Simmer sauces taste test

If you’re craving an Asian-style meal, don’t expect authenticity from a jar of simmer sauce, finds the CHOICE tasting panel.
 
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  • Updated:1 Aug 2009
 

01 .Introduction

Simmer sauces

In brief

  • CHOICE tasting panel tried 26 simmer sauces – none of them impressed and few came even close to conjuring up authentic Asian flavours.
  • Some sauces are too high in sugar, saturated fat or salt to be eaten every day. 

When you’re pressed for time, what could be simpler than a ready-made sauce? Fry some chicken, stir in a jar of butter chicken or sweet-and-sour sauce, add some vegetables and you have a tasty meal ready to serve within about 20 minutes.

It’s not surprising these sauces are popular; in fact, Australians are now spending about $80 million a year on them. But with so many types and flavours on supermarket shelves, there’s a bewildering choice. Which taste best? Which are most like a sauce made from scratch using an authentic recipe?

CHOICE focused on four popular Asian flavours that include most of the major brands (26 sauces in total):

  • butter chicken
  • green curry
  • satay
  • sweet and sour

How we tested

Our tester cooks the sauces with chicken following the manufacturer’s instructions and serves them with boiled rice. They are tasted by 55 ordinary consumers (29 men and 26 women), all CHOICE staff. The sauces are presented in a random order in plain containers identified only by numbers and letters; the tasters know the type of sauce but not the brand.

Each sauce is tasted by nine to 12 people. We ask them to score the taste of the sauces for overall impression as well as how closely they think the samples taste like authentic food from that country’s cuisine.

 
 

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Full results of our tase test as well as nutritional information for all proucts are shown in the table below.

Table

Table notes

None of the sauces rated much better than OK for taste, and most failed to evoke the cuisine they’re supposed to represent. This is quite damning given the tasters were ordinary consumers, not professional foodies who may have had unrealistic expectations.

Simmer sauces are formulated to have a broad appeal; as one of our tasters commented (about Indian Chicken Tonight Butter Chicken), “a bit bland for Indian, but my kids would eat it”. So don’t expect a gourmet meal – these sauces don’t necessarily contain all authentic ingredients, and are often artificially thickened and coloured. See What we found.

We also found price is no guide – on average, the more expensive sauces tasted no better, or were any more likely to taste authentic, than cheaper versions. And the more expensive sauces in sachets were no more likely to impress than the cheaper options in jars or cans.

That said, none of the sauces is outrageously expensive and they’re definitely convenient, as unopened they’ll keep for more than a year without refrigeration. Our tasters found a few worth having in the pantry for when you need to whip up a quick meal (but some have too much sugar or sodium for regular eating – check the Results table for details).

Tasters' selection

Butter chicken

  • Indian Chicken Tonight $3.29
  • Taylor’s Kashmiri $2.99

Green curry

  • Ayam $2.83

Satay

  • Dragon & Phoenix $2.37
  • Taylor’s $2.99

Sweet and sour

  • Kan Tong Sweet & Sour $2.99

Satay

The source

SatayThis sauce is widely used in Indonesian and Malay cooking. The main ingredients should be a roasted peanut paste, such as peanut butter, and soy sauce to give it a nutty and salty taste. Recipes often also include coconut milk, shrimp paste, garlic and spices (such as coriander and cumin).

The verdict

None of the sauces in our test scored well for authenticity. The panel preferred the taste of Dragon & Phoenix and Taylor’s Peanut Satay equally but grudgingly, awarding them only 55% each. One of the tasters commented that Dragon & Phoenix “actually tastes of peanuts”, but others found it bland.

Taylor’s Peanut Satay was “nice and spicy” and “very sweet”. One of the two brands least liked, Kan Tong Peanut Satay, was described as “flavourless” and the other, Woolworths Select Satay Sauce with Extra Peanuts, as “gooey”.

Butter chicken

The source

Butter chickenButter chicken originated in Northern India. Recipes vary, but most say the chicken should be marinated in yoghurt and spices before being grilled or roasted; the sauce is made from butter (ghee), tomatoes, almonds and various spices that can include cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, fenugreek and pepper.

The verdict

The tasters preferred Indian Chicken Tonight and Taylor’s Kashmiri Butter Chicken over the other brands – but without much enthusiasm. Indian Chicken Tonight was described as “quite nice”, and Taylor’s Kashmiri Butter Chicken as “OK, but wrong colour and flavour”.

“Product of India” on the label is no guarantee the sauce really tastes “authentic”. Maharajah’s Choice is imported from India but the tasters weren’t convinced of its authenticity (although they quite liked the taste). The most convincing was Passage to India, which one taster described as “a reasonable imitation but far from restaurant standard”. (On average, though, the tasters gave higher taste scores to the sauces they judged to be more authentic.)

Green curry

The source

Green curryThe word “green” in the name comes from the colour of this characteristic Thai dish. According to Charmaine Solomon’s The Complete Asian Cookbook, the main ingredients should be coconut milk, green curry paste, eggplant, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil leaves.

Green curry paste is made from chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal (a close relative of ginger), turmeric and shrimp paste.

The verdict

Ayam Thai Green Curry Cooking Sauce stood out as having the best flavour and as the most authentic tasting. Nonetheless, the tasters thought it “bland” and “lacks depth”. Trailing the pack, Taylor’s Thai Green Curry was “too sweet” and had “the consistency of mayonnaise”.

Sweet and sour

The source

Sweet & sourThe Cantonese probably came up with the idea of merging these two very different taste sensations. The sweet comes from white or brown sugar; the sour should be from either rice wine or rice vinegar.

The verdict

None of the simmer sauce versions rated well for taste or authenticity. Only one brand, Kan Tong Sweet & Sour, scored more than 50% for taste, and then only marginally. The tasters described this sauce as “a bit bland” and “too simple – just sweetness and sourness”.

Good for you?

Many of these sauces contain more saturated fat and salt than is healthy for regular eating – and most of the sweet and sour sauces are too high in sugar. But if you serve them with vegetables or a salad (as recommended by most manufacturers in the instructions on the label) some of these sauces aren’t too bad nutritionally – although if you use them a lot, try to avoid brands with too much fat, sugar and/or salt, which we’ve shown in the Results table with the amount and a red square alongside. On average, satay sauces are the worst for all three.

Too much salt

There’s no real need for some manufacturers to add so much salt to their sauces because we found overall there’s no relationship between the taste scores and the amount of sodium per 100g.