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Just like wine or whisky or even coffee, the quality of oyster sauce varies greatly depending on the ingredients used and its method of production.
The key to a quality oyster sauce is, unsurprisingly, the quality of the oyster extract used. Oyster extract, like the name suggests, is a concentrated broth made from boiling oysters to draw at all the flavour. Quality manufacturers cook their own oyster extract in-house. By boiling the oysters themselves, producers can track the quality of the sauce produced all the way back to the quality of the oysters that started the process.
The best oysters come from fresh, brackish water from inlets around Guangdong province in China’s south-east. The oysters are then boiled on the day of harvest to maximise freshness and the flavour drawn from the oysters. Once the broth, or extract, is at a sufficient depth of flavour, it is ready to be added to the oyster sauce mixture.
So what’s oyster essence then? Imitation essences are chemically created substances that aim to replicate the flavour and/or taste of the original ingredient. These imitation essences usually do not have the delicacy or depth of natural flavours, they aim to provide a close enough alternative at a much lower time and cost. To counteract this, soy sauce and cooking caramel are often added to sauces made with oyster extract to help enhance the colour and flavour profile.
While it’s pretty common for condiment makers to use artificial flavours, the question is, is it truly oyster sauce if it doesn’t contain oyster extract?
The answer according to best practice appears to be yes. Oyster sauce with extract is sold next to oyster sauce made from essence. Unlike with champagne or scotch whiskey, there isn’t a strict region or quality control to monitor all the products being made, so it falls on the consumer (that’s you!) to choose the best product.
And don’t be ashamed if you like the oyster essence sauce better than the traditional. It’s your palate, your kitchen, your cooking, make it the way you like it!