Soy Sauce

8 Soy Sauce Substitutes to Add Punch in a Pinch

January 10, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

So, you’re making a rice bowl. Sautéed greens, cucumber pickles, and a sunny-runny egg. You head to the fridge to get some soy sauce to shake on top but—could it be?!—you’re out. Alternatively, you don’t keep soy sauce in the fridge, period, because you’re allergic to soy, or gluten. Luckily, in both cases, there are a few other ingredients that can come to the rescue. Read on for our go-to soy sauce substitutes in a pinch.

But first, what is soy sauce?

For our purposes, when we refer to “soy sauce,” we mean shoyu. This is the name for Japanese-style soy sauce, which is the most common type in American supermarkets. As Japanese culinary authority Nancy Singleton Hachisu explains it in Japan: the Cookbook, “This is the most essential Japanese seasoning.” Its production goes something like this: Soybeans and roasted cracked wheat are combined, inoculated with koji spores, mashed with salt and water, then transferred to vats to ferment. Fast-forward 18 months, then strain and bottle.

What can I use it in?

Soy sauce adds a salty, fermented, umami boost to whatever it’s seasoning. This may be as simple as waking up a bowl of hot rice. Or it may be a subtle part of a many-ingredient sauce. Here are some of our favorite recipes that use soy sauce:

What are the best soy sauce substitutes?

First things first: A substitute is a close-as-possible proxy, not a doppelgänger replacement. When you swap out soy sauce for something else, the flavor of the dish will inevitably shift (to become, say, less salty, more sweet, etc). Just keep that in mind when you pick your substitute—so you can adjust the quantity, and add supplementary flavor-boosters to taste—and you’ll be good to go. Unless otherwise stated, use a 1:1 swap, plus additional ingredients as noted to balance everything out.

1. Tamari

Tamari is actually a close relative of shoyu. The big difference is that, while shoyu hinges on soybeans and wheat, tamari only includes soybeans. (That said, some brands do include a very small amount of wheat—double check the label if you’re gluten-free.) Of the group, this is the closest you’ll get to soy sauce’s unique flavor.

2. Coconut Aminos

This ingredient is a go-to soy sauce substitute for those avoiding gluten and soy, or following the Paleo diet. Made from the sap of coconut blossoms (plus water and salt), coconut aminos look like soy sauce from a distance. But the flavor is significantly molasses-ier and less salty, though it does have a nice umami roundness. When using this as a substitute, you’ll probably want to go heavier on the salt of the overall dish.

3. Liquid Aminos

Much like coconut aminos, but produced from soybeans instead of coconut. Liquid aminos are gluten-free and full of umami flavor—though also noticeably sweeter and less salty than soy sauce. Accordingly, adjust the saltiness of the dish to taste.

4. Fish Sauce

Fish sauce is a crucial ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking. Like soy sauce, it’s dark-hued, thin, salty, and umami-rich, so it makes a pretty good substitute. But unlike soy sauce, it’s derived (usually anchovies, always fermented). Because of its intense flavor and scent, you’ll want to add fish sauce to taste, versus a 1:1 substitute. In situations like salad dressings, dips, or even fried rice, you might find that you like fish sauce even better than soy sauce.

5. Worcestershire

Worcestershire sauce can be used as a supportive seasoning (say, stirred into a gravy) or a starring condiment (say, shaken on a steak). Its ingredient list is long—vinegar, tamarind, molasses and/or sugar, garlic, onion, anchovies, spices—and its flavors, complex. Compared to soy sauce, Worcestershire is tangier and a little sweeter, though not as sweet as something like coconut or liquid aminos. It’s especially great in meaty recipes. As with fish sauce, incorporate Worcestershire to taste.

6. Maggi Seasoning

Food writer Kevin Pang describes this Switzerland-born condiment as “a second cousin to soy sauce.” It’s made from “fermented wheat protein and loaded with glutamic acids (not gluten free), which accounts for the rich, meaty, savory, umami–face punch the sauce provides.” For dishes that are really craving soy sauce’s salty-umami qualities, Maggi could be your guy. Substitute to taste, as it’s extra-concentrated and saline.

7. Umeboshi vinegar

Also known as ume plum vinegar, this is the liquid byproduct of umeboshi-making. Umeboshi are sour plums, which are salted, weighed down until a substantial brine forms (that’s the umeboshi vinegar), then sun-dried. Because it’s essentially a brine, this liquid is super salty, which makes it an awesome substitute for soy sauce. That said, it’s noticeably tangier, with less umami. You could supplement this with liquid or coconut aminos; just pour the umeboshi vinegar into a tiny bowl, shake in a few drops of aminos, taste, and add more as needed.

8. Miso paste + liquid

Miso is a fermented soybean paste fundamental in Japanese cuisine. (Fun fact: It’s also inoculated with koji, the same spores used in soy sauce–making.) If you have a tub of miso around, you can finagle your own soy sauce substitute. Just thin miso paste with water, vinegar, or liquid aminos, until it’s about as thin in consistency as soy sauce, and you like the flavor. Because of its deep, salty profile, red miso paste is vastly preferable to milder yellow or white miso.

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

isw January 11, 2020
Why in the world would you waste valuable 'fridge space for something (soy sauce) that was a kitchen staple hundreds of years before there even were refrigerators?