XO sauce is a spicy seafood sauce used widely in Chinese cuisine, made primarily from dried shrimp and scallops with chili peppers, that adds a unique flavor and umami to many dishes. Learn all about it and how to make it at home.
Homemade XO Sauce Recipe
China has a rich history and culture. For thousands of years behind the Forbidden City doors, royal families ruled the vast lands. Though the monarchs keep changing year after year, there is one thing that all of these royals had in common: the royal banquets and dishes that were enjoyed by all.
One such relatively newer creation is the wonderful XO sauce. This sauce is an amazingly unique mixture of flavors of the sea.
In the past, before technology of modern cooling units or refrigerators, chefs had to come up with ways to preserve the meats that had been caught in excess. The meat that was preserved does not lose it taste but also become more intensified and concentrated in nature.
With seafood, it adds a salty quality to the meat and inspires chefs to create different recipes with it. One such recipe is XO sauce and it has been passed down from generation to generation.
What is XO Sauce?
XO sauce is a popular spicy seafood sauce in Chinese cuisine, made with dried seafood, chilies, garlic, and oil. It combines the flavors of the seas in a balanced and innovative way, primarily made from dried seafood meats. This way, a lot of umami flavor, or savoriness, is added to the mix and it can be served with many different types of dishes to add to their flavor.
Despite such a long culinary history, XO sauce is a fairly newer recipe, created in the 1980s in Hong Kong. "The name"XO" means "Extra Old", which refers to expensive cognac, though cognac is not a recipe ingredient.
The main ingredients of this sauce are dried prawns and dried scallops. There is also a considerable amount of fresh vegetables added to the mix, including chili peppers. Traditionally, this sauce was cooked in the winters to provide some hearty fish meat flavors to the cuisine.
As part of the original recipe, some type of cured pork is also added to the sauce; however, people who want to eat kosher can skip this part. Traditional Chinese restaurants offer this sauce with many dishes and also use this as an ingredient to flavor plain dishes.
Interestingly, the term "XO" is synonymous with high quality or opulence in China, making XO sauce more of a luxury item to cook with.
XO Sauce Ingredients
Ingredients have changed over the years as cooks add new elements to the sauce, though the essence of the sauce is always the same.
Here is the list of ingredients needed to prepare a fresh batch of XO sauce:
- Dried Seafood. Use dried scallops and dried shrimp or dried prawns.
- Jinhua Ham. Or use Cured Pork, country ham, or prosciutto, roughly chopped.
- Aromatics. Use Onion or Shallots, Thai Peppers (Or use bird's eye peppers, or milder peppers for less heat), Garlic, Ginger, Green onion.
- Liquids. Shaoxing Wine (or use dry sherry), Oyster Sauce, Dark Soy Sauce, Vegetable Oil (Or use any neutral oil), Chicken Stock.
- Seasonings. Chili Flakes (Chinese chili flakes preferred) Brown Sugar, Salt. You can use MSG.
Other popular ingredients in xo sauce include fish sauce, fish stock, salted fish, shrimp roe, and mushrooms.
Let's discuss the XO sauce cooking process.
How to Make XO Sauce - the Recipe Method
Rehydrate the Dried Seafood. Rinse then add the dried scallops and shrimp to a heatproof bowl. Cover with very hot water and soak for at least 2 hours. Soaking overnight is good.
Drain the scallops and shrimp, but reserve 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid.
Finely mince the shrimp and scallops with a knife, or use a food processor to pulse until finely shredded. Set aside.
Cook the Meats. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Do not boil. Add the shrimp, scallops and cured ham. Cook for 5 minutes.
Cook the Vegetables. Add the finely chopped shallots, garlic, ginger and chili peppers and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, or until the vegetables crisp up and turn golden brown.
Add Liquids and Simmer. Add wine, reserved soaking liquid, brown sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken stock and chili flakes. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens up.
Finish the XO Sauce. When the consistency of the xo sauce reaches a moderately thick paste, turn off the heat and preserve the sauce in a glass container in the refrigerator. It will last 1 month or longer.
Boom! Done! Your XO Sauce is ready to serve. This is such a delicious and decadent condiment. How are you going to use yours?
Store XO sauce in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It will last 1 month or longer this way.
You can also freeze XO sauce for up to 3 months.
How to Cook with XO Sauce
Here are some tips on how to cook with XO sauce:
- Stir-fry with Meat or Vegetables. XO sauce adds a great depth of flavor to stir-fried dishes. Heat some oil in a wok or pan to high heat, and stir-fry your choice of meat or vegetables until cooked. Then add a spoonful of XO sauce and stir-fry for another minute or two. I love it with fried rice.
- Use as a Marinade. XO sauce can also be used as a marinade for meat, seafood, or tofu. Mix a few tablespoons of XO sauce with some soy sauce, honey, and other seasonings, and marinate your protein for a few hours before grilling or pan-frying.
- Flavor Soups and Stews. XO sauce can add a delicious umami flavor to soups and stews. Add a spoonful or two to your broth or stock, and let it simmer for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld together.
- Spread on Toast or Crackers. Simply spread a thin layer of XO sauce on your bread or crackers, and enjoy as a savory snack.
Overall, XO sauce is a versatile condiment that can add a delicious and complex flavor to a wide variety of dishes. Experiment with different ways of using XO sauce to find your favorite way to enjoy it!
What is a Substitute for XO sauce?
If you don't have XO sauce on hand or cannot find it in your local store, there are several substitutes that you can use to achieve a similar flavor profile:
- Hoisin Sauce. Hoisin sauce is a popular Chinese condiment made from soybeans, sugar, vinegar, and various spices. It has a similar sweet and savory flavor as XO sauce and can be used as a substitute in stir-fries, marinades, and sauces.
- Oyster Sauce. Oyster sauce is another popular Chinese condiment made from oyster extracts, soy sauce, sugar, and other seasonings. It has a similar umami flavor as XO sauce and can be used as a substitute in stir-fries, marinades, and sauces.
- Chili Oil or Chili Crisp. If you are looking for a substitute that is spicy like XO sauce, chili oil is a good option. It is made from chili peppers, garlic, and oil and can be used in stir-fries, marinades, and sauces. See my Chili Crisp Recipe, or learn How to Make Chili Oil from scratch.
Consider a mix of oyster sauce, chili oil, and fish paste. While these substitutes may not be exactly the same as XO sauce, they can help you achieve a similar flavor profile in your dishes.
Where Can I Buy XO Sauce?
Almost all Asian grocery markets and shopping sections sell XO sauce. However, most people prefer to buy the main ingredients like dried scallops and prawns to prepare the sauce at home.
- Buy XO Sauce from Amazon (affiliate link, my friends!)
Why is XO Sauce So Expensive?
The main ingredients of the sauce that is dried scallops and prawns are quite expensive. Even in Asian countries, it is not easy to find cheap dried scallops. Therefore, the prices of the sauce might seem higher than other sauces. It is considered more of a luxury sauce.
Try Some of My Other Recipes
Got any questions? Ask away! I’m happy to help. If you enjoy this recipe, I hope you’ll leave a comment with some STARS. Also, please share it on social media. Don’t forget to tag us at #ChiliPepperMadness. I’ll be sure to share! Thanks! — Mike H.
XO Sauce Recipe (How to Make XO Sauce)
- 2 ounces dried scallops
- 2 ounces dried shrimp
- 1-1/4 cups vegetable oil or other neutral oil
- 2 ounces Jinhua ham or use other dry cured ham, country ham, or prosciutto
- 1 large shallot minced
- 10 cloves garlic minced
- 1 large knob ginger minced
- 2 green onions minced
- 2-3 Thai chili peppers minced (or use bird's eye peppers, or milder peppers to your taste)
- 1/2 cup Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar or use white sugar
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon chili flakes optional - or use a spicy chili powder
- Salt to taste
- Rehydrate the Dried Seafood. Rinse then add the dried scallops and shrimp to a heatproof bowl. Cover with very hot water and soak for at least 2 hours. Soaking overnight is good. Drain the scallops and shrimp, but reserve 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid. Finely mince the shrimp and scallops with a knife, or use a food processor to pulse until finely shredded. Set aside.
- Cook the Meats. Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Do not boil. Add the shrimp, scallops and cured ham. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Cook the Vegetables. Add shallots, garlic, ginger and chili peppers and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, or until the vegetables crisp up and turn golden brown.
- Add Liquids and Simmer. Add wine, reserved soaking liquid, brown sugar, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken stock and chili flakes. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens up.
- Finish the XO Sauce. When the consistency of the xo sauce reaches a moderately thick paste, turn off the heat and preserve the sauce in a glass container in the refrigerator.
NOTE: This recipe was updated on 4/3/23 to include new information and photos. It was originally published on 5/11/21.