Hoisin Sauce Vs. Oyster Sauce: SPICEography Showdown

Hoisin sauce and oyster sauce are two classic Chinese sauces that are not quite as well-known to Westerners as soy sauce. Even so, they play major roles in Chinese cooking and anyone attempting to replicate traditional Chinese flavor profiles should have both in their refrigerator. The two sauces look a little alike and are salty so some people may believe that they are interchangeable, but they are not. In the SPICEography Showdown below, we will look more closely at both of them and see what sets them apart.

How do hoisin sauce and oyster sauce differ?

Hoisin sauce and oyster sauce differ in terms of the ingredients used to make them. Hoisin sauce translates to seafood but it doesn’t have any seafood in it. Hoisin sauce is made primarily with soybeans with other ingredients like garlic, sugar and various spices. Oyster sauce does contain the seafood after which it is named. It is made with a reduction of oysters or oyster extracts, along with salt and other ingredients for flavor like sugar and MSG.

The flavor profile of each sauce is different even though the main function of both is to enhance savory flavors. Hoisin sauce contains various spices and is sweeter. While oyster sauce contains sugar as well, it is not as sweet as hoisin sauce. The umami flavor from its shellfish base is also at the forefront. Oyster sauce is also considerably more salty than hoisin sauce.

The consistencies of both sauces vary quite a bit from brand to brand; most hoisin sauces will be thicker than most oyster sauces.

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

You can use hoisin sauce as an oyster sauce replacement in many stir-fried dishes, but not without changing the flavor profile. Most dishes will still have a rich umami flavor profile but will also be sweeter and contain more of the spices responsible for hoisin sauce’s distinctive taste.

Oyster sauce can work as a hoisin sauce alternative in some stir-fried dishes but the sweetness and the flavor from the spices will be missing. Adding sugar and some five-spice powder might make it a closer match but it still won’t be ideal. One of the main applications for hoisin sauce is as a dipping sauce but oyster sauce is too salty to use as a dipping sauce without diluting it first. Diluting the saltiness will also dilute its umami properties.

When should you use hoisin sauce and when should you use oyster sauce?

Use hoisin sauce at the table as a condiment. It is great on Peking duck and can be used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and similar food items. It is used in dishes outside of China as well. Hoisin sauce is a popular condiment for the Vietnamese dish pho. Hoisin sauce is also versatile enough to work as a stir-fry sauce.

Oyster sauce works best in a stir-fry sauce for dishes with green, leafy vegetables. Its umami flavor can enhance their savory qualities and the slight sweetness can lessen their bitterness. It is a key ingredient for popular American-Chinese dishes like beef and broccoli and in more traditional ones like wontons and beef chow mein. Outside of China, you will see oyster sauce showing up in recipes for other Asian dishes including Thai favorites like pad thai.