XO sauce is made from a melange of ingredients creating an umami-packed condiment that’s salty, sweet, and smoky. The combination of chili, garlic, Jinhua ham, dried scallops, and shrimps is cooked until jam-like sauce results. It provides a boost of flavor to stir-fries and is well suited to noodle and rice dishes with seafood, fish, or tofu. The condiment is also great as a dipping sauce for food like dumplings or meat.
XO sauce can be quite expensive depending on where you buy it from and it isn’t an everyday ingredient like barbecue or tomato sauce. if you can’t get your hands on a bottle then you’re going to need a good XO sauce substitute. We’ve pulled together a few options so that you can finish your next recipe without the original ingredient.
What can I use to replace XO sauce in a recipe?
If you need an XO substitute, then either oyster sauce or teriyaki sauce can be used in equal quantities. These alternatives are readily available in the Asian section of the supermarket or at Asian grocers. Although each of these options has its own taste and texture, you’ll find they both bring a salty, umami flavor to stir-fries and other cooked dishes. For a more authentic XO sauce, your best option is to make a homemade version. Most recipes require several hours of standing time so it may not be appropriate if you’re in a hurry. Check out the recipe further down this page to make your own.
1. Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is commonly used in Chinese cuisine for adding color and flavor to food. The dark brown condiment adds strong umami, salty flavor to recipes thanks to the addition of oysters. There is also a subtle caramel undertone that offers a subtle sweetness to dishes.
The flavor and texture of oyster sauce will certainly differ from XO. But for those that have never eaten the original sauce, the switch of ingredients will go unnoticed. You can use oyster sauce as an add-in ingredient to any recipe that calls for XO, and it will also work well as a dipping sauce.
Making a few small changes to the sauce can help you achieve a more authentic flavor. First, add some mild fresh chili at the start of cooking and a light sprinkle of paprika. The sauce isn’t supposed to be eye-watering hot so avoid hot chilis. These extra ingredients are more about adding an aromatic smoky hit of flavor.
Another important addition to XO sauce is Jinhua ham. Many people won’t have access to this meat in their local store so instead, add another meat that’s more common in your area. Virginia ham, prosciutto, or Iberico are good choices which should be minced before adding.
Related reading: A handy comparison of hoisin and oyster sauces.
2. Teriyaki sauce
Teriyaki sauce is another popular condiment that can be found in stores around the world. This thick dark liquid adds a powerful hit of salty, sweet, and savory flavor to any food it is added to. It also doubles as a delicious dipping sauce, perfect for dumplings, Peking duck, beef, or any fried food that you enjoy dipping.
Many of the common ingredients used in teriyaki sauce such as garlic, brown sugar, ginger, and soy sauce also used in XO. But, like oyster sauce, if time permits you may want to add a couple of extra ingredients like chili, garlic, and some sort of finely diced smoky ham.
Tip: if you decide to add chili then remove all the seeds and white membrane before adding to the sauce. This is the hottest part of the spice and you don’t want it to overwhelm the other flavors in the sauce.
Related reading: Get the lowdown on how teriyaki and tonkatsu sauce differ.
3. Make your own
Developing a rich XO sauce at home is a fun challenge but you’ll need to allow a few hours to make it. Keep in mind that Chinese chefs like to keep a bit of chunky texture in their sauce, rather than blending or straining it into a finer liquid; this helps the eater to discern the various star ingredients in the sauce.
- 2 ½ ounces dried scallops
- 2 ½ ounces dried shrimp
- One 2” piece ginger, peeled and chopped
- 2 shallots, quartered
- 2 Anaheim chilis, de-seeded and chopped roughly
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- 1 ½ ounces Jinhua ham (or prosciutto), minced
- ¼ cup Shaoxing wine (or Mirin)
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 1 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 star anise
- Pour the dried scallops and shrimps into separate bowls and cover with boiling water, before soaking for 1-2 hours.
- Drain most of the liquid out of the scallops leaving about 2 tablespoons in the bowl.
- Completely drain the shrimps. Microwave the scallops for two to three minutes on high until they easily break up and are tender. Drain the remaining juice.
- Add the scallops and shrimps to a food processor and pulse for five to 10 times until they appear coarsely chopped. Transfer the seafood to a bowl.
- Combine ginger, shallots, chilis, and garlic in the processor and pulse until the ingredients are finely chopped but still have some texture. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a Dutch oven on medium-high heat until simmering. Carefully add the meat and cook until crisp, stirring frequently. Add the seafood and cook for six to 8 minutes or until golden in color.
- Scoop the vegetable mixture into the oil and cook until golden brown.
- Use the Shaoxing wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape any delicious bits of brown food off the side of the pot. Pour in the chicken broth, brown sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and star anise. Cook on high heat for 10-12 minutes or until the mixture thickens.
- Remove the sauce from the heat and allow it to cool before pouring into suitable jars or airtight containers. It will last for up to one month when stored in the refrigerator.
Fast facts about XO sauce
- The name “XO” derives from a variety of luxurious cognac; the sauce gets this name because it uses a range of expensive ingredients like dried scallops and Jinhua ham.
- It is revered for its quality and depth of flavor and is relatively expensive compared to many other Asian condiments.
- XO sauce doesn’t have a long history and is believed to have been created during the 1980s in Hong Kong.
XO is a flavor-packed sauce that gets its unique taste from a wide range of relatively expensive ingredients. As its popularity grows outside of Asia, mainstream brands of the sauce are popping up which aren’t as expensive. Lee Kum Kee XO sauce is a good example.
If you can’t get your hands on a bottle of XO sauce then you can use oyster sauce, teriyaki sauce, or make your own version for a more authentic Asian dining experience. Keep in mind that buying a substitute sauce from off the shelf, such as the ones we’ve mentioned, will provide a different flavor to your food. However, unless your guests eat the sauce regularly, most won’t even notice the difference.
What is your favorite Asian condiment? Please let us know in the comments below.