XO sauce is the most valuable Cantonese condiment, with an intense savory flavor concentrated from dried scallop, Jinhua ham, and dried shrimps.
XO sauce got its name from the XO (extra-old) cognac, famous in Hong Kong. The name is a misnomer since it does not contain cognac, but this type of description of the food is popular in Chinese cuisine to portray the quality. It simply means it is a valuable and expensive sauce like an XO cognac.
Most people buy their XO Sauce, which is costly. In addition, you have to settle with a toned-down flavor than the homemade type that uses higher quality ingredients. If you make it yourself, you can enjoy it at a fraction of the cost.
How to make XO sauce
XO sauce has a rich umami taste with a complex sweet, smoky, and salty flavor. The taste of this condiment will dominate any dish. Dried scallop, Jinhua ham, and dried shrimp are deep-fried to accentuate the flavor, then season with wine and soy sauce. The sauce is finally cooked down to a semi-dried, chunky, highly concentrated, umami-packed, relish-like ‘sauce’ suspended in oil.
1. Key ingredients for XO sauce
There are no set recipes for XO sauce. However, most recipes consist of a triumvirate of universal ingredients: Jinhua ham, dried scallop, and dried shrimp.
Jinhua ham (金華火腿)
Jinhua ham is the specialty Chinese ham that originated from the city of Jinhua (also romanized as Kinhwa), located in the center of Zhejiang province in eastern China. It is a type of dry-cured ham which is very salty with an intense bacony taste. Jinhua ham may not be available at some places, and the Smithfield ham or bacon is the closest substitute.
Dried scallop (conpoy, 乾貝 / 江瑶柱)
The dried scallop is a popular ingredient in Cantonese cuisine, often used to prepare superior stock and other expensive banquet dishes. You need to soak it for a prolonged period to soften it as it is pretty hard. It has a rich umami taste and smells reminiscent of other sea-cured meat like dried shrimp. The highly concentrated flavor is mainly from amino acids such as glycine, alanine, and glutamic acid.
Dried shrimp 虾米
Dried shrimp is another dried seafood similar to dried scallop but is more widely used due to its lower price compared to dried scallop. It is sun-dried shrimp that shrunk to thumbnail size. It is packed with umami, just like scallops, but with its distinct flavor. Again, you need to soak it before use, but the time required is shorter than dried scallop.
There are other dried seafood ingredients used in some XO sauce recipes which I do not use here. For example, you can consider including dried fish and dried anchovies if you like.
2. Secondary ingredients for XO sauce
There are three secondary ingredients for XO sauce: shallots, garlic, and red chilies.
Shallot and garlic are the aromatics that give the sauce the body, while the red chilies provide spiciness.
Cut the shallot and the garlic manually into small dice. I would not use a garlic crusher to mash the garlic because mashed garlic will burn quickly while deep-frying.
Similarly, cut the red chili into small pieces. Again, remove the seeds if you do not want the sauce to taste too spicy.
3. Soak, steam, and cut the dried ingredients
You should start the preparation by soaking the dried ingredients in advance.
Since dried scallop is quite hard, you need to soak it at least for a few hours or overnight. It takes a long time to steam it until soft if you do not soak it long enough.
The time required depends on how long it has been soaked and the size of the scallop. After soaking, it takes about 45 minutes of steaming to soften the scallop until you can easily shred it into individual strips. You can pick one scallop and shred it from time to time to decide when you should stop steaming the rest.
Once softened, remove and let it cool until you can manage with your hands. Next, shred each dried scallop into the individual fine strips. It will take some time to do it, and the process is faster if the scallop has turned soft and tender.
Cut the Jinhua ham into half-inch thick slices and steam together with the dried scallop. Steaming will soften the ham as it is too hard to cut into small dice.
The ham will soften in twenty minutes. However, I steam the ham together with the dried scallop and remove it much longer than fifteen minutes which will not affect the outcome of the ham.
Remove the ham and then cut it into small dice.
Dried shrimp is relatively softer than dried scallop, so you only need to soak it for fifteen minutes. Steaming is not necessary. After soaking, drain the dried shrimp and then chop it into the size of rice grains.
4. Deep-fry the ingredients to bring out the flavor
The next step of preparing the XO sauce is to deep-fry most of the ingredients.
I use about 600ml of vegetable oil. It seems a lot of oil, but it is necessary because:
- We need to deep-fry the dried scallop, Jinhua ham, dried shrimp, shallot, and garlic.
- The oil is required to preserve the sauce during storage, preferably sufficient to cover all the ingredients to prevent oxidation so that the sauce is stable and can be kept for a long time.
- The oil has a rich flavor. Therefore, you do not need extra oil for cooking or flavoring any dishes if the recipe includes XO sauce.
Here are the steps:
- Place the oil in a wok or a large skillet.
- Heat the oil to about 150°C/300°F. Since the scallop, shrimp, and onions contain water, there will be plenty of bubbles created, and the level of oil will rise rapidly the moment you add them into the hot oil. Therefore, it is essential to use moderate heat to prevent the oil from swelling and overflow from the wok.
- Start with deep-frying the scallop, Jinhua ham, and dried shrimp, followed by the onion and garlic. I would suggest deep-frying the scallop, ham, and shrimp separately because they have different water content. Hence, they require different duration to deep-fried until become light golden, slightly crispy, and dry. The time required is generally around five minutes for each one, but depends on how much water remains after draining and steaming. Therefore, it is best not to set a fixed time but to observe the texture. All these three items are done when they look dry, slightly crispy, and light brown. The texture should be similar to lightly-fried bacon.
- Once you have finished deep-frying one of them, remove with a wire mesh strainer to drain the oil. Then, place it in a separate pan and continue to deep-fry the next item.
- Once you finish deep-frying the scallop, ham, and shrimp, continue to do the same for the shallots, garlic, and chilies. Add the shallots to the oil and deep-fry for about five minutes, followed by the garlic. You should add the garlic later because it has lower moisture content and tends to change color quickly. Continue to deep-fry until the color of the shallots and garlic starts to turn golden. Next, add the red chilies and fry for another minute, then turn off the heat.
5. Season the sauce heavily and cook it until dry
You need to season the XO sauce heavily since it is meant to be a condiment and part of the seasoning for stir-frying. You will expect it to be too salty by tasting it alone, but it is OK.
- Place all the fried scallop, ham, and shrimp in a saucepan or skillet. Season it with Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and the leftover extract of the ham and scallop after steaming.
- Bring it to a boil and mix well. Now return these ingredients to the wok that contains the fried shallot, garlic, and chilies.
- Now you can add some chili powder if you like it spicy. The chili powder also makes the oil look redder and more appealing.
- Continue to simmer it over low heat until all the water has evaporated.
The XO sauce is ready!
Tips to make the best XO Sauce
There are a few tips I want to share to increase the odd to make it a success:
- You can substitute the Shaoxing wine with dry sherry.
- Use country ham or bacon if Jinhua ham is unavailable.
- You need to soak and steam the dried scallop long enough. If in any instant after making the sauce and find that the dried scallop is too hard, you can salvage it by adding a small amount of water to the sauce and simmer it until it is soft enough. In this case, make sure all the added water is evaporated, as there should not be any water in the finishing product.
- You can change the quantity of the dried scallop, ham, and dried shrimp. Some people also like to add some salted fish and dried anchovies.
- The sauce should be savory and salty, as it is meat to eat with other items, not to be served alone.
- You decide how many chilies to use based on the level of spiciness you want. I like to add some chili powder which gives a better color to the sauce. Kashmiri chili powder has a bright red color which is perfect for this purpose.
How to use XO sauce
XO sauce has multiple usages. Some common usage includes preparing fried rice, noodles as the topping for steamed fish and tofu. You can also sprinkle the sauce on top of roasted vegetables and use it to stir-fry any dishes.
You can store XO sauce in the refrigerator for up to one month. Make sure there is sufficient oil to submerge all the solid ingredients. You can also keep it frozen if you intend to keep it longer.
- 200g shallot
- 60g garlic
- 3 large red chili
- 2 tbsp chili powder
Soaking and steaming
- Soak the dried scallop overnight. Then, steam for 45 minutes to soften the scallop. Remove and let it cool. Next, shred each dried scallop into the individual fine strips.
- Cut the Jinhua ham into half-inch thick slices and steam together with the dried scallop. Then cut the ham into small dice.
- Soak the dried shrimp for fifteen minutes. Drain the dried shrimp and then chop it into the size of rice grains.
- Heat the oil to about 150°C/300°F.
- Start with deep-frying the scallop, Jinhua ham, and dried shrimp one after another. Remove each one before deep-fry the next one. Each of them should be deep-fried until slightly golden, slightly crispy, and dry.
- Cut the shallot and the garlic into small dice.
- Cut the red chili into small pieces and remove the seeds.
- Add the shallots to the oil and deep-fry for about five minutes, then add the garlic and continue until the color turns golden. Next, add the red chilies and fry for another minute, then turn off the heat.
Season the sauce
- Place the fried scallop, ham, and shrimp in a pan. Season them with Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and leftover extract after steaming the ham and scallop.
- Bring it to a boil and mix well. Now pour it back to the wok and mix with the fried shallot, garlic, and chilies.
- Add some chili powder if you like it spicy.
- Continue to simmer it over low heat until all the water has evaporated.
- The XO sauce is ready!
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 741Total Fat: 66gSaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 53gCholesterol: 64mgSodium: 1299mgCarbohydrates: 18gFiber: 2gSugar: 5gProtein: 20g