How to CookAsian

All About Soy Sauce

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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 

Tags: Marinade, Salad Dressing, Noodle, Soy Sauce, Stir-Fry