it adds a great flavor to your veggies and meat, but guess, there is a certain unique use to this soybean sauce. And that is to use it as a glaze for Peking duck, a highly popular traditional dish in China.
In fact, if you Google ‘Peking duck sauce’, what shows up is hoisin sauce. The sauce gives the duck, plated as a whole, a dark red color. If you ask us, there is really no better way to impress your neighbors. If you are tired of the Mayo, Sriracha, Ketchup usuals, squeeze some hoisin sauce into a bowl to make an interesting Asian dip.
Coming to the oyster sauce – you would never be disappointed adding a dollop of it in your veggies or meat. It has that subtle yet obvious flavor that enhances the taste of your stir-fries to a whole new level, even if you are a novice in the kitchen. This sauce is not overpowering, so don’t worry about your pad thai tasting fishy. Ultimately, your Kung Pao will always be below average without this ingredient, and so will your Sichuan noodles.
But, can you use one as a substitute for the other?
It’s a nightmare if you don’t have all the right ingredients to make a dish to impress, right? What if you had planned on treating your boss to a plate of egg rolls and hoisin sauce dip but found your sauce bottle empty? Or if you wanted to make beef chow mein with a dash of oyster sauce but only had a hoisin bottle at home?
The good news is that you can, to an extent, use the two sauces interchangeably. But only if you tweak them just a bit. There are some tips and tricks that could make the oyster sauce taste like hoisin sauce and vice versa.
Hoisin sauce has more spices in it and is definitely sweeter than oyster sauce. So if you don’t have hoisin sauce, you can add some sugar and spice to the oyster sauce to enhance its flavor, and use it in your dishes. However, let us warn you that the best option is to have the two sauces handy.
Also, remember that oyster sauce is much saltier than hoisin sauce. So if you want to dip your wonton in oyster sauce, remember to add some water and dilute it first. It won’t taste its best, but at least it won’t shock your tongue with extreme salt. If you are using hoisin sauce to replace oyster sauce in a recipe, know that the dishes will taste sweeter and lack the quintessential umami flavor of oyster sauce.
With distinct flavors and purposes, both sauces make for essential additions to your pantry. If you are looking for a dipping sauce or something to glaze your duck in the oven, go for hoisin sauce. But if you want that strong umami flavor in your garlic noodles, what you need is oyster sauce.
Both sauces can be used for stir-fried dishes, though keep in mind that oyster sauce is saltier than hoisin sauce. Some sauce brands may use wheat as a thickener. So if you are gluten sensitive, stay away from those.
Hope this article brought you some clarity on the two popular Chinese sauces and prepped you up for your next Asian fix.