Published March 1, 2007. From Cook's Illustrated.
We found that no two brands of this staple condiment were identical.
Hoisin sauce is a thick, reddish brown mixture of soybeans, sugar, vinegar, garlic, and chiles used in many classic Chinese dishes, including barbecued pork, Peking duck, and moo shu pork. Spoonfuls of six hoisin sauces and forkfuls of our hoisin-basted barbecued pork indicated that no two brands of this staple condiment are identical; in fact, they vary dramatically in flavor, consistency, and even color--from gloppy and sweet, like plum sauce, to grainy and spicy, like Asian chili paste.
According to our tasters, the perfect hoisin sauce balances sweet, salty, pungent, and spicy elements so that no one flavor dominates. One brand came closest to this ideal, with tasters praising its initial "burn," which mellowed into a harmonious blend of sweet and aromatic flavors. Two other brands also fared well in our tasting: the first was described as "fruity" (if a bit grainy), and the second was deemed "plummy" but salty. Tasters were not impressed by the three remaining brands, finding them less interesting than our top choices, and/or with a strange red color or bitterness.