Take the humble oyster. It looks like you may have coughed it up during your last bad flu, yet today people will pay good money to down them by the dozen if the chance arises.
Now here’s a follow up question for you - Who thought it was a good idea to make a sauce out of oysters? Just the name “Oyster Sauce” alone can be enough to repel you. And if you don’t like oysters in the first place, why would you want a sauce to cook other things with? That’s why I want to shine a spotlight on Oyster Sauce. If you can get past the name and unique flavour, you may just find something new you want to keep in your fridge at all times.
Fast forward a little over 100 years, and oyster sauce, at least mass produced oyster sauce, is no longer produced in the time consuming and expensive way it once was. Today, the sauce you’ll find in your local grocery store is usually made with a salt, sugar, water, and cornstarch base with oyster extract or essence.
The flavour is a unique mix of salty, sweet, and seafood-y with the texture of a thick barbecue sauce. For oyster being in the name, the flavour is definitely fishy but not overly so. Different brands of sauce have different mixes of the main flavours so if you want, you can try out a few different varieties and see which speaks to you. No matter the brand though, the tastes is definitely something that you won’t find in any other sauce out there.
1. Your local Asian Supermarket - If you have a Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc supermarket in your area, this would be the first spot you should check out. While primarily a Chinese ingredient, Oyster Sauce made its spread to other countries and now most use it to some extent. Lee Kum Kee is the original brand but you are sure to find numerous others as you browse the aisles.
2. The International Section of Your Local Megamart - Check out the International Foods section of your local Safeway, Publix, Albertsons, etc. The selection will not be as broad as at an Asian grocery, but it has become common enough that you can find bottles of it.
3. Online - It will be more expensive to buy online, but if you can’t find it in stores, you can definitely find it on the internet. You will also be able to try out a number of different brands to see if you like the flavour of one over another. Check some out here.
Oyster Sauce can be a very assertive flavour, so you will want to use it in moderation unless you really become a fan. There are three main ways I recommend - sparingly as a garnish, with something very bland, or mixed with other seasonings.
2. Front and Center - Another traditional preparation is to serve oyster sauce with very bland foods like cold silken tofu. The tofu itself has very little flavour and serves as the vehicle for the oyster sauce as well as other choice toppings like sliced green onion, dried pork, and fried shallots. It’s a quick, very easy addition to a summer meal and also great for brunch. Try this recipe here.
3. Part of a Greater Sauce - One of my favorite ways to use Oyster Sauce is to use it as part of a larger sauce. For those who may be hesitant about eating oyster sauce on its own or it being too strong a flavour, combining it into a sauce for stir fry like the below recipe can help mellow out the seafoodiness of the sauce and highlight the unique sweet-salty complexity of the sauce without outright screaming “Oysters!”. Remember there is plenty of salt in oyster sauce on its own so try limiting the additional salt until the end and adjust as necessary.
You may still be hesitant to try out Oyster Sauce for the first time, but hopefully, you may be just a little more willing to give it a shot now after reading this. It’s a staple of Chinese cuisine and is a easy way to try out something new and unfamiliar. Try it out in a Pepper Steak stir fry like in the recipe below. It’s quick, packs tons of veggies, and also gives you an intro to what oyster sauce can do for you.
Recipe: Pepper Beef Stir Fry
- 1 lb. Sirloin cut into thin, bite-sized pieces
- 1 green bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 red or orange bell pepper cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 Onion, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 can water chestnuts, drained and pieces cut in half
- 2 cloves of garlic thinly sliced
- Oil to Cook
- Salt and Pepper to Taste
- 3 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar or rice syrup
- 1 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons water
- optional - 1/2 teaspoon ground dried ginger or 1 inch grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- In a bowl, combine the beef marinade ingredients and add in the sliced beef. Cover, and let marinade in the fridge while you prepare the vegetables
- Combine the stir fry sauce ingredients in another bowl and set aside until ready to use
- In a large, enameled cast-iron dutch oven*, preheat enough canola or vegetable oil to just cover the bottom of the pan until just starting to smoke
- Add the beef and let it sear for 1 minute without touching. Then, stir fry the beef until browned all over. Remove from the pan, including any juices, and set aside
- Heat an additional tablespoon of oil in the dutch oven and add in vegetables and garlic. Stir fry over high heat for 3-5 minutes until vegetables are just getting tender
- Add the beef and any accumulated juices back into the pan as well as the stir fry sauce
- Reduce heat to medium and scrape the bottom of the pan while mixing the sauce into all the vegetables and beef
- Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with rice or noodles being sure to serve with plenty of sauce.
*If you have a wok, feel free to use it! A cast iron dutch oven is a good substitute as it is high capacity and retains heat well