The Chinese 滷水 Master Sauce is less a sauce than it is a highly aromatic braising stock in which a succession of meats are cooked in the Chinese 红烧, or ‘Red-Cooked Style’. The sauce infuses all the meat or poultry cooked in it with delicious flavors and a beautiful, red-brown color, while becoming richer and richer with each use. The broth can be re-used again and again, and it I said that there are some Master Sauces that have been in continual use for generations.
What does 滷水 mean?
You may come across cookbooks, or websites, which translate 滷水 (pronounced lǔshuǐ in Mandarin) as ‘Old Water’. This may be a Cantonese colloquialism, possibly, but ‘brine’ is the most common dictionary rendering of the two-character compound. The second character is the stand-alone character for ‘Water’, and the first character, which does have ‘Salt’ and ‘Brine’ as primary meanings, is also translated as ‘to stew in soy sauce and spices’.
The term ‘lǔ’, then, properly refers to the cooking technique also knows as 红烧, or ‘Red-Cooking’. As such, you could, in English, refer to a Master Sauce as a ‘Looing Sauce’, or describe something cooked this way as being ‘Looed’. Jeff Smith, once one of my favorite TV Chefs (now dead), cooked Duck in a Master Sauce, but thought it great fun to serve it as ‘Lewd Duck’.
I like that.
The Ingredients for a Chinese 滷水 Master Sauce
You will see in the recipe card below that this version of 滷水 calls for Chicken stock as an ingredient. Traditionally, a whole chicken, or duck would be cooked using just water and the aromatics in order to get the Master Sauce going, thus making the stock as you went along, as it were. I have short-circuited that process by using pre-made stock in order to make more of an ‘instant’ version. You can use a good quality commercial stock, if you like, or you may wish to follow my recipe for a Basic Chinese Chicken Stock.
As for the flavorings, there is no set recipe, but there are certain ingredients that are almost always used, and Soy Sauce is pretty much de rigeur. One common ingredient that is missing from my recipe is Star Anise. There are actually very few recipes that *don’t* include it, especially Cantonese preparations, but I don’t like it very much myself and usually prefer to leave it out.
The Galangal and Black Cardamom are ingredients you would be most likely to see in Sichuanese preparations. If you are unable to source these, don’t worry too much; You can omit them with negatively affecting the final result to any degree. As for other spices and seasonings, you can experiment to find your own signature blend, and add, or omit, whatever you like.
Finally, you don’t have to use Shaoxing Wine here. Any Rice Wine can be used a substitute, even Sake, or Mirin, and you can, in a pinch, even use a nice dry Sherry. I have used only one cup of wine in this recipe (which I have tried to keep fairly simple), but you can certainly increase this, and even make it a fairly major part of the liquid component.
How to Make a Chinese Master Sauce
Well, there is no magic here… 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. That’s it.
Storing and Using your Master Sauce
Traditionally, a Master Sauce, like a Western Stockpot, would be left on a permanent simmer, with liquid and seasonings being replenished as necessary. For the modern home kitchen, however, this is not especially practical, and refrigeration for part of the time will be necessary.
A fresh made batch will keep for quite a while in the fridge, but once you start using it to braise meats, you should only let it sit in the fridge for three or fours days between uses, and, if you don’t use it for braising, you should bring it to the boil every four days or so, then quickly cool and refrigerate it again. Naturally, you can freeze it as well.
From time to time, you will be drawing of liquid for use in other dishes, and some will evaporate, of course, so you will need to replenish it and add additional aromatics to maintain the same flavor basic profile.
Typically, fairly large joints of meat will be cooked in your Master Sauce and then later cut into smaller pieces to be used in other recipes. Here you can see Pork Hocks being braised in the medium.
These are the same Pork Hocks after being removed from the pot. You can see why the process is called ‘Red-cooking’.
One important thing to note about cooking meats in a 滷水 medium, is that, unlike making a stock, you don’t want them to give up all their flavor to the liquid, nor to become overly soft and friable. Here you can see some Pork Belly that has been cooked until just nicely seasoned, and then sliced for use elsewhere.
For further illustration, the dish you see above has used some of the Pork Belly previously Red-Cooked in the Master Sauce by quickly frying small slices of it with Bamboo, in a sauce made from some of the Braising Medium and a little Chili.
Finally, here are some pieces of Chicken that were taken from a whole Chicken braised in the ‘Looing Sauce’,and then dusted with flour and deep-fried. The sauce served alongside this ‘Lewd Chicken’, is actually a sweet and sour sauce made from a little of the Master Sauce mixed with sugar, vinegar and then thickened with a cornstarch solution over high heat.
Whenever you use your Master Sauce to cook meat for some other recipe, it is always a good idea to strain it to remove any ‘bits’ or other detritus’ Typically, I strain my sauce from the main pot into a temporary container, then I clean the pot well, making sure to scrub away the meat residue that sticks to the sides. Then I pour the strained sauce back into the pot for refrigeration. You could simply use a fine metal strainer, but to keep your Master Sauce nice and clear, straining through cheesecloth works best.
Finally, as already noted, re-using a 滷水 preparation again and again allows the flavors to layer and build up over time, resulting in something wonderfully rich and complex. As an additional benefit, the sauce also develops incredible body from the accumulated dissolved Collagen . If you are filtering your Master Sauce regularly and well, you can produce a magnificent, thick broth that will gel when cooled, as you can see in the above picture.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Your Recipe Card:
A Chinese 滷水 Master Sauce
- 2 qt. Water;
- 1 qt. Chicken Stock;
- 1 cup Soy Sauce;
- 1 cup Shaoxing Wine;
- 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.
- Place all the flavoring ingredients into a suitable pot along with the water and stock.
- Simmer the pot over a gentle flame for an hour or two, then strain to remove the solids.
- Refrigerate the Master Sauce once cooled.