Plum sauce and duck sauce are not the same. It is important to understand this since there are so many differing views on the matter. Many (mostly Western) cooking resources claim that they are the same ingredient. They are both versatile condiments, and it is a good idea to have both on hand if you like cooking Chinese American dishes. Along with their differences, they do have some strong similarities. We will look at how they compare to each other in this SPICEography Showdown.
Table of contents
How does plum sauce differ from duck sauce?
Plum sauce and duck sauce have different origin stories and different ingredients as a result. Some version of plum sauce most likely showed up in Ancient China as a way to preserve immense but short-lived plum harvests. The plums used to make classic plum sauce were one of the varieties commonly referred to as Asian, Chinese, or Japanese plums. They differ from the Western plum. These days, pineapples are used to make some versions of plum sauce. Stone fruits like peaches and apricots may also show up alongside the Asian plum.
Duck sauce is an invention of Chinese immigrants to the US who were unable to find Asian plums and instead used various Western fruits like pears and apples to simulate it.
The different ingredients used to make each of these condiments results in them having different flavor profiles though they might not be dramatically different. Plum sauce will usually taste like it is made with a single fruit while the fruit component in duck sauce may be more difficult to identify. Ducks sauce also tends to be a lot sweeter than plum sauce.
Depending on the plums or other fruit used to make it, plum sauce can vary from a purplish color to a yellowish-orange. Duck sauce is typically on the yellow side with a slight orange hue.
Can you use plum sauce as a substitute for duck sauce and vice versa?
Plum sauce can make an excellent substitute for duck sauce if you want a more traditional Chinese flavor profile. Remember, duck sauce began as imitation plum sauce, so plum sauce may have more of the flavor profiles that you want in some Chinese dishes. The only time you might not want to choose plum sauce over duck sauce is when you specifically want the Chinese takeout experience.
Duck sauce can work as a plum sauce substitute in most dishes. The difference may be immediately obvious if you are using it to replace high-quality plum sauce, but it will still provide the general sweet-and-tart flavor blend that you want along with some fruitiness. It will be a less ideal substitute if you are making classic Chinese dishes where you want a distinctive plum flavor but even then it can still work as a substitute in a pinch.
When should you use plum sauce, and when should you use duck sauce?
Use plum sauce for traditional Chinese fried dishes including spring rolls and fried noodles. It is also a great sauce for marinating or basting roast duck.
Duck sauce is more of an all-purpose condiment. There are no real rules for using it. You can use it in the same way that plum sauce is used — as a dip for fried foods — or on your rice or your noodles. Think of it as the Chinese restaurant’s version of ketchup.