How to Make XO Sauce, the Cook’s Condiment
A few days ago I had a text message exchange with a chef friend of mine about our Mount Rushmores of condiments and sauces. Condiments are something that we care deeply about. They are ready-to-use flavor-boosters, as vital to restaurant kitchens as they are to home cooks. In fact, if you were to open a restaurant cook’s home fridge, odds are you’re going to find a wide array of jarred condiments, deli containers of pickles, and pretty much nothing else.
Restaurant life doesn’t leave you with a lot of time to cook at home, and when I was cooking in restaurants, I rarely had the energy or desire to do anything more taxing in my own kitchen than nuke a couple of frozen pork buns in the microwave. A couple of times a year I would convince myself that I could overcome the crushing fatigue and get on a healthy kick, and I’d fill my crisper drawers with vegetables that would inevitably be ignored until they rotted into produce bags full of liquefied sludge that had to be tossed. Only the jars of condiments would remain.
Even when you don’t have the will to cook for yourself, a spoonful of the right condiment can elevate a frozen pizza, or a mediocre takeout order. And there were definitely desperate times when I would eat straight out of a jar, when I couldn’t trick my fridge into restocking itself no matter how many times I opened it to check. These days, my fridge may not be as Up In The Air depressing and bare as it once was, but condiments still take up most of the prime real estate.
Along with the usual suspects of Heinz ketchup (the one true ketchup), mayonnaise, miso, and five types of mustard, I keep my fridge stocked with harissa, store-bought chili crisp (I still haven’t gotten around to making Sohla’s amazing homemade stuff), Calabrian chilies, gochujang and doenjang, and one of my Mount Rushmore picks, XO sauce.
I first encountered XO sauce while working at a fine dining restaurant in Boston, and instantly fell in love with it. It’s savory, spicy, and sweet all at the same time, with a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it depth to it that makes it all the more enticing. Like most of the other condiments on this list, XO sauce packs an umami wallop that makes it an ideal flavor enhancer for tons of savory dishes, cementing its place in the Hall of Fame of condiments.
What’s in a Name? What’s in a Sauce?
XO sauce is a pretty recent invention; it was created in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Its ingredient list boasts a number of pricey items, the heavy hitters being dried seafood—primarily shrimp and scallops, and sometimes abalone— and aged Jinhua ham. For context, high quality dried scallops can easily cost over $100 a pound. This is a luxury condiment, and to connote its high-end pedigree, it was named after French cognac, another prized and pricey commodity popular in Hong Kong. To be clear, there is no brandy in XO sauce, but there are plenty of other ingredients that go into this savory, seafood jam.
Crispy pork, and dried seafood are constants in XO sauce, along with aromatics like shallots, ginger, garlic, and chilies. After frying these ingredients in hot oil, they get simmered with Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, chicken stock, brown sugar, and spices until the sauce reaches the consistency of marmalade. From there, the XO can be jarred up and stored in the refrigerator for well over a month, but I guarantee it will be hard to keep it around for that long.
Once I have a new batch ready, I find myself putting it in or on almost everything, adding it to stir-fried spring vegetables, pasta sauces, vinaigrettes, using it as a glaze for chicken wings, or spooning it over a simple bowl of steamed white rice. XO can stand on its own in the flavor spotlight, or it can take a flavor-enhancing backseat. It’s amazing stuff, and so it’s no wonder that it’s one of the darling condiments of chefs these days; it feels like every time I go out to eat in New York, I encounter another iteration of XO on the menu.
As with chili crisp, you can buy jarred XO sauce in Chinese food markets or online, but a small 8-ounce jar can easily run you $30 or more. Along with being very expensive, store-bought XO can be overly sweet, and can vary wildly in quality. Making it yourself is much more economical, and satisfying. Here’s how to do it.
How to Make XO Sauce
Sourcing the Ingredients
Depending on where you live, procuring the ingredients for XO may be the most challenging part of this recipe. Dried shrimp and scallops can be easily found online, but they are often at the higher end of the price range spectrum, and you often have to buy them in larger quantities. This can raise the cost of making XO, but with a little internet deep-diving, you can find dried seafood to fit your budget. If you live in an area with Chinese food markets, sourcing these ingredients is a whole lot easier, and you will have more options to choose from.
As I mentioned earlier, dried scallops can cost over a hundred bucks a pound, but there are ones that cost a whole lot less. Pricing varies based on the quality and size of the scallops. While I was working on this recipe, I made a number of shopping trips to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where shops keep large glass jars of dried seafood on display, which you can purchase by weight—the whole setup is kind of like old-time candy shops. I found fingernail-sized scallops that cost $20 per pound (which is around the same price as fresh scallops in New York City), and large ones that cost much, much more.
One of the nice things about shopping for the dried seafood in person is that you can check for quality before purchasing. Along with a visual once-over to make sure that the scallops don’t have gnarly-looking discoloration on them, it’s a good idea to give them a sniff before you buy. If the shrimp or scallops smell of ammonia, move on to find a different purveyor, because that odor is bad news. Fair warning: Even if the shrimp and scallops are totally fine, you won’t wish that you could get their smell in scented candle form. They smell like what they are: dried raw seafood.
I tested with three different types of scallops, and found that while the cheapest and smallest scallops don’t make the best XO, they still make for a pretty tasty sauce. For my top choice I settled on nickel-sized scallops that were just a little more expensive than the smallest ones.
I came to a similar determination with dried shrimp, settling on slightly larger ones that pack a lot more flavor than the smaller ones on the right in the photo above. Both dried scallops and shrimp contain a lot of naturally occurring glutamates, which is why they’re use as the building blocks of flavor for the sauce, along with the Jinhua-style ham.
Unfortunately, true Jinhua ham from the Zhejiang Province of China can’t be legally imported to the United States. There are domestically produced hams sold in Chinese markets that emulate the style of Jinhua ham. This Jinhua-style ham is similar in texture and saltiness to American country ham, which makes for a fine substitute. I’ve made XO sauce in restaurants using country ham, prosciutto and serrano scraps, and even high-quality slab bacon. What you’re looking for is salty, cured pork flavor, with a hint of smokiness. How you get there can be adjusted to accommodate whatever ingredients are available to you.
The rest of the ingredients can easily be found in a well-stocked supermarket. Soy sauce and oyster sauce provide more backbone to the umami notes in the pork and seafood, while vegetable aromatics and chilies bring freshness and heat to the sauce. Brown sugar, star anise, and Chinese rice wine lend warmth and sweetness, and chicken stock gives the XO some extra meatiness.
Prep and Process the Seafood and Aromatics
Before you begin cooking, you will need to rehydrate the dried seafood, much in the same way as you would dried mushrooms for a risotto, except that here I just reconstitute them in boiling hot water rather than stock. Keep them separate when you soak them as you will be processing them slightly differently. Make sure to have the scallops in a microwave-safe bowl. Let them hang out in their water baths for at least a couple of hours to soften them up. If you prefer, you can also soak them in cold water in the fridge overnight.
Once they have finished soaking, drain the shrimp completely, and then drain the scallops of all but a couple of tablespoons of water. I then pop a lid on the scallops and steam them in the microwave for a few minutes until they are fully softened, and can easily be broken down into strand-like filaments when you pinch them between your fingers.
It’s now time to break them down into small pieces for the XO sauce. The easiest way to do this is in a food processor. During initial rounds of testing, I popped them in the food processor and buzzed them up into a rough paste together. But that gives you a pet food-like paste that is not ideal, or very appetizing, as you can see in the photo above. In a good XO sauce, the scallops should be just broken down into thin strands, while the shrimp should be coarsely chopped. These contrasting textures give the sauce dimension; it shouldn’t be a pounded paste.
To achieve these textures, you have to process the seafood separately. Start by pulsing the scallops until they are separated into strands, then pulse the shrimp until coarsely chopped.
Finally, process the shallots, garlic, ginger, and fresh chilies until they are finely chopped, but again, not reduced to a paste.
The Cooking Process
Now it’s time to get cooking. XO sauce can be made in either a wok or a large Dutch oven; use whichever one you have and feel comfortable with. It’s important to use a heavy-bottomed vessel with tall sides as you will be frying the ingredients in oil, which leads to a lot of bubbling activity. The ingredients will be cooked in stages to ensure that they are well-crisped before getting simmered all together.
Start by crisping the ham, which is minced by hand, in a good amount of vegetable oil. Once the ham has darkened and become crunchy, add in the scallops. It’s important to keep the ingredients moving by stirring them with a spatula or wooden spoon, making sure that they aren’t sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Next go in the shrimp. At this point, the oil will begin to bubble up the sides of the pot. Don’t be alarmed, but keep the oil under control. If you feel like there’s a chance things might bubble over, turn the heat down a little.
Otherwise, keep stirring, and occasionally lifting a spoonful of the mixture out of the pot to check its crisping progress (the bubbling oil makes it hard to easily see into the bottom of the pot). Keep cooking and stirring until the shrimp and scallops are golden brown.
The aromatics then get added to the mix. This addition will temper the bubbling situation as the vegetables begin to cook down. Keep stirring to prevent anything from sticking and burning.
While cooking in stages may seem slightly tedious, it’s necessary to achieve the proper texture for the XO sauce. In early rounds of testing, I tried adding the aromatics and seafood all at once, and also in quick succession, but this made for a pasty mess that steams in the pot rather than frying and crisping. In the photo comparison above, you can see the difference between cooking XO the wrong way (on the left), and the right way (on the right). The method I settled on is actually streamlined itself. Traditionally, all of the ingredients are fried on their own, with each one being removed from the wok before crisping the next component.
Once the vegetables have taken on a golden brown color, deglaze the pot with Shaoxing.
Stir in the remaining ingredients, and cook the XO at a rapid simmer until most of the non-oil liquids have either been evaporated or absorbed into the sauce.
The sauce will have thickened to a jam-like consistency, with a layer of clear, bubbling oil on the surface. This oil is packed with flavor, and will also help preserve the sauce during storage, like the oil on top of a jar of chili crisp or pesto.
At this point, all you have to do is cool the XO down and jar it up. Make sure the solids are submerged under the oil in the sauce so that they don’t dry out in refrigeration. You now have a killer condiment in your fridge to unleash on dishes of your choosing.
So What Can I Do With XO Sauce?
When it comes to condiments that not all people are familiar with, I like to provide real-world applications for them. The short answer to this question is, “Pretty much anything!” Over the past few weeks, I’ve spooned XO sauce over noodles, rice, and seared scallops. I’ve used it to make a puttanesca-adjacent tomato sauce, I’ve put it in vinaigrettes, and added it to stir-fried asparagus, Chinese broccoli, and green beans.
I gave some to Daniel to use as a glaze for his sous vide chicken wings. He then took a jar home and fed some to his toddler. Our noodle soup aficionado, Sho, has started spiking his lunchtime ramen with XO. It’s not hard to find new uses for XO. And stay tuned, because I have more recipe applications coming soon. In the meantime, make a batch for yourself!
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