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Chinese Master Sauce (鹵水)

Master Sauce 1 - 1

In Chinese cookery, a ‘master sauce’ is less a ‘sauce’ than it is a complex and re-usable, aromatic broth that is used to serially cook various meats and other foods, thus both giving and developing its own new depths flavor. With each use, the stock becomes richer and can be prolonged (as long as certain care is taken to prevent spoilage) for a very long time. Whether strictly true or not, it is claimed that there are master sauces that have been in continual use for generations.

The Chinese word for master sauce is:


The first character, ‘鹵’,  is pronounced ‘lǔ’ and means brine, while the second, pronounced ‘shuǐ’, means ‘water’. Together, the two characters are most frequently translated as ‘marinade’.  For today’s post, I am simply going to begin a batch but, over the next few months, I shall be using the result to cook a series of meals and will keep you posted as to the development of the sauce over time…

The Ingredients

Generally, a master sauce begins with water (although broths, such as chicken stock are often used), to which is added salt, sugar and usually (but not always) soy sauce. Other flavorings, notably ginger, scallion and garlic are added, with star anise, and (in Sichuan especially) cinnamon, clove, sand ginger and black cardamom also being employed. Personally, I am not keen on the flavor of Star Anise and, even though it is almost always included, I am going to omit it in my version. Likewise, although I will be using salt and a number of aromatics, I will be keeping the amounts a little lower than is common as I prefer to maintain a deep richness to the stock yet keep it as versatile as possible. My ingredients are as follows:

  • 2 qt. Water;
  • 1 qt. Chicken Stock;
  • 1 cup Soy Sauce;
  • 1 cup Rice Wine (preferably Shaoxing);
  • 1 cup Sugar;
  • 1 tbsp. Salt;
  • 6 -8 thick slices Ginger;
  • 1 head Garlic, cloves unpeeled but lightly crushed;
  • 3 small Scallions;
  • 2 dried Black Mushrooms (Shiitake);
  • 1 small Cinnamon stick;
  • 1 Black Cardamom Pod;
  • 1 tbsp. Fennel Seed;
  • 1 small slice Dried Galangal;
  • 1 pc. Dried Orange Peel;
  • 1 tsp. Sichuan Peppercorns;
  • 1 small dried Chili.

The Method

Master Sauce 1 - 2

Well, there is no magic here (and no picture necessary, really). Simply add all the ingredients to a suitable pot, bring it to a boil and then turn down the heat to simmer for an hour or so. Afterwards, strain the broth, discard the solids, and store it in the fridge until needed. At present, the broth will keep for quite a long time but, once you start cooking meats in it, you will need to either keep frozen between uses, or else bring it to a boil not less than once a week to keep the flavors fresh. As it  is used, it will increase in depth of flavor but it will also diminish in volume and, periodically, the liquid and sometimes the flavorings, will need to be replenished.

Since Publishing this post, I used the basic sauce in the following recipes you may wish to look at:


37 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good job! I won’t dare even to attempt doing this!

    March 14, 2013
    • Actually, the basic process is pretty straightforward and has lots of room for improvisation.

      March 14, 2013
    • soniak #

      I have kept my master sauce “mother” for 8 years now — kept in the freezer. I googled the recipe because I always leave out something. I must say, that galangal and fennel were new ones for me and will use them next time. (Tonight I am cooking beef osso bucco + chicken feet.)

      December 9, 2015
      • 8 years is amazing… I don’t think I’ve managed more than about 6 months. Generally, I end up using the whole of a batch for some dish or other. Galangal is interesting but I’d use it sparingly 🙂

        December 10, 2015
  2. Tai hao le! Terrific I am so glad you posted this recipe as I have a lot of recipes I want to try with it.

    March 14, 2013
  3. Well done! I will have to try it myself too.

    March 14, 2013
    • For sure …. you don’t even need to have all the ingredients I used, of course 🙂

      March 14, 2013
  4. Look forward to reading more about this!

    March 14, 2013
    • I’ve already actually done ‘red-cooked’ pork-hocks in the broth (post will be up in a week or so) and after cooling it is a lovely clear gel… vey rich.

      March 14, 2013
  5. Fascinating! I will have to think about trying this – I love the concept.

    March 14, 2013
    • Yes, I really like the whole ‘idea’ of it. Looking forward to seeing how it develops.

      March 14, 2013
  6. The recipe sounds fantastic and not difficult once you have all the ingredients. Wish there wasn’t sugar though, I’ll have to work out an alternative there.

    March 14, 2013
    • You could easily just leave it out. The standard master sauce tends to be sweet but that’s not a rule carved in stone… an unsweetend version will still have lots of depth of flavor, particuarly after you start cooking meats in it.

      March 14, 2013
  7. Good luck with this project. Would be a great one for Our Growing Edge this month. I grew up having broth or clear soup most days it is very nourishing. I wonder if master sauce is also considered nourishing?

    March 14, 2013
    • I daresay there are health claims made with respect to some of the flavoring ingredients but it’s not something I would regard as especially nutritious as such.

      March 14, 2013
  8. Excellent stuff – I look forward to reading more. I’ll bet ribs braised in this (then roasted) would be delicious….

    March 14, 2013
    • I will definitely be giving ribs the treatmet in one way or another!

      March 14, 2013
  9. I know so little about Chinese cooking. This master sauce sounds so good I’d probably put it on my toast.

    March 14, 2013
    • I hear that’s how they use it in Beijing 🙂

      March 14, 2013
  10. I love 鹵水 dishes and can’t wait to make a batch of my own. Can’t wait what ingredients you’re going to use with this….I look forward to your future posts. 😉 Have a great weekend.

    March 15, 2013
    • I have already used it for ‘red-cooked’ pork hocks (recipe coming). I plan to do a whole chicken, then some ribs and then… well, who knows? 🙂

      March 17, 2013
  11. What a smart thing to have around! Wonderful! I thought I’ve been following you, but I guess not! But now I am!

    March 20, 2013
    • Welcome aboard 🙂 More to come on the master sauce….

      March 20, 2013
  12. Fascinating. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

    March 24, 2013
  13. This is awesome. I heard about this on a podcast a few years ago. It was referred to as ‘old water’ on the podcast. Gotta try this!

    March 25, 2013
    • You will come across the sauce referred to as both lǔshuǐ (鹵水) and lǎoshuǐ (老水)… the former is the ‘proper’ name meaning ‘brine water’, while the somewhat similar sounding latter name does indeed mean ‘old water’. The second name could have arisen as a mistake but I suspect it is an intentional pun (Chinese is especially suited to punning) as ‘old water’ is quite apt given how long a sauce can last!

      March 25, 2013
  14. Larry #

    Do you clear of fat after each use?

    March 31, 2013
    • Yes …. there has actually been very little so far, but once it has chilled in the fridge it is easy to scoop fat from the surface.

      March 31, 2013
  15. Susanna #

    Hello! I’m a half-Chinese, half-Australian living in Germany, and I stumbled across your blog yesterday while looking for a good basic Chinese chicken stock recipe. I then spent hours poring through all your delicious-looking recipes, which I can’t wait to try. I’d never heard of a “master sauce” until yesterday, but its first incarnation is on the stove now. Thanks for sharing all your great foody stuff with the world! Susanna

    November 30, 2013
    • Thank you very much! I hope you enjoy experimenting with your master sauce. It is a great thing to personalize and develop 🙂

      November 30, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Master Sauce Cookery Part 2: Red-cooked Pork Hocks | Sybaritica
  2. Master Sauce Cookery Part 3: Lu Shui Chicken | Sybaritica
  3. Master Sauce Back-Ribs | Sybaritica
  4. Fire-pot Stock Part 1: The Base | Sybaritica
  5. Sichuan Red-Cooked Beef (紅燒牛肉) | Sybaritica
  6. Chinese Spicy Orange Sauce (for Cold Noodles & Stir-Frys)| LunaCafe

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