Learn everything you ever wanted to know about authentic Vietnamese nuoc mau, a caramel sauce that is used in a variety of Southeast Asian dishes.
Nuoc Mau, a Vietnamese Caramel sauce is a sauce used to colorize proteins like pork shoulder and chicken in authentic homestyle meals. Thit Kho (Vietnamese Caramelized Braised Pork with Eggs) is a dish that uses nuoc mau as it's main ingredient and is an absolutely delicious main meal.
Nuoc mau made from scratch is pretty difficult to master on first try. While there are only two ingredients, white granulated sugar and water, there are multiple ways you can get the technique wrong, which will either burn or crystalize your sauce. In general, you are getting it just to the point of almost burning the sugar, but stopping the cooking right beforehand.
I wanted to share with you a few methods to make sure you get it right the first time. As one of the corner stones of Vietnamese cooking, you'll want to know how to make nuoc mau especially for soul food dishes that requires hours of simmering (often called kho).
All About Vietnamese Nuoc Mau
Nuoc mau is a bitter sauce, unlike normal caramel sauces. It provides the dark color to braised pork and stir fry dishes that are often found in Vietnam.
There are only two basic ingredients, sugar and water. However, the sauce is hard to master, especially when you are making it the first time. The goal is to get a dark molasses viscosity that has a bittersweet flavor.
Origins of Nuoc Mau
Nuoc mau is a terminology that is from South Vietnam, whereas nuoc hang is the terminology that is used in North Vietnam.
What does nuoc mau taste like?
Nuoc mau has a semi-sweet, but bitter taste. It's often used to tenderize and colorize protein in Vietnamese braised dishes, giving it a slightly darker color.
What does nuoc mau mean?
Nuoc mau when translated means "merchandising water". Nuoc means water and mau means color. The name was often used by food sellers to make their wares appear buyable.
What's the most common dish nuoc mau is used in?
Nuoc mau is most commonly used in braised meat dishes like thit kho, which allows the caramel sauce to thoroughly permeate flavors into the food.
What temperature should the sauce hit when it transitions to the dark amber color?
The temperature reading for the sugar and water mixture should be 375F.
Tips for Making Nuoc Mau
Traditional Authentic Method of Making Nuoc Mau
There are multiple ways to make this sauce. Some people stir the oil in with the sugar, others dissolve the sugar in water, and some pour the water into the oil.
Traditionally, nuoc mau is made by heating up vegetable oil, and then heating up the granulated sugar in the oil in a small sauce pan. Once dissolved and the sauce turns into a darkened amber color, water is carefully added to thin the sauce. This method causes a violent and dramatic reaction that can cause a big splatter, and definitely not for the faint of heart. By adding the water during the cooking process, it stops the sugar from actually burning.
My recipe allows you to avoid the splash that is generally caused by the hot oil and the water, but allows you to get the same staple, bittersweet sauce.
Note of Caution for Cooking with Sugar
When sugar is cooked to this temperature, any additions of other liquids has the potential to react. I would recommend using heat-proof utensils as well as a sauce pan that has a thicker bottom so that the sauce cooks evenly.
Undercooking vs Overcooking Nuoc Mau
If you undercook the sauce, the balance for your kho dishes will be off and will be really sweet in flavor. If you overcook the sauce, it will be burnt and really bitter.
Asian Grocery Store List for Nuoc Mau
If you want to avoid making this all together, there are premade store bought varieties that can also be used like the one below that can be purchased here. Below is my favorite brand to grab from your local Asian grocery store. This is the only one that's sold on Amazon where you can get it shipped direct to you.
What to Do When Nuoc Mau Recipe Doesn't Turn Out
What did I do wrong if it crystalized?
In order to get the auburn color without crystalizing the nuoc mau, ensure that the sugar and water are swirled rather than stired. The purity of the sugar and whether it has been previously exposed to water may be the case.
On your second try at the sauce, you can add a drop of lime or lemon into the sugar and water before heating, which can help the sugar avoid crystallization.
What happens if it burns?
If the sauce burns, discard completely and try again. This time, ensure that you stay close and watch for the amber color. Try to use the sauce pan to swirl the sauce around so it evenly boils.
How long does it take to get the sugar to turn the caramel color?
The sugar and water mixture should take approximately 5-8 minutes to turn the caramel color. Ensure that there is even heat distribution in the sauce pan. As the sugar begins to transition into a dark amber color, it will be close to finishing it's transition to a sauce mixture.
Can you use palm sugar in place of granulated sugar?
Palm sugar should work as long as there aren't impurities in the sugar.
What's a substitute for nuoc mau?
If you can't amke the sauce and can't buy it online, you can use dark molasses that has no additional spices as a subsitute. Sweet soy sauce can also be used as a substitute, but will not have the bittersweet flavor that nuoc mau is known for.
How to Make Authentic Nuoc Mau Recipe
Dissolve the sugar in the first set of water. Ensure that it is completely dissolved.
You'll want to heat the sauce pan for about 2-3 minutes on high. As the sugar melts, you'll notice small bubbles as the sugar begins to caramelize. It will go from a light yellow to a dark amber color.
When the pan starts smoking and rising, remove the sauce pan from the stove and swirl it around. Notice that the sugar will start turning darker, along with the bubbles that are in the sauce pan.
- 1 cup of white sugar, granulated
- ¼ cup of water + ½ cup of water
- In a sauce pan, add in sugar and ¼ cup of water. Dissolve the sugar with a whisk.
- Turn on the stove at medium-high heat and allow the mixture to cook for 5-7 minutes without using any utensils to mix it. As the sugar breaks down and changes to a darker amber color, swirl the sugar to even it out.
- Once the sauce becomes a dark amber color, slowly pour in the remaining water and give it a quick mix.
- To store, pour into a glass container and store at room temperature.
In the second step, to to make sure that the sauce doesn't cook too long or else it will burn the sauce.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 129Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 2mgCarbohydrates: 33gFiber: 0gSugar: 33gProtein: 0g
Preserving Nuoc Mau
Nuoc mau can store indefinitely in your pantry in a glass jar. When cooled, teh sauce should not become hard, and should still have a molasses like consistency.
Summary About Nuoc Mau
I hope that this provided you tips on how to make this tricky, but delicious authentic Vietnamese caramel sauce. It's a sauce that is an absolute staple in any Vietnamese family when cooking braised kho dishes.
If you make this sauce at home, I'd love to hear from you! Please be sure to leave a comment and rate the recipe.
Other Vietnamese Recipes You Might Like
Here are some additional authentic and delicious Vietnamese recipes that you will love:
- Vietnamese Bun Bo Hue
- Vietnamese Banh Uot Recipe
- Vietnamese Spring Rolls (Goi Cuon)
- Vietnamese Thit Nuong Recipe