Kitchen Confidence

All About Soy Sauce

By • September 3, 2014 • 27 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: There are as many varieties of soy sauce as there are ways to cook with it -- here's what you need to know.

A quick glance down the soy sauce aisle of an Asian market can send even the most seasoned cook into a tizzy. But don’t fret! With a little know-how, soy sauce is easy to comprehend -- as are the many ways to cook with it. In today’s global kitchens, its uses extend well beyond Asian cooking. Everyone should have a bottle in their pantry.

Soy sauce was first invented by the Chinese over 2,500 years ago; it is made by fermenting soybeans with wheat, brine, and mold. Now, just about every Asian culture, from Japanese to Thai to Filipino, has its own unique version. These are the most common types:

  • Light soy sauce, sometimes labeled “thin,” is the standard soy sauce used in Chinese cooking. It's a versatile and delicious flavor-enhancer in marinades -- flank steak loves a bath in soy sauce, lemon juice, and brown sugar. Splash some into salad dressing for instant umami.

  • Tamari is made with little to no wheat and is similar to light soy sauce. If you are gluten-free, this is your sauce -- but always check the ingredient label to be sure. With its high soybean content, Tamari has a strong flavor that is ideal for dipping sauces and as an all-purpose seasoning

More: Want to know more about fermented soy? Here's the low-down on Miso.

  • Shoyu, Japanese-style soy sauce, is brewed with an even ratio of soybeans and wheat, which results in a sweeter, less intense flavor. It’s darker than light soy sauce, but it doesn’t overpower other flavors. Shoyu's well-rounded flavor is suited for all of your culinary needs, from stir-fry to stew -- even in spaghetti sauce!

  • Sweet soy sauce, or "Kecap Manis," derives its sweetness from palm sugar. It's popular in Indonesia for stir-fries, dipping sauces, and marinades. Add it to barbecue sauce or use it as a glaze for meats, fish, or hearty vegetables like eggplant and portobello mushrooms. 
  • Dark or black soy sauce is aged for a longer time with a bit of molasses or caramel. It's dark and viscous, without the saltiness of light soy sauce. When introduced in the last stages of cooking, it colors sauces and noodle dishes and adds a touch of sweetness. Pour a glug into your pot of chili or drizzle some over a fried egg for an extra kick. 

  • Low-sodium soy sauce has about 40 percent less salt than regular soy sauce. Use it as you would light soy sauce or shoyu.

How to Choose a Soy Sauce

Regardless of provenance, high-quality soy sauce is naturally brewed, with no added alcohol, salt, or sugar. Poorer-quality soy sauces tend to be produced by hydrolysis and will contain additives and preservatives.

More: Now that you have soy sauce, it's time to make a stir-fry.

The most versatile soy sauces are Chinese light soy sauce and Japanese-style shoyu (or tamari, if you are gluten-free). Using them as a base, you can make sweet or dark soy sauce by adding brown sugar or molasses; or imitate Toyomansi (a Filipino soy condiment spiked with calamansi juice) by stirring in a spritz of lime. 

A note on storage: Soy sauce is shelf-stable when stored in a cool, dark place. If you only use it occasionally, buy a small bottle and refrigerate it.

What's your favorite way to use soy sauce? Tell us in the comments!

Photos by James Ransom 

Jump to Comments (27)

Tags: soy sauce, tamari, dark soy sauce, shoyu, light soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, black soy sauce, low sodium, asian, stir-fry, noodles, marinades, salad dressings, dipping sauces

Comments (27)

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17 days ago soysauce_lover

Great post with so useful and easy-to-understand info of soy sauces! I especially love naturally brewed Japanese shoyu. Additives and preservatives free ones definitely taste different and it makes raw fish taste incredibly better. I found and tried them here : http://www.beloved-japan...
At first I thought it was sort of expensive, but was worth it.

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3 months ago Michael de Leon

I would thin out my beef stock with soy sauce and use that mixture as the "au Jus" in my French Dip sandwich. It added nice dark color and that saltiness that au jus so desperately needs.

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3 months ago Penny

I use soy sauce in just about everything ... gravies, stews, casseroles, pasta sauces..... it just gives a depth of flavour that is difficult to achieve otherwise.

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3 months ago sivanathan

Please advice what soy sauce is suitable for the steamed chicken (Chicken rice dishes)

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

If you're talking about Hainanese chicken rice from Singapore and Malaysia, it's a black soy sauce that I have yet to find here in the U.S. If you live in California where there is a significant SE Asian population, you might have better luck. My friends bring their stash from Singapore. Try a mix of dark soy sauce with molasses or kecap manis.

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3 months ago sivanathan

Thanks for the advice

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3 months ago Pamela_in_Tokyo

I would like to add a little bit about Japanese soy sauces. Although there are a number of mammoth industrial type companies, like Kikkoman, that produce soy sauce by the thousands upon thousands of gallons, you can still easily buy artisan made soy sauce, if you know where to order.

Basically there are two kinds of soy sauces in Japan: koikuchi or dark soy sauce and usukuchi or light soy sauce. Another type called tamari shoyu is not so popular here but it is used.

Koikuchi or dark soy sauce is mostly found in the Kanto or Tokyo area. Whereas usukuchi or light soy sauce is mostly found in Kansai or the Osaka, Kyoto area.

Koikuchi or dark soy sauce although dark in color actually has less salt while the usukuchi or light soy sauce is lighter in color but has more salt. Kikkoman is considered a koikuchi or dark soy sauce, but they may make a lighter version, in that case it would be labeled as such.

Another important thing to remember about soy sauce in Japan is that it is still made by hand using traditional methods and is aged for 18 months. There are many, many companies making artisan soy sauce, each is a little different like fine wines. I only buy traditional soy sauces, one from a company that has been in business for 170 years. Another in Kyoto. Many traditional soy sauce makers produce several different styles of soy sauce from light to dark as well as others, like flavored soy sauces. Kikkoman is an industrial product made by industrial methods.

Koshi no Murasaki - in business in Niigata Pref.
Hakuō, their usukuchi soy sauce is wonderful with sashimi and fish dishes. It really does make a difference.
http://www.rakuten.co.jp...

Koshi no Kaori, their koikuchi soy sauce is perfect for Kanto style cooking.

Their home page is: http://www.koshi-no-murasaki...

Sawai Shōyu - in business in Kyoto for 5 generations.
Another a really good soy sauce is made in Kyoto. They have been in business for at least 150 years, I believe, and is now being run by a 5th generation family member. Their company is located very near the old Imperial Palace! They make an excellent usukuchi soy sauce and a twice fermented type, both of which can be seen here: http://www.s-shoyu.com...

Their produces are available here:
http://www.amazon.co.jp...

This site offers 100 mL bottles (about 3 oz.) of artisan made soy sauces for comparison purposes:
http://www.s-shoyu.com/

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3 months ago marlene muzii

Low sodium or reduced sodium in sauce is actually still high in sodium. 570 mg per tablespoon when the average adult can have around 2400 mg and those over 55 can have 1500 mg a day. To get around this I often mix a very low sodium soy sauce from a health store with reduced sodium soy sauce with good results.

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

Good point Marlene! If you're watching your sodium intake, please be cautious even when using low/reduced sodium soy sauce. It's always a good idea to read the nutrition facts label.

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3 months ago I_Fortuna

My favorite recipe using Kecap Manis or (Kejap) was taught to me by an Indonesian friend over 40 years ago. This is for meat eaters but you could sub tofu or possibly another protein.
1 pound ground beef
1 pound bean sprouts (washed well)
1 cup Kejap
Use a large frying pan. Brown the beef, add the Kejap and stir well. When the beef is fully cooked pile on ALL of the bean sprouts and cover. Once the bean sprouts have mostly cooked, stir them well into the beef and serve over white rice.
This is the most delicious recipe.

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3 months ago Petite fee

I absolutely love tamari by San-J low sodium!! They carry organic as well. Can't beat that!!

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3 months ago LDGourmet

Try to find Kishibori - it's head and shoulders above the other brands. Love it.

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

Just looked it up, what beautiful packaging! I'll be sure to try it out but at $16 for a 12-ounce bottle, it's going to be special-occasion only.

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3 months ago LDGourmet

Pat it is not my daily use soy sauce but I keep in the fridge for special meals. Worth the splurge ;-)

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3 months ago Jan Weber

San J Low-Sodium Tamari is my go-to for most Japanese/Chinese/Korean recipes. However, I also use Mikawa's shoyu varieties (Johsen Organic Shoyu and the Sakurazawa 2-Year Unpasturized shoyu) for dressings, seasoning, and of course for sushi and sashimi. Mikawa's Tamari and Shoyu are probably the best Japanese-style soy sauces I've ever tasted.

I haven't used Kecap Manis before myself but I've eaten things with it - now I might have to pick up a bottle. Also IMO Pearl River Bridge defnitely makes the best Chinese dark soy sauce I've had, but I don't see it in shops a lot here in NYC. I might have to order it online.

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3 months ago michelle

Can you recommend some high quality brands you like/use please?

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

Hi Michelle,
In my pantry I have the following:
Pearl River Bridge Premium Light Soy Sauce
San-J Tamari
Kikkoman soy sauce
Cap Bango kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)

I hope this helps!

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3 months ago JohnL

I like to keep Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy on hand for some of my rice noodle recipes (e.g. Beef Chow Foon) which look anemic with light soy only. This soy is DARK and gives great color to the noodles and the beef. Do you eat mayonnaise? I have an incredibly delicious salad dressing with sesame oil and soy and also a touch of sweetness. I was going to try your recipe, but just realized my tahini has gone rancid. Time to get more. Your recipe sounds delish. I love discovering new and wonderful dressings.

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

Hi JohnL, would you like to share your recipe for your salad dressing? I'm intrigued!

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3 months ago JohnL

Absolutely. I'll post it now. I thought you might be vegan, that's why I asked if you are able to eat mayo.

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3 months ago EmFraiche

I use soy sauce in place of salt in so many recipes. I love the saltyumaminess!

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3 months ago JohnL

I can't imagine life without soy sauce. Such an awesome ingredient.

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3 months ago CookOnTheFly

Coconut aminos are a great substitute for those who are GF or Paleo. Unfortunately they are not low-sodium, but a little goes a long way. Keep refrigerated.

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

I've never heard of coconut aminos but I'll look out for it and try it. Thanks for sharing.

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3 months ago Suzanne Duke

Could you please share with me where you found that lovely little glass pouring jar at the end of this blog post that has the soy sauce in it. I love the fact that it's small buy has a pouring lip to it. Thanks so much.

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3 months ago Pat Tanumihardja

Suzanne, try emailing the editors for that info. The photos were taken in-house. Cheers, Pat

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3 months ago I_Fortuna

Here is a link to some of the small pitchers like that pictured here.
http://www.montessoriservices...
If you search on the Internet for small individual maple syrup or cream pitchers, you will find a lot. They can also be found at garage sales and antique stores. There are also many in ceramic and pottery. They are traditionally used in restaurants although some discontinued use of them because loss is too costly due to disappearance. : )