Sweet bean sauce and hoisin sauce are two Chinese condiments with similar flavors and consistencies. It’s important to note here that many articles and recipes online refer to hoisin sauce as sweet bean sauce and vice versa. As a result, some people may believe that they are interchangeable, but they are not. Before you use either one of these sauces, it is important to take their differences and similarities into account. In the SPICEography Showdown below, we examine how sweet bean sauce and hoisin sauce compare to each other.
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How does sweet bean sauce differ from hoisin sauce?
Hoisin sauce and sweet bean sauce have different ingredients. Hoisin sauce almost always has soybean paste as its main ingredient while it is less essential for sweet bean sauce. Despite its name, sweet bean sauce does not necessarily have anything to do with soybeans. The main component of sweet bean sauce is wheat flour. The Chinese name means “sweet flour sauce”; the translation that you see on labels is inaccurate.
Hoisin sauce has a list of spices like garlic and chili peppers that aren’t usually found in sweet bean sauce. Aside from the sweetness and umami, the flavor of sweet bean sauce is relatively mild.
The two sauces have different appearances. Hoisin sauce has a thinner consistency than sweet bean sauce and is also paler.
The different ingredients give hoisin sauce and sweet bean sauce different flavor profiles. Hoisin sauce has distinctive spicy notes that you won’t find in sweet bean sauce. The sweetness of sweet bean sauce is a byproduct of its fermentation; the sweetness in hoisin sauce is from added sugar. Sweet bean sauce is generally sweeter than hoisin sauce.
If you live outside of Asia, you will most likely have an easier time finding hoisin sauce compared to sweet bean sauce. While both are fairly well known among those who like to cook Chinese food, hoisin sauce appears to be better known than sweet bean sauce in the rest of the world. It is common enough that you might be able to find it in many standard grocery stores. Sweet bean sauce is usually only available in Asian grocery stores.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Sweet bean sauce can work as a substitute for hoisin sauce in some dishes since it has a similar combination of sweetness and umami. What it lacks is the blend of spices that gives hoisin its unique flavor. If you use it in place of hoisin sauce, your dish will be missing these flavors. You may be able to replicate them to an extent by adding in some five-spice powder with the sweet bean sauce.
Hoisin sauce can work in place of sweet bean sauce since it has some of the same flavor notes but keep in mind that it has a strong flavor that you won’t get from sweet bean sauce. Your dish will taste noticeably different than if you used sweet bean sauce. For some dishes, this may be an improvement, but it may be an unwanted distraction in others.
When should you use sweet bean sauce, and when should you use hoisin sauce?
Sweet bean sauce is a traditional Peking duck condiment and is sometimes used in stir-fry dishes and to make twice-cooked pork.
Hoisin sauce can be used as an ingredient in stir-fry sauces and glazes. The traditional way to use the runnier versions is as a dipping sauce for fried foods like spring rolls.