Duck sauce and sweet and sour sauce could be considered versions of the same condiment. Low-quality commercial versions may be indistinct enough to be almost identical, but these Chinese American sauces differ significantly when properly made. The SPICEography Showdown below looks at how they compare to each other.
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How does duck sauce differ from sweet and sour sauce?
Duck sauce and sweet and sour sauce are traditionally made with different sets of ingredients. Most duck sauce recipes include apricot preserves accompanied by jams, chopped fresh fruit or preserves. Some recipes will use Chinese plum sauce as one of the main ingredients. A duck sauce recipe may include soy sauce for some umami along with vinegar for added acidity if the fruits used do not provide enough of it.
The simplest versions of sweet and sour sauce contain vinegar and sugar or honey along with a thickener. Some versions used both in the US and in China will include fruity ingredients like pineapple juice along with spices like ginger and garlic, but many won’t. One of the constants seen in the Chinese American version of sweet and sour sauce is ketchup, which adds to the sourness.
The use of different ingredients means that the flavor profiles and consistencies of the two sauces also differ. Duck sauce will usually have a complex and fruity taste as a part of its sweetness. Sweet and sour sauce is usually not as fruity, even when it does contain pineapple juice and other fruit-based elements. The flavor of sweet and sour sauce is usually simpler. Because it usually contains pieces of fruit, duck sauce can sometimes be chunky. In comparison, sweet and sour sauce is usually glossy and smooth.
Duck sauce and sweet and sour sauce don’t look the same. Because of its use of paler fruit like plums and apricots, duck sauce will often have a yellow or light amber color. Some versions may be dark enough to be described as orange. The ketchup used in traditional versions of the same gives it a red-orange color. Some commercial versions use food coloring for a more scarlet shade.
Can you use duck sauce as a substitute for sweet and sour sauce (and vice versa?)
Duck sauce and sweet and sour sauce are interchangeable if all you want is a sweet sauce with a little acidity to use for dipping. Both are equally effective for dipping simply flavored foods. On the other hand, you probably won’t want to swap out duck sauce for sweet and sour sauce if you are from the east coast of the US and looking for something resembling the famous Chinese takeout condiment.
Sweet and sour sauce provides balanced sweetness and acidity without too much else to mask a dish’s other flavors. Replacing it with a fruity duck sauce might add notes that would deliver unwanted complexity. On the other hand, duck sauce might be a useful tool for jazzing up a simple dish that would be bland with sweet and sour sauce.
When should you use duck sauce, and when should you use sweet and sour sauce?
Use duck sauce as a condiment for relatively simple deep-fried Chinese-American favorites like spring rolls and wonton strips. Its more complex flavor profile is better suited for dishes without many seasonings. In comparison, most sweet and sour sauce will be less complex and can provide simpler flavors when you don’t want much complexity or want a mild complement to flavorful ingredients. Use versions of it for classics like sweet and sour shrimp and as a dipping sauce for chicken nuggets.