Oyster sauce is a surprisingly common ingredient, especially in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cooking. It’s a common ingredient throughout East Asia, and has a profound influence on the flavor of foods made with it.
But, that doesn’t mean that oyster sauce is a good ingredient for everyone, or that you’ll be able to find oyster sauce near you.
In fact, in recent years, it’s only gotten more common to see oyster sauce disappearing off of shelves and shortages making it harder for people to make their favorite recipes with oyster sauce. Not to mention that allergies and food restrictions often mean that oyster sauce can’t be included.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good substitute options out there, especially once you know what oyster sauce does in your cooking.
What Is Oyster Sauce?
Oyster sauce is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a thick, velvety smooth, richly flavorful sauce made by cooking oysters in water, slowly simmering off the moisture until you’re left with a thick caramelized sauce.
Modern versions often take short cuts, using oyster extracts, salt, sugar, and other ingredients to mimic the flavor and texture of the more labor-intensive original.
The core of oyster sauce is a rich, slightly sweet, umami, loaded with salt and natural ocean flavors. It’s probably one of the secret ingredients in a lot of your favorite Asian foods, since this sauce is a great base for building other flavors.
Looking for other Asian ingredient substitutes? Try our Dashi substitutes!
How Is Oyster Sauce Used?
Oyster sauce doesn’t taste particularly fishy, or even really like oysters anymore once the cooking process is complete. Instead, it’s slightly sweet, very salty, and intensely umami. On its own, oyster sauce isn’t particularly pleasant – but it can add umami and richness to almost any dish.
In cooking, oyster sauce is used in fried rice, plenty of marinades and glazes, soups, and almost any other dish you can think of. It’s not typically used as a dipping sauce or a dressing, the flavors are too intense, but it can be an ingredient in both.
The Best Oyster Sauce Substitutes:
Choosing the right oyster sauce substitute is a matter of finding the right flavor and texture combination for your goals. A thin oyster sauce substitute won’t give you the buttery rich texture that you can get from oyster sauce. Thicker substitutes can cause the opposite problem, turning naturally thin sauces too thick, or taking a naturally thin broth and making it thicker like a stew.
It’s also worth noting that oyster sauce substitutes often work better when combined with other traditional ingredients like sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, or other sources of umami like chicken or mushroom stock.
Soy sauce is one of the most basic substitutes for oyster sauce. A little extra soy sauce, especially soy sauce with a little bit of sugar or another umami sauce, can work well as a substitute for oyster sauce. Soy sauce adds both umami and salt, though not the sweetness or thicker texture of oyster sauce.
That said, adding too much soy sauce can make a dish salty, without adding as much umami.
Hoisin sauce is a common alternative, especially for vegan and vegetarian cooking, and has a similar texture to oyster sauce. This may also be a kid-friendly alternative, since hoisin sauce is sweeter than oyster sauce, so it tends to make food a little sweeter and more palatable for kids.
That said, since hoisin isn’t quite as savory, it can also take a savory meal and make it taste a little too sweet overall.
Mushroom sauce, which is often made from shiitake mushrooms on their own or combined with other mushroom varieties, is the most traditional substitute for oyster sauce, and is common in most vegetarian and vegan East Asian cooking. It’s a common ingredient there, since a higher percentage of the population is vegetarian or vegan.
However, in the West it can be harder to find high quality mushroom sauce, so you may have to order online or make your own.
If you don’t mind a slightly more Westernized flavor, Worcestershire sauce is another good option. Like oyster sauce it has concentrated umami and salt flavors, largely from anchovies in the sauce.
However, this sauce is much thinner than oyster sauce, and less sweet. So in addition to changing the flavor of your dish, you might need to add sugar and cornstarch, or another thickener, to get the right balance of flavors and textures.
Teriyaki sauce is a good substitute for oyster sauce when you don’t mind a slightly sweeter, slightly fishier finish. It’s a particularly good substitute in Japanese cooking.
Teriyaki and pork work particularly well, but feel free to branch out with our 25 Asian Pork recipes!
Black Bean Sauce
Black bean sauce is another good source of umami that will retain the authentic Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Vietnamese flavor of your meal, but it is a good bit thicker than oyster sauce. You may want to thin this sauce out, and taste it before adding. A touch of sugar or soy sauce can help create a flavor more similar to oyster sauce.
Miso is another traditional ingredient that has significant umami, salt, a thicker texture that can be watered down to whatever texture you want, and even comes with health benefits! That’s because miso is made from a kind of fermented soybean, making it both more savory than other soy products, and also giving miso probiotic benefits.
Miso and oyster sauce can be used together, and in recipes that already contain miso you can just slightly increase the amount of miso paste you use to replace oyster sauce when you need to.
Umami paste is typically made at home, using a mixture of tomato paste, dried mushrooms or mushroom puree, and nutritional yeast. It’s a staple of savory vegan cooking, and serves a very similar purpose to oyster sauce in most dishes.
As a note, this substitute offers a fresher brighter umami than oyster sauce, but doesn’t typically contain as much sodium. For Asian cooking in particular, the lack of sodium can really change the flavors in your dish. A little extra soy sauce or even salting your meat or vegetables earlier in the cooking process can help restore that familiar flavor.
Anchovy paste is surprisingly similar to oyster sauce in a few ways, including the salty umami and slightly sweet taste of concentrated seafood products. Anchovies tend to be a little more on the bitter/salty side than a good oyster sauce, but they’re still a solid substitution.
The trick is figuring out how much anchovy paste to add. Since the paste has significantly less moisture you’re likely to need less anchovy paste than you would need oyster sauce. However, it’s less effective as a thickener than oyster sauce, so, like many of the substitutions here, you might need to add a thickener to get a similar finished meal.
Tapenade is a bit of a different kind of substitute and works best in non-Asian recipes that are calling for oyster sauce because of its salty savory flavor boost.
Tapenade is made from a combination of olives, anchovies, and olive oil. Olive lovers will particularly appreciate the bright acidic umami of this oyster sauce replacement, but its strong flavors can unbalance a dish if you add too much.
It’s best to start with about half as much tapenade as you would add oyster sauce to a recipe. Fully incorporate the tapenade and then taste the dish before adding more. It’s a lot easier to add more than to take some of the tapenade back out!
Abalone sauce is incredibly similar to oyster sauce, and is a traditional substitute that can be used to dress up a dish a little and make it feel and taste a little fancier. The flavor profiles in these two sauces are almost identical, but Abalone is more highly prized. In China Abalone are also thought to bring good luck.
This substitute is actually a little harder to find than oyster sauce, at least at a regular grocery store, but it can frequently be found on shelves at your local Asian market. Plus, since fewer people in the West know about abalone sauce, it’s often still in stock even when oyster sauce and other substitutes are completely sold out.
Mushroom or Kelp Stock
The last substitute works best for soups or dishes with a lot of sauce where you can start with a good amount of liquid. Mushroom and kelp stocks are both used widely in Asian cooking to increase the umami of a dish, without having to add too many additives or non-vegan ingredients to create a rich savory flavor.
You can use one or both of them in place of oyster sauce, but this substitute works best if you let some of the water evaporate out of the stock, concentrating the flavor, while it cooks.
The nice thing about this substitute is that dishes made with both mushroom and kelp stock tend to have a significantly lighter feeling than dishes made with a lot of oyster sauce.