Hoisin Sauce vs. Oyster Sauce (Difference & Best Substitutes)


hoisin vs oyster lg

At first glance, hoisin sauce and oyster sauce seem similar. They are dark, thick sauces that are both savory and tangy. But you may not have both when you need them. So, let’s compare and look at substitutions for hoisin sauce vs. oyster sauce.

Hoisin sauce is soy-based, whereas oyster sauce does not contain soy. While some brands of both add MSG, MSG is more common in oyster sauce. Oyster sauce, being made from oyster extract, is also not vegetarian, whereas hoisin typically is. Both typically get thickened with cornstarch and/or wheat flour.

Having worked as a General Manager at Whole Foods for 20 years, I have come across various sauces. I understand how challenging it is to select the ideal sauce for Asian cuisine.

For people who enjoy Asian food but do not fully understand the different Chinese sauces, their uses, and differences (I used to be in this category), you have come to the right place.

This article will go over hoisin sauce and oyster sauce used in Chinese food. We’ll explore differences, similarities, and substitutions.

Let’s get going!

Is oyster sauce the same as hoisin sauce?

Oyster sauce is very different from hoisin sauce. Oyster sauce is made from boiling oysters in water with sugar and salt and is thickened by adding cornstarch. Hoisin sauce is made with fermented soybean paste and contains no animal products.

Oyster sauce is a delicious dark-brown sauce accidentally discovered in South China in 1888.

A certain chef in a restaurant was just boiling oysters, but as fate would have it, he forgot it. It was already a thick dark-brown consistency by the time he got back, which surprisingly tasted amazing.

Oyster sauce has a characteristic sweet and salty taste that has become a staple ingredient in Chinese cuisine. However, the color of oyster sauce may differ based on the manufacturers due to caramel coloring. On the other hand, hoisin sauce is also called Chinese barbecue sauce.

It is made mainly from fermented soybean paste. Lee Kum Kee hoisin sauce, a popular brand, contains:

  • Water
  • Wheat flour
  • Spices
  • Sesame paste
  • Garlic
  • Modified corn starch
  • Chili peppers
  • Sweet potato powder
  • Fermented soybean paste

The term “hoisin” is a Chinese word that translates to seafood. However, modern preparations of hoisin sauce do not contain any seafood and may also exclude soy.

Hoisin sauce has a distinct umami, sweet, and salty taste. 

This sauce is also dark in color with a thick consistency. However, it has a unique fragrance and is very salty compared to Oyster Sauce. In addition, there are two groups of hoisin sauce- the light soy and dark soy sauce. The light soy sauce is salty, while the dark sauce has a sweeter taste.

Oyster sauce and hoisin sauce are commonly used for Chinese cooking.

Nevertheless, they contain different essential ingredients that reflect their taste and flavor. Now that we have established a difference between sauces, let us find out if they can work as a substitute for another.

It’s also worth mentioning that hoisin sauce could work well as a dipping sauce, whereas oyster sauce, not so much due to its highly concentrated and sweet flavor.

Can I substitute oyster sauce for hoisin sauce in a recipe?

Ideally, do not substitute oyster sauce for hoisin sauce. While both sauces are similar in their dark color, their taste is quite different. If oyster sauce is the only option, use 30% less than the amount of hoisin called for in the recipe.

Using less oyster sauce reduces the strong umami flavor so that your senses will not perceive it as a soy sauce. However, you may not want to use the oyster sauce for a dish that uses dark soy (hoisin) sauce as a replacement.

Likewise, when used in place of oyster sauce, dark soy sauce may make it bitter.

The flip side of this discussion is that if you need an oyster sauce substitute, try adding fish sauce to hoisin sauce.

What is a substitute for hoisin sauce?

Teriyaki or black bean garlic paste can both work as a substitute for hoisin sauce. But any thick dark Asian sauce that is both tangy and sweet with the flavor profile of a barbeque sauce will work.

But there are more than a few alternatives that can serve as substitutes. Let’s review all the best substitutes for hoisin sauce.

Garlic Teriyaki: 

Hoisin sauce has a strong garlic aroma. Therefore, we need some garlic with Teriyaki sauce to mimic hoisin sauce.

To make this sauce, you need some kidney beans, three tablespoons of molasses and teriyaki sauce, two tablespoons of red wine vinegar, two cloves of garlic, and two teaspoons of “five-spice powder.”

Brown Sugar and Bean Paste: 

This mixture is a fine substitute for hoisin sauce. It is easy to make this sauce.

The end product is very similar in taste and consistency to hoisin sauce. The ingredients include four prunes, dark brown sugar, black bean sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, and Chinese five-spice powder. You can use this paste for dishes that require hoisin sauce.

Prunes and Garlic Paste:

Garlic and prune puree is ideal for getting the sweet and salty taste of hoisin sauce. You need four ingredients- pitted prunes, two cloves garlic, two tablespoons soy sauce & dry sherry with water in a blender, and you are ready!

Peanut Butter and Soy: 

Peanut butter may not be the first thing to come to mind but trust me, it works.

This is because of the consistency, richness, and flavor that will trick your senses into believing you are having hoisin sauce.

Get a large bowl for the mixture.

Add a quarter cup of soy sauce, two tablespoons of peanut butter, two teaspoons sesame oil and hot pepper sauce, and one and a half teaspoon black pepper and white vinegar; then sprinkle some garlic powder and black pepper.

Ginger and Plum Jam: 

Do you need hoisin sauce to mix with that delicious Chinese food, but all you have is plum jam and teriyaki sauce?

Don’t be sad because you get to make a sauce right in your kitchen that will do the job. First, you need to get your ginger. Wash, peel, and blend it. Then you need to blend red peppers and get half a teaspoon for the mixture.

Finally, add two garlic cloves (blended) and one tablespoon teriyaki sauce to the mixing bowl. Stir properly to ensure a smooth consistency, and you are good to go.

Can you substitute teriyaki sauce for hoisin?

Teriyaki sauce can work as a substitute for hoisin with 2 modifications. It needs to be thickened with cornstarch, and it may need a splash of garlic chili sauce. Teriyaki sauce originates from Japan, whereas hoisin is Chinese.

Originally, teriyaki was served in Japan as a sauce for grilled meat. As time evolved, it became an essential ingredient on the food shelf.

One of the reasons people are quick to use teriyaki sauce in place of hoisin is because their sweetness is almost the same.

Teriyaki sauce is fairly simple ingredient-wise. It usually contains soy sauce, sugar, and ginger.

Other ingredients such as mirin or pineapple juice depend on the manufacturers. Another important difference to note when substituting is that teriyaki sauce has higher acidic content than hoisin sauce.

In addition, hoisin sauce has a spicier taste and aroma thanks to the addition of chili pepper, cinnamon, and other spices that are not present in teriyaki sauce. Therefore, if you want to get that spicy taste, you may need to add spices to it.

To thicken, add 1 TBSP of cornstarch to about 4 TBSP cold water.

Mix well, and then slowly stir that into the teriyaki sauce while simmering on the stovetop. Make sure to mix the cornstarch to eliminate any lumps before adding it.

Teriyaki sauce looks very similar to hoisin sauce; therefore, it may be appealing to the eyes. However, this is not enough for using it as a substitute for hoisin sauce. A similar feature of both sauces is their consistency and sweetness.

Nevertheless, a chief ingredient- garlic from hoisin sauce is absent in teriyaki sauce. In addition, the proportion of soy is more in hoisin sauce.

Therefore, if you want to substitute teriyaki for hoisin, you need to add more garlic. Personally, I just like to use garlic chili sauce (which, despite its name, is not very spicy). But that extra garlic will give your teriyaki the right flavor boost.

On a general note, teriyaki sauce can be used instead of hoisin sauce if you need a sauce with fried meat or vegetables.

However, if it is a dish specific for hoisin sauce, you may need to make alterations, as discussed above. The addition of rice wine, chili powder, and five-spice powder to teriyaki sauce can mimic the taste of hoisin sauce when you eat it.

Is oyster sauce vegetarian?

Oyster sauce is not vegetarian as it is made from boiling oysters in water with other ingredients. However, there are a few brands that offer a vegetarian version that is usually made with mushroom extract in place of oysters.

But it’s the oysters that give it a characteristic taste and aroma that make it a delight in Chinese Cuisine.

Other ingredients usually include: 

  • Salt
  • Caramel color
  • Wheat flour
  • MSG (Monosodium glutamate) (in many but not all brands)
  • Modified cornstarch

Depending on the manufacturer, it may also contain soy sauce.

Since the oyster sauce is made directly from oysters, it is not suitable for vegans. In addition, it is not a choice for strict vegetarians. However, vegetarians who include seafood in their diet (pescatarians) can enjoy this sauce without any issue.

At this junction, I would like to mention that oyster sauce does not particularly taste like fish. Instead, they have a unique umami taste.

Therefore, some individuals may use mushrooms to prepare a vegetarian oyster sauce.

The mushroom gives off an umami flavor that rivals that of the oysters. This vegetarian sauce resembles the oyster sauce in color and consistency.

Can you mix hoisin and oyster sauce?

Although hoisin and oyster sauce have different flavors and tastes, you can combine them in certain dishes to make the flavor richer, tangier, and more complex.

In this segment, I will go over some of the dishes that come out well when mixing hoisin and oyster sauce.

  • Cha Siew Duck is a delicious and nutritious meal. The recipe includes oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, Chinese five-spice, honey, and duck meat.
  • Hoisin Baby Back Ribs is a simple but tasty way of preparing pork ribs. It uses hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, sugar, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, and rice wine.
  • Stir-fried Udon: the ingredients include udon noodles, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, onion, ham, chili pepper, broccoli, egg, garlic, rice wine, lime, sesame oil, and olive.
  • Thai Chicken Pasta: this is a Chinese method of cooking pasta that is really tasty. For this meal, you need pasta, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, chicken breast, onion, ginger, red pepper flake, sesame oil, peanut butter, honey, rice wine, vegetable oil, and cilantro.
  • Chinese Kung Pao Chicken: you can use the following ingredients to make this tasty meal: chicken breast, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, onion, sherry, water chestnut, cornstarch, celery, peanut oil, bell pepper, sesame oil, and sugar.

Can you substitute hoisin sauce or oyster sauce for fish sauce?

Do not substitute hoisin sauce for fish sauce as the flavor and thickness are very different. Oyster sauce is closer in flavor but still much thicker than fish sauce and may need to be watered down.

Fish sauce is another widely used sauce in Asian dishes, although more in Vietnamese dishes than Chinese culinary.

You can click on the link to read more about the difference between these two groups of Asian dishes. Fish sauce is made from fermenting fish to produce a savory and umami flavor.

However, you may be out of fish sauce, and you need a good substitute for it. Oyster sauce is a good substitute for fish sauce because they have similar savory flavors. Oyster sauce is thicker than fish sauce.

Therefore, as I mentioned, you may want to dilute the oyster sauce to make it lighter.

However, oyster sauce has a higher percentage of sugar. Hence, some individuals may argue that it is not suitable as a substitute because of the contrasting taste.

Conclusion

Adding oyster or hoisin sauce to Chinese cooking ensures your taste bud experiences an outburst of flavors and tastes that are wonderful.

However, you may not always have these sauces in your kitchen.

You do not necessarily need to put the cooking on hold or rush down to the store; you can improvise. Working with what you have in your kitchen can be fun, and who knows? You may end up liking it better.

As we have discussed, there are various substitutes for hoisin and oyster sauces.

In addition, if you are on a strict diet like gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian, there are available sauces that taste like the original thing but are suitable for you.


Photos that require attribution:

Oyster Sauce – BIG C, Bangkok by Ik T is licensed under CC2.0 and was cropped, edited, and had a graphic and text overlay added.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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