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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:


38 thoughts on “Chinese Master Sauce (鹵水)

    1. 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.)

      1. 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 🙂

    1. 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.

    1. 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.

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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? 🙂

  3. 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!

    1. 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!

  4. 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

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