Oyster sauce and Worcestershire sauce are both ingredients for enhancing the savory flavor profiles of certain dishes. Despite sharing some characteristics, they are very different in many ways. Let’s take a look at how these two liquid seasonings compare to each other in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does oyster sauce differ from Worcestershire sauce?
Oyster sauce and Worcestershire both contain seafood but they are made with different kinds of seafood. Oyster sauce is made using the liquid from poaching oysters, which is reduced to a small fraction of its original volume.
In a traditional homemade oyster sauce, soy sauce may be added to the reduced oyster liquid to give it flavor and color. Sugar and salt may be included as well. Commercial oyster sauce may have all of those ingredients but thickeners may be added to give it a gloopy, ketchup-like texture. Monosodium glutamate is also a common ingredient in commercial oyster sauce and is used to enhance the umami profile.
In comparison, Worcestershire sauce is made with fish. The fish are usually anchovies and serve the same purpose as the oysters in oyster sauce — they provide an umami note.
Oyster sauce and Worcestershire sauce differ in consistency with oyster sauce being thicker than Worcestershire sauce. Homemade Worcestershire sauce is thick because it has been reduced but it is not quite as thick as the commercial ones that may include cornstarch or other thickeners to give it body. Worcestershire sauce is quite watery in comparison.
The most important difference is flavor. Oyster sauce has a briny, salty flavor with a strong umami character and a subtle sweetness. Worcestershire sauce is known for its tanginess and a subtle fruity sweetness combined with a distinctive savory quality.
Oyster sauce is mainly used in Asian dishes. Its popular applications include as an ingredient in stir-fry sauces and dipping sauces. It is versatile enough to be used in Western applications as well. It can work in marinades for grilled dishes and in the gravy for stew. Worcestershire sauce has Asian influences but is mainly a Western seasoning that is used in everything from roasts to Bloody Mary cocktails.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Oyster sauce on its own is not an ideal substitute for Worcestershire sauce. It will add the umami kick that Worcestershire sauce is supposed to bring but none of its tangy complexity. You can try adding a little lemon juice or wine vinegar to get something a little sharper than plain oyster sauce.
Worcestershire sauce will not be ideal in most of the Asian recipes that require oyster sauce. It lacks the simple briny saltiness and caramel flavor that oyster sauce brings. Adding it would overpower other seasonings and result in a muddled flavor profile. In Western dishes, oyster sauce and Worcestershire sauce can play essentially the same role. Both work well as umami-boosters in braised, grilled and roasted meat dishes.
When should you use oyster sauce and when should you use Worcestershire sauce?
Use oyster sauce in Asian stir-fries and as an ingredient in dipping sauces for fried foods and vegetables. Use it in a Western-style gravy or to give body to a stew.
You can add Worcestershire sauce to your stews as well, but for flavor only since it won’t act as a thickener. Use it as one of the ingredients in a marinade for grilled or roasted meats, or in your barbecue sauce.