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Soy Sauce 101

What do you need to know about soy sauce? This classic ingredient/seasoning is made from soybeans, sometimes wheat, salt, and food-grade mold used in the fermentation and aging process. For some, the nation of origin is important since some brands of Chinese soy sauce are considered “double soy” while others are considered “light”.

Some Thai brands may be thicker than you might expect, and Japanese soy sauce options include gluten-free varieties such as tamari and citrus-added versions. The right soy sauce for you may depend on the dish you want to use it for; check out our Soy Sauce 101 Guide below to learn which varieties might work best for you.

Soy Sauce 101

Soy Sauce 101

It’s believed that soy sauce may have its roots in Chinese cooking. There are many nations with a soy sauce tradition including:

  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • China
  • Japan

For a time some sources report that the “original” Chinese soy sauce tradition included using sauce made only from soybeans, but over time in some countries (such as Japan) soy sauce became a 50/50 ratio of soybeans and wheat.

Every country that has a soy sauce tradition brings something unique to the table, and you’ll find something new to appreciate with each different variety.

Soy sauce stores best in dark, cool places. Treat soy sauce like wine and avoid direct exposure to sunlight for prolonged times.

Soy sauce can be high in sodium, but there are reduced-sodium varieties available. The reduced sodium levels for some are fairly transparent, flavor-wise. Others may notice the lower salt levels, but overall lower-sodium soy sauce does not interfere with the flavor profile of the dish you’re using it in.

Popular Types of Soy Sauce

  • Regular Soy
  • Light Soy Sauce
  • Dark Soy Sauce
  • Sweet Soy Sauce
  • Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
  • Chemical Soy Sauce
  • White Soy Sauce
  • Twice-Brewed Soy Sauce
  • Thick Soy Sauce
  • Tamari Soy Sauce
  • Seasoned Soy e.g. mushroom, smoke

“Regular” Soy Sauce

Some brands are no-surprises, straight-up soy sauce. The flavor profile may vary slightly from China to Japan to Thailand, but at the heart of this type of sauce is the flavor and salty intensity you come to expect from brands like Kikkoman, Lee Kum Kee, or others.

But even with “regular” soy sauce there are variations. Pailin Chongchitnant, host of Hot Thai Kitchen prefers Healthy Boy Mushroom Soy Sauce, which is basically ordinary soy sauce but with a mushroom infusion. You can get a mushroom-free version of the same sauce but clearly some highly experienced cooks prefer the mushroom variety.

A Word About “Light” Soy Sauce

When shopping for the right soy sauce, it’s easy for newcomers to be fooled by the label on the package when it comes to “light” and “dark” soy sauce. For much of what is advertised as “light”, you may find these varieties are exactly like “regular” soy sauce. In this particular case, “light” does NOT mean less sodium or a lighter flavor.

Instead, it means that the soy sauce is NOT “double soy” and more pungent than usual. “Light” means “ordinary” in this context. It does not mean “healthier”. It’s a cultural nuance some Americans miss the first time around, until they accidentally try double soy sauce on a dish that requires the regular version.

All the above being said, there are Chinese soy sauce varieties advertised as light soy sauce where the “light” signifier may mean “first pressing” similar to olive oil. This would be in addition to not being “dark” or “double” soy.

What Is Double Soy Sauce / Dark Soy Sauce?

It would be easy to consider dark soy sauce and double soy sauce to be the same thing, but this isn’t quite accurate. Depending on the brand and the country of origin you may find that dark soy sauce is less salty and darker than the ordinary version.

It may contain molasses as a thickener and to provide a sweeter flavor profile. Double soy sauce is even thicker than dark soy sauce. Sometimes this is added for color, sometimes added for flavor, but the common denominator here is that it should be used with bold and flavorful cooking.

Pork, chicken, and others like them benefit from this stronger sauce. In general, unless your recipe calls for double or dark soy, this is one you should not cook with until you are used to how it differs from other sauces.

You won’t want to use dark or double soy sauce as a dipping sauce for gyoza, dim sum, or egg rolls; the flavors are just too strong for many.

What Is White Soy Sauce?

Some Japanese soy sauces are sold as “white soy sauce”. These are known as Shiro Shoyu sauces; this soy sauce is made with more wheat and features a lighter color. It’s not actually “white” but it looks far lighter than other soy sauces. This type of soy sauce is ideal for more delicate foods that don’t need to be overpowered by the headier versions of soy sauce we’ve discussed here. Shiro Shoyu is made from about 10% soybeans compared to the 50% ratio used to make ordinary soy sauce.

Twice Brewed Soy Sauce

Twice brewed soy sauce is made by making soy sauce in the usual way but is combined with a batch of sauce that has already been brewed. This type of soy sauce is good for seasoning food, and also great for dipping sashimi and sushi.

Is Tamari Soy Sauce?

The Japanese sauce known as tamari is a lighter, gluten-free variety of soy sauce that has many different preparation options including adding citrus or other sweet ingredients.

Because it is wheat-free and is made from soybeans alone (not counting the water, salt, and other ingredients that make it tamari) some diners prefer using it over soy sauce for sushi and other meals with a more delicate set of flavors.

It’s worth noting that while tamari may be made without wheat, it may not be processed in a wheat-free facility. If you have food allergies, be sure to be careful with any new-to-you tamari brand. You just don’t know unless it’s expressly stated on the packaging whether or not you should be concerned about cross-contamination from wheat or other allergens.

Other Soy Sauce Nuances

You may find some brands packaged as “thin” soy sauce. This is basically ordinary or “light” soy sauce with a slightly different name.

Soy sauce, due to its salty nature, may store for as long as six months. Your experience may vary but in general, this is a very sturdy ingredient/condiment.

Some soy sauce brands are made with whole soybeans. If this is stated on the packaging you may wish to experiment with “whole bean” soy sauce. Many won’t notice a difference, but soy sauce made with mashed soybeans instead may have subtle flavor differences a refined palate might detect; some may enjoy meals made with this higher-end soy sauce variety more.

Those who suffer from allergies, don’t appreciate the difference between different types of wines, or who just aren’t used to the flavors involved in Asian cooking likely won’t need to go the extra mile here but it does work for some.

A Word About “Chemical” Soy Sauce

You’ll find many food-oriented blogs discussing chemical soy sauce, which is made from hydrolyzed soy protein which is then combined with flavoring agents. This results in something many critics declare being “far removed” from the flavors of traditional soy sauces made by traditional fermentation and aging.

If you are concerned about accidentally purchasing a soy sauce product that has been made in this way, check the list of ingredients on the packaging. If there is a laundry list of ingredients with names you do not recognize, it may be best to move on to a new brand that is made in a manner closer to the traditional methods.

Try these delicious recipes with soy sauce:

Monique McArthur
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