Sauces are tricky because even though they might sound like they’re not vegan, some of them might be made with plant-based ingredients.
Unfortunately, most oyster sauces are not suitable for vegans as they’re made from a mixture of caramelized oyster juices (obtained by cooking oysters over a prolonged period of time), salt, sugar, and some versions include soy sauce that is thickened with cornstarch.
However, there is a vegetarian version of oyster sauce, which is made with soybeans instead of oysters.
In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about the oyster sauce.
What Is Oyster Sauce?
Oyster sauce is typically made with oysters, water, salt, modified cornstarch, wheat flour, caramel color, and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Sometimes, it contains soy sauce thickened with cornstarch.
Besides oysters, some of the ingredients are also deemed controversial by some vegans, even though there’s usually no reason to regard them as such.
Even though it’s a sauce made from oysters, it doesn’t taste like fish at all, so it’s actually possible to create a version solely made with plant-based ingredients.
Oyster sauce is dark brown, almost black in color, and it has a very thick consistency, one that is quite similar to hoisin sauce, but even though it’s similar in appearance, has a different taste. Oyster sauce is used in meat and vegetable dishes, mainly in Cantonese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines.
How is Oyster Sauce Made?
Oyster sauce is traditionally made by simmering oysters in water until the juices caramelize into a thick, brown, and umami-flavored sauce.
However, to produce oyster sauce more quickly, some companies have resorted to shortcuts.
For example, many brands produce oyster sauces with a base of sugar, salt, and thickened cornstarch, and then mix in oyster extracts or essences, which give flavor to the base sauce. They might also include soy sauce or MSG, to add more flavor and color to the end product.
This method is not particularly healthy because it often contains unnatural additives.
For most oyster sauce die-hard fans, the real oyster sauce is made using the traditional method, which involves condensing oyster extracts, which is the broth you get from simmering oysters in water.
The broth is reduced until the desired viscosity is achieved, and the liquid has caramelized to a brown color. It doesn’t contain additives, not even sauce, as the flavor is fully provided by the oysters, which means it’s also healthier than oyster sauces obtained through fast methods.
Is Oyster Sauce Vegan? Is It Vegetarian?
Unfortunately, most oyster sauces are made from the juice of oysters, so they’re not suitable for vegans.
However, some oyster sauces are prepared using mushrooms, either with oyster mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms. This is because mushrooms, especially oyster mushrooms, have a high level of umami flavor similar to that of real oysters. Oyster sauces prepared with mushrooms are generally vegan-friendly.
Oyster sauce is also not suitable for most vegetarians unless they’re pescatarians, which is someone that maintains a vegetarian diet with the addition of fish and other seafood such as shrimp, mussels, salmon, crabs, and lobster.
Is Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) Vegan?
Monosodium glutamate is an ingredient that is commonly used to make sauces, including oyster sauce, and while it’s not regarded as a healthy ingredient, it is suitable for vegans.
MSG contains no animal products, and no animal derivatives are used in its production, and because it’s one of the best vegan sources of umami, it’s often used in sauces.
It occurs naturally in several foods like tomatoes and cheeses, but most MSG today is produced through the fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses, so it’s plant-based.
Is Caramel Color Vegan?
Caramel color, fortunately, is typically suitable for vegans as it’s usually derived from corn syrup, and occasionally from potatoes, wheat, or other plant-based carbohydrate sources.
However, it’s also important to note that it can also be produced from white sugar, which is not always vegan.
Some white sugar is processed with bone char, which is a charcoal-like powder that is basically made with carbonized cattle bones. Therefore, you should definitely try to trace the source behind caramel color by asking the respective brand or company, but only if you live in North America.
Bone char is not used in most European countries, or locations like New Zealand and Australia, so the sugar in those places is always vegan.
Is Oyster Sauce The Same As Fish Sauce?
No, oyster sauce and fish sauce are completely different, mainly because they are made with different ingredients and have distinct processes.
For instance, oyster sauce is made from a mixture of caramelized oyster juices, salt, sugar, and sometimes soy sauce that has been thickened with cornstarch.
Fish sauce is typically made with two ingredients: fermented fish and salt.
Therefore, the sauces end up with a completely different appearance, taste, and aroma.
Is Oyster Sauce Gluten-Free?
Many oyster sauce brands use soy sauce as an ingredient, and unfortunately, soy sauce is usually made with wheat, which is not suitable for people with a gluten allergy.
Additionally, the caramel color in oyster sauces may also, in some cases, be made with wheat.
However, some brands, like Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee, and Wok Mei, make gluten-free oyster sauces. They’re not vegan because they still use real oysters.
Is Oyster Sauce Halal?
Most scholars of Islam consider all types of shellfish to be halal, which includes prawns, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, and oysters. Therefore, oyster sauce, which is typically made with oysters, is halal.
However, not all Muslims may be aligned with the philosophies of some scholars, therefore, It may also depend from one person to another.
Let me also point out that oyster sauce made with mushrooms is also halal, though not every brand uses mushrooms.
By most vegans standards, oyster sauce is not suitable for vegans as it’s typically made by simmering oysters in water until the juices caramelize into a thick, brown sauce.
However, some oyster sauces are made with mushrooms, usually, oyster mushrooms, which also have a high level of umami flavor that is similar to real oysters.
Some vegans may believe that oysters or other bivalves are okay to consume, but the practice is generally discouraged by most vegans.
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