I’ve been in a cooking rut for a while. Proteins are easy for me to cook, but coming up with fast veggie dishes that aren’t just salads gets to be a little challenging sometimes. (Even food writers get really tired of cooking. Combine that with my former role as a burnt-out line cook and I’m tired of it most of the time.)
I was rifling through my pantry last night to find something to season some fresh green beans I’d bought from the grocery store, when I found a found a bottle of oyster sauce. Then I slapped myself on the forehead. I hadn’t cooked with it in a while, but if you need a vegetable side quickly, this stuff’ll immediately become your best friend.
At its core, oyster sauce is exactly what it says it is: a reduction made from the liquid that oysters have cooked in. All brands vary in terms of ratios of oyster extract to thickeners (such as corn starch) and seasoning agents like sugar or salt. The result is a unique blend of savory and sweet that’s a little bit shellfishy, but doesn’t knock you over the head with oyster flavor.
Used in small quantities, the oyster notes are likely to remain undetected. You’ll just know that your dish has an umami flavor that compels you to keep eating it.
Oyster sauce is often used in noodle or vegetable stir-fry dishes. But you don’t need to go all out and make a whole stir-fry to use oyster sauce in your cooking. Try sautéing a single vegetable, like mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, or green beans. After the vegetable has cooked to your liking, throw in just enough oyster sauce to coat and cook for a few minutes longer until the oyster sauce clings to it tightly. (If you want a looser/thinner sauce, just add a few tablespoons of water.)
That’s it; that’s all you need to do. If you’ve got some other stuff like soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice (highly recommended!), garlic, dry spices, or fresh herbs, feel free to supplement with those ingredients as you like, tasting as you go along. But really, oyster sauce is plenty of seasoning for a two-ingredient dish if you don’t feel like cooking much.
Just remember, because it’s a shellfish-based product, you’ll have to refrigerate a bottle of oyster sauce after you open it.
As with any condiment, there are a lot of brands of oyster sauce out there. The brand most readily available in my area is Lee Kum Kee’s Panda Brand Oyster Flavored Sauce, which you can get at many supermarkets and big box chains. If you’re fortunate to have an Asian grocery store nearby, I tend to pick up Lee Kum Kee’s Premium Oyster Sauce, which usually costs double the price of Panda but has a stronger flavor.
When it comes to cooking, I’m so used to overthinking things that I forget that simpler is usually better for your wits, your wallet, and your time. And with this one-bottle solution, you can let the oyster sauce do all the heavy lifting.