What is Chinese sweet and sour sauce made of?

Chinese sweet and sour sauce is a popular sauce that is commonly served with meat or seafood dishes. It has a sweet yet sour flavor that helps balance out salty or fatty foods. Sweet and sour sauce likely originated in the 18th or 19th century and it remains a staple condiment in Chinese cuisine today.

What Ingredients Are Used to Make Sweet and Sour Sauce?

While there are many variations, authentic Chinese sweet and sour sauce is typically made by combining vinegar, sugar, ketchup or tomato sauce, soy sauce, and other seasonings. Here are some of the main ingredients used:

  • Vinegar: Chinese black vinegar or rice vinegar provides the sour flavor. The vinegar is often diluted with water.
  • Sugar: White granulated sugar adds sweetness to balance the sourness. Brown sugar can also be used.
  • Ketchup/Tomato Sauce: Ketchup or tomato sauce contributes flavor, sweetness, acidity, and color. Chinese ketchup may be used for more authentic flavor.
  • Soy Sauce: Soy sauce adds salty, savory umami flavor. Dark soy sauce is often used.
  • Cornstarch: A slurry of cornstarch and water helps thicken the sauce.
  • Garlic and Ginger: Minced ginger and garlic provide aromatic flavor.
  • Sesame Oil: Sesame oil contributes nutty aroma and flavor.
  • Spices: White pepper, five-spice powder, ground cinnamon, and red chili flakes may be used.

In addition to these basic ingredients, chefs may also add extras like pineapple juice, chicken broth, orange juice, honey, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, rice wine, and more depending on the recipe.

What is the Process for Making Sweet and Sour Sauce?

Here is a simple overview of the basic steps used to make authentic Chinese sweet and sour sauce:

  1. Combine the sauce ingredients – Mix together the vinegar, sugar, ketchup or tomato sauce, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and any other aromatics or spices.
  2. Make a slurry – Mix together cornstarch and water to make a slurry that will thicken the sauce.
  3. Cook the sauce – Pour the sauce mixture into a pan or wok and bring it to a boil over high heat. Let it cook for 1-2 minutes until slightly thickened.
  4. Add the slurry – Stir in the cornstarch slurry and let cook for another minute until the sauce reaches the desired consistency.
  5. Adjust flavor – Taste and adjust seasoning as needed, adding more sugar, vinegar or soy sauce to achieve the right sweet, sour and salty flavor balance.

The sauce can be served warm or at room temperature. Some chefs may add ingredients like pineapple or bell peppers towards the end and let them cook briefly in the sauce.

What is the Flavor and Consistency of Sweet and Sour Sauce?

When properly prepared, authentic Chinese sweet and sour sauce has a glossy, semi-thick consistency. It should generously coat the back of a spoon but not be too thick or gluey.

The flavor is a balanced blend of sweet, sour, salty, savory, and aromatic. The sweetness from sugar is tempered by the bright sourness of vinegar. Soy sauce and sesame oil provide a rich, umami backbone. Garlic, ginger and other spices add fragrance.

The sauce has a vibrant reddish-orange hue from the ketchup or tomato sauce used. Some versions may be moregolden in color if pineapple juice is added.

Overall, you can expect a sweet and sour sauce with a complex yet harmonious blend of flavors and a velvety texture that clings nicely to meat, seafood or vegetables.

How to Use Sweet and Sour Sauce

Sweet and sour sauce is extremely versatile. Here are some of the most popular ways to use it in Chinese cooking:

  • Serve with sweet and sour pork, chicken or shrimp dishes
  • Drizzle over stir-fries and fried rice
  • Use as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, dumplings or tempura
  • Marinade for grilled meats like barbecued pork
  • Toss with vegetables like bell peppers, pineapple and onions
  • Mix with rice wine vinegar for a quick salad dressing
  • Use as a base for other Chinese sauces like orange chicken sauce

You can play around with ingredients to tweak the flavor of the sauce to complement different dishes. Balance the sweetness and sourness to your taste preference. The sauce keeps well refrigerated for 4-5 days.

Variations of Sweet and Sour Sauce

While the combination of vinegar, sugar, tomato sauce and soy sauce are the core ingredients, there are many variations of sweet and sour sauce across China’s different regional cuisines. Here are a few popular variations:

  • Cantonese Style: Typically sweeter and lighter in color. May add pineapple, lemon juice, honey.
  • Sichuan Style: Spicier with chili oil and red chilies. Darker, often includes black rice vinegar.
  • Hunan Style: Often thicker and more umami-forward, with mushroom or oyster sauce.
  • Beijing Style: Lighter colored, vinegar-forward. Adds ginger, garlic, hoisin sauce.

Overseas versions of sweet and sour sauce may use ingredients like ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar. So experiment to find your favorite regional variations!

Common Questions about Sweet and Sour Sauce

Is sweet and sour sauce gluten free?

Most authentic recipes for Chinese sweet and sour sauce are naturally gluten free. As long as you avoid soy sauces containing wheat, and use cornstarch rather than wheat-based thickeners, the sauce can easily be made gluten free.

Is sweet and sour sauce keto friendly?

Traditional sweet and sour sauce is high in sugar content, making it not ideally suited for keto diets. However, you can create lower carb and sugar versions by using sugar substitutes like erythritol or stevia and reducing the ketchup or tomato sauce.

Is bottled sweet and sour sauce as good?

Prepared bottled sweet and sour sauces can provide convenience but they often differ from homemade versions in flavor. Many bottled sauces have added preservatives, thickeners, artificial colors and flavors. Check the ingredients and taste test different brands to find one you like.

Should sweet and sour sauce be thick or thin?

The ideal consistency of sweet and sour sauce is a luxurious glossy texture – viscous enough to coat foods but not overly thick or gloopy. The cornstarch slurry enables the sauce to achieve the right semi-thick texture. Watery or thin sauces likely don’t have enough starch to provide sufficient body.

Tips for Making Perfect Sweet and Sour Sauce

Here are some helpful tips to end up with restaurant-quality sweet and sour sauce every time:

  • Use Chinese black vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar for authentic flavor.
  • Mix ketchup and tomato sauce for better color and richness.
  • Add the cornstarch slurry at the end and cook briefly to avoid a starchy taste.
  • Adjust the sugar and vinegar to suit your preferred sweet-sour ratio.
  • Infuse aromatic oils like sesame or peanut oil for extra flavor.
  • Saute the garlic and ginger before adding other ingredients to release their flavors.
  • Add fruits like pineapple or bell peppers at the end so they hold their shape.
  • For spicier versions, use chili garlic sauce or red pepper flakes.

With the right technique and ingredients, you can easily whip up restaurant-worthy sweet and sour sauce at home. Adjust the components until you find your perfect balance of sweet, sour and salty flavors.


Chinese sweet and sour sauce has a delicious complex flavor thanks to its blend of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, spice, and aromatics. Vinegar, sugar, tomato sauce or ketchup, and soy sauce make up its base, while ingredients like sesame oil, garlic, ginger and cornstarch help round out its taste and texture. There are many regional preparational variations, but the sauce universally pairs well with meat, seafood, vegetable and rice dishes. With an understanding of the key components and proper technique, you can easily make authentically flavored sweet and sour sauce at home to complement a variety of Chinese recipes.

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