The Essential Vietnamese Sauce: Nuoc Mau

It looks rather like sorghum molasses, or espresso with a swirled froth of reddish gold crema on top.

But it is neither of these things.

It is dark, it is deep, it consists of two ingredients, and while it is simple to make it is not easy.

And, it is an essential component to many Vietnamese home cooked foods.

It is called nuoc mau–which literally means “colored water,” though in English, we call it caramel sauce.

And it doesn’t go on ice cream.

It is what gives depth of flavor and color to kho, which are earthy, homey braises of meats, tofu or seafood. Salty with fish sauce, these dishes are meant to be eaten with plenty of rice, but the salt flavor is balanced by the smoke-tinged sweetness of this home made, darkly browned caramel sauce.

It is also used to flavor other dishes, including quick stir fries.

It is not difficult to make, as it only requires sugar and water, but technique is important. One must use medium-low heat, or risk burning the sugar black, and one must pay attention to when to stir and when not to stir. One can melt and brown the sugar without using water to dissolve it, but that method is much trickier and risks the formation of candy chips–incompletely melted sugar glommed together which will burn to the bottom of the pan if given half a chance.

I found that it helped that I had done pulled sugar work in my dessert classes in culinary school; some of the techniques I learned there to deal with melted sugar translated perfectly to the making of nuoc mau. It also helped to follow a detailed recipe that described very carefully and accurately the stages of browning the sugar was going to go through before the sauce was done. (I found that the best recipe is Andrea Q. Nguyen’s from her excellent cookbook, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen.)

At any rate, here is my way of putting this simple, but not easy staple of the Vietnamese kitchen together, complete with many photographs illustrating the stages the sugar goes through on its way from crystalline white grains to a reddish-brown, richly-scented sauce.

Nuoc Mau (Vietnamese Caramel Sauce)


1 cup white sugar
3/4 cup water


Place the sugar and 1/4 cup of water into a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium low heat. Stir with a metal spoon until the sugar dissolves into a milky-looking liquid, as below.

As the sugar syrup heats up, small, glassy-looking bubbles will begin to form around the edges of the saucepan, as seen above. At this point, stop stirring, and DO NOT stir again. (And please, never, ever, use anything other than a metal spoon to stir melting sugar. Please never use a rubber spatula. Please. I watched someone in culinary school melt a rubber spatula into boiling sugar once. It was ugly and smelled really awful. Don’t do that–it is a hideous mess to clean up.)

If you stir again, you will cause the sugar to seize up and recrystallize, and that will not be a good thing. From here on out, if you need to stir the sugar syrup, do so by lifting the saucepan and swirling it in the air while keeping it level. This will cause some syrup to creep up the sides of the pan. In order to chase those droplets down before they have a chance to cool and recrystallize, take a pastry brush, dampen the bristles in the remaining half cup of water, and use it to brush the syrup back down into the pan.

As the bubbles form, they will head toward the center of the pan, where they will grow in size. Then, the entire surface of the sugar will be bubbling vigorously with glassy spheres and domes as it simmers merrily along.

After a few minutes, around the edges of the pan, you will see the syrup begin to darken slightly, going from clear to the color of champagne. Swirl the pan to even the color, and set it back on the stove. Eventually, the color around the edges will darken to a lager beer, then a honey color, as seen below.

Notice the color in the lower left-hand portion of the pot is more of a honey brown while the rest is more of a pale color. That tells us one of two things: either my pan has a place where it is thinner there, so it gets hotter faster, or that burner is pouring out more heat in that spot. At any rate, as the color darkens on the edge, lift the pan and carefully swirl once or twice to even the color out, then set it back on the fire. If you swirled a lot of syrup up the sides of the pan, brush them down.

Once the color of the syrup is the color of dark tea color, start watching it very carefully. This is where you come to the place where you may burn the sugar beyond use.

After the sugar has been simmering for about twenty minutes, a thin haze of smoke will steadily rise. Turn the exhaust fan over your stove on or open the windows. Watch the sugar closely as it will darken very quickly–second by second it will darken.

The sugar will take on a scarlet reddish tone–almost like wine, but with more of a yellow cast. The bubbles will take on a vivid burned orange color like the color of maple leaves in autumn or a seashore sunset–like the photograph above. At this point, swirl again and take note of the color of the syrup under the bubbles.

When it takes on the color of very dark coffee or molasses, turn off the heat and all at once add the other 1/2 cup of water. This will cause a dramatic bubbling, hissing, sputtering reaction as the sugar syrup rapidly cools. Just stay back from it and watch from afar.

Where the water pours directly into the syrup, the sugar will seize up, but don’t fret over it. It will melt again in a few seconds.

Heat the caramel back up, and stir once again with a metal spoon until the solid bits dissolve back into the syrup. At this point, turn the heat off again, and set the pan aside, allowing it to cool for about ten minutes. At this point, the bubbles will subside to an orange-red foam over the surface of the caramel that will slowly dwindle in size as the liquid cools down.

After ten minutes, pour the sauce into a heavy glass jar, seal it tightly and allow it to cool the rest of the way.

I store mine in the fridge, but you can just leave yours in a cool, dark cabinet if you like.

It will keep for a very long time–some say forever.


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  1. Wow! Very detailed.

    I love culinary challenges. I’m gonna have to try making some tonight just to see if I can!

    Comment by Maggi — April 13, 2007 #

  2. Would a silicone spatula be fine for the caramelizing sugar?

    I’ve generally used metal spoons when making peanut brittle, because, hey, you can boil it to clean it. I’m curious, though.

    Comment by Scott — April 14, 2007 #

  3. Maggi–let me know how it turns out.

    Scott–I don’t know, but I am not willing to try it out. I suspect that silicone would work, but I don’t want to experiment in my kitchen with it.

    Comment by Barbara — April 15, 2007 #

  4. I tried this once. I wasn’t too successful at it. Maybe I should try it again.

    Comment by Jimmy — April 21, 2007 #

  5. Jimmy–Some cookbooks have some very sketchy directions on how to make nuoc mau. That is a problem, because melting and browning sugar is an activity that is fraught with potential missteps all along the way, and that is not helpful.

    That is why I wrote such thorough, detailed instructions–I wanted to try and cover every base and give very solid descriptions (and photographs) of what each stage the sugar undergoes as it becomes caramel sauce so that a cook can undertake this recipe with confidence.

    Give it another try. If some of the kids I went to culinary school could make caramel, so can anyone else, with some patience, practice and good instructions.

    Comment by Barbara — April 22, 2007 #

  6. Hi Barbara,

    Good primer. You’ve got a typo in your posting. It’s kho, not kno dishes. 🙂 Kho, pronounced like “caw” means to braise.

    I use caramel sauce when I’m make my braised pork and hard-boiled eggs recipe. It’s good for catfish in claypot too.

    Comment by Wandering Chopsticks — May 4, 2007 #

  7. Thanks for catching my dyslexia moments. H and N are very close on the keyboard, Wandering, and well–like I said, my spell checker cannot read Vietnamese.

    Thanks–I will fix it.

    Comment by Barbara — May 4, 2007 #

  8. So I’ve made this, kind of…We didn’t have regular sugar around, just granulated fructose. I gave it a whirl anyway. I think it will work but it progressed somewhat differently, and I’m wondering if the results will be the same. It progressed through all of the colors you mentioned, smoked at the correct time, etc. However, it never got foamy. It did make glassy bubbles that popped audibly but seemed to remain more liquid. It smells fantastic and is a nice color (being a first-timer, I think I stopped at dark wine/medium coffee rather than espresso or molasses–I think I thought it was darker than it was at that moment). But, sugar chemistry being what it is, did I just make something entirely different & perhaps useless for kho purposes?

    Comment by Duchess K — May 6, 2007 #

  9. Duchess K–

    Sucrose, which is table sugar, is made up of two molecules of fructose, a monosaccharide. Chemically, and structurally, they are very different, and the way that they are metabolized in the body is slightly different.

    However, I do not think this will affect the way they perform in making nuoc mau.

    Nor do I think that the flavor will be that different. I think that you may have stopped cooking it sooner than you needed to (but that is better than burning it to a crisp and ruining it!) and that may affect the flavor a bit. It will likely not be as smoky-tasting as a more deeply colored sauce would be, but I suspect that the flavor will still be good and it will still make a good kho.

    Comment by Barbara — May 6, 2007 #

  10. If only I found your website earlier today… I tried making Nuoc Mau – twice. I am not sure that I was successful either time. The first batch is dark like molasses, but I may have burnt it (?). The flavor reminds me of coffee. I couldn’t imagine that this was right, so I tried again and stopped before it got too dark. This batch looks like strong tea and is sweet with just a hint of the flavor of the first batch.

    What do you think? I have no idea what this is supposed to taste like. Please help!

    Comment by Karin — July 6, 2007 #

  11. Karin, the flavor should be like very dark caramel mixed with coffee. My guess is that if you mixed the two batches, you would have it just right.

    The color is very dark–the very first time I made this sauce I stopped before it was right. The second batch was much better and made much better recipes.

    Comment by Barbara — July 8, 2007 #

  12. The instructions are excellent! I made it and it seems about right, but maybe too thick. Once cooled, it was thicker than cold molasses. I wonder if I simmered for too long in the last step, after adding the water, and boiled off too much liquid. I ended up with only 2/3 cup of the finished sauce.

    I made Stir-Fried Chicken with Lemongrass and Chilies, which came out great.

    Looking at Quick-Braised Spicy Caramel Pork, 7 tablespoons each of nuoc mau and fish sauce seem like a lot. Is that right?

    Comment by Dan — August 25, 2007 #

  13. I just tried to make this and I also suspect I may have stopped too soon. However, my problem was a bit different–if it took over 30 mins just to get it to deep reddish brown, does that mean my stovetop burner (I just moved, I went from gas to electric, it has been hard to say the least) is weak? It also solidified (kind of–opaque flakey crystals) on top while it was cooking, despite the fact that I never touched it. Once again, could it be a sign my burner is weak? It took FOREVER to even start bubbling, but I kept being afraid to turn the heat too high for fear of burning it.

    Comment by Laura — September 26, 2007 #

  14. Laura–you are learning the complexities of cooking on an electric stove–be patient with yourself.

    The burner is probably of a lower heat than you are used to; on the other hand, you are right to fear turning it up–electric burners are slow to heat up, but once they are hot, they are slower to cool down. There is very little control, as compared to cooking on gas.

    The sugar crystals that formed probably formed because of the lower heat–it sounds like the sugar mixture was not uniformly hot–sugar will crystallize not only because it is touched, but will also start to crystallize on the top if there is a disparity in how hot it is from the bottom to the top–in other words, I think your burner was too cool to heat the syrup uniformly.

    Turn the heat up a tiny bit the next time you cook it. If you think you are coming close to burning it–take the pot off the burner and let it cool down a bit–I learned this when I was forced by the fact that I was renting, to use electric stoves for years.

    When the mixture has cooled a tiny bit, put it back on the burner and basically control the heat by removing the pot and replacing it. It is the best way to adjust heat on an electric stove–it is about the only way to replicate the instant cooling and heating ability of a gas stove.

    Keep trying!

    Comment by Barbara — September 27, 2007 #

  15. Hey thanks for the detailed advice. And yes you guessed it, I went from owning to renting (just for this year hopefully) and boy have I lost the touch for electric burners! It’s like being in college again…..

    Comment by Laura — October 5, 2007 #

  16. Thank you so much. This was my second time making the sauce using a vietnamese cookbook. Somehow, the first time it turned out great, but this time it never turned brown. I tried twice today until I gave up and searched the internet. Your instructions worked the first time.

    Comment by Laura R — November 4, 2007 #

  17. I found your recipe and have managed to use a BIG bottle of this in my cooking already.


    Comment by Michael — April 7, 2008 #

  18. I make what is essentially the same sauce except that I use nuoc mam (fish sauce) instead of water. I don’t exactly remember but I guess I got that from a recipe at some point. Does that amount to a different sauce than nuoc mau? Or am I just ‘cutting out the middle man’ since the nuoc mau is gonna’ get cooked down with nuoc mam sooner or later anyway? :o)

    Comment by Carl — July 16, 2008 #

  19. It took me two times, and the first time might have worked out fine, but I chose to abort. I selected a saucier instead of a saucepan because I thought that the sloped sides might help with the swirling that I was expecting to do. The sugar ended up creeping up the sides during the boil, and when I tried to push it back down it ended up making between six and seven buttloads of sugar crystals which floated on top. “This can’t be good”, I said to myself, and poured water into it and begun a laborious clean-up process. The sugar had already started to caramelize, and, at this point, it was *long* past the “hard crack” stage, if I am correct. (I have never even once tried to make any kind of candy in the kitchen! I guess this is “trial by fire”.)

    The second time, I chose to FOLLOW THE RECIPE and use a 1-quart saucepan. I also decided that I was not going to try swirling at all, if I could avoid it. (That way, I woudn’t have to push sugar back in and risk any sugar crystals getting pushed in.)

    Everything basically went according to plan, and, as it turned out, I didn’t have to swirl at all. I think this is due to the even output of the gas burner I used and the use of a good All-clad saucepan. I had a glass jar of molasses sitting by for reference and I’m glad I did, for the caramelization did, in fact, occur very quickly. It also started to smoke more heavily than I expected it to. I would say the color looked a very deep reddish brown in the pan when I chose to kill the heat and dump the water, and that turned out to be correct. So, if you’re making this, I advise that when it’s spread out in the pan with the light above it, it looks a very deep reddish brown, but it is the color of molasses in the bail-lid glass jar I put it in.

    The only part I was worried about was how violent the reaction was going to be when I poured in the water. My advice is: do it quickly! Not only did some splash out but some also boiled out and it was probably the scariest thing I’ve done in my kitchen. Keep your kids out of the kitchen at this critical moment. But, all that said, it was also cool.

    Now I have a jar of nuac mam and, since my partner has been asking for “Vietnamesey food” recently, I think it will fit in nicely. This kind of recipe is right up my alley anyway — I love having jars of homemade ingredient (caramelized onions, roasted chiles, ghee, yogurt, preserved lemons, etc) sitting around waiting to be added to something delicious.

    Thank you, Barbara, for your wonderful recipe and detailed instructions. If I can use geek terminology, I feel like I just gained a level in the kitchen.

    Comment by Jim — July 29, 2008 #

  20. Nuac mau, that is!

    Comment by Jim — July 29, 2008 #

  21. I made chicken kho tonight and everyone at the table loved it, including my 8-year-old son! It was fantastic, and, what more, the basis of kho is so simple it’s quite nearly divine:

    1. meat
    2. nuoc mam
    3. nuoc mah
    4. salt

    And ingredients #2, #3, and #4 have eternal shelf life. Magic in the kitchen.

    Comment by Jim — July 31, 2008 #

  22. I made this for the second time tonight, my original supply having run out. (I made about five batches of chicken kho with it, said dish having moved permanently into the rotation.)

    If I were to make one note this time after having made it twice, it would be not to fret if you see little sugar crystals forming in between the bubbles. I noticed them this time and worried, but I found that they all melted by the time the sugar started to caramelize. I also added the water just as I started to see smoke, which turned out to be too early. I probably should have waited for an additional 10-15 seconds after I first saw smoke.

    Chicken kho rocks. I always make serve it with chopped cilantro, mint, thai basil (if I can find it), carrot sticks, and tart apple sticks (substitute for green papaya) which I tediously hand-cut. But it’s soo worth it. Everyone in the family loves this dish.

    Comment by Jim — September 26, 2008 #

  23. Hi Barbara–unfortunately, I didn’t come across your blog post until after I tried making this. I followed Andrea Nguyen’s recipe, but she’s less specific about when and when not to stir, so I ended up with seized sugar crystals. Question: is it possible to rehabilitate that mess into nuoc mau, or do I have to start with “fresh” sugar?

    Comment by Nina — June 19, 2009 #

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