The 3 Most Important Soy Sauce Styles to Know—and How to Use Them
Never confuse light, dark, or sweet soy sauce again!
So you’ve found yourself in the soy sauce aisle in front of rows of attractively labelled bottles. Some claim to be ‘superior’, some ‘dark’, ‘light’, or ‘thin’, some ‘thick’, ‘low-sodium’, or even ‘mushroom’. In this case, no one sauce rules them all—in fact, there are really three soy sauces that you should have stocked in your pantry, not mention the regional variants of each.
Before you think I'm getting carried away,, it’s actually not a matter of indulgence here, though it is true that any kitchen I’ve occupied has quickly amassed a large selection of condiments—next to my non-negotiables of olive oil, Sriracha, and balsamic vinegar there's always a small arsenal of soy sauces: light, dark, and sweet versions from China, Japan, and Malaysia, to name a few. To cook a variety of Asian dishes with integrity, it’s important to have the correct sauce on hand to build the right flavor and consistency.
Across Asia, each country or region, from Korea to Northern Japan to the Philippines, has different ways of making soy sauce and preferred variants. Broken down to the main styles available worldwide, here’s everything you should know about soy sauce and how exactly to use it.
What is soy sauce made from?
The key ingredients in soy sauce are soy beans, grain (either wheat or barley), water, and salt. It’s a time trusted recipe that has been made for the last 2,500 or so years in China before spreading across the entirety of Asia, making it one of the oldest condiments on the planet.
Soy sauce is a highly aromatic condiment. It's said that a properly fermented sauce should be a balance of all five tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. As a general rule, it’s light soy for dipping (or for use in any recipe that simply calls for ‘soy sauce’), dark soy or the even richer, molasses-like black soy to coat fried noodles, greens, or pork belly, and sweet soy for final drizzling on a staples like fried rice, or again, fried noodles (one can never have enough).
How soy sauce is made: The original soy sauce recipe
Shortcutters, look away. There’s no easy, DIY soy sauce recipe—it takes time, hefty ingredients, and patience. Traditionally, soy sauce is made by creating a paste out of mashed soybeans, grain, and water and adding a culture to kick off the fermentation. It’s then stored for anywhere from a few months to two years. Soy sauce made by this method is called, and will be labelled, ‘naturally brewed’ and produces a superior tasting soy sauce that is balanced and complex.
Today, chemically produced soy sauce reigns on the market. It’s made via a process called ‘hydrolyzation’ whereby hydrochloric acid is added to the soy beans to break soy proteins down into amino acids. Though the acids give off the tastes of umami and saltiness, the process vastly accelerates the production from months into two days. This means the sauce gains none of the complex flavoring created by long fermentation and often tastes overwhelmingly of salt. Needless to say, flavor enhancers are also often added to make up for this.
The 3 styles of soy sauce you should know
1. Light soy sauce
Despite what its name might suggest, light soy sauce is in fact saltier than dark soy sauce. In color though, the naming is correct, if you tilt the bottle you’ll see that the sauce is thin and translucent. Though there are many national variations of soy sauce throughout Asia, for those of us buying soy sauce in other parts of the world, light soy sauce can generally be split into to two main geographic styles—Chinese and Japanese.
Light Japanese soy sauce
Light Japanese soy sauces can range in color from maple to reddish brown and are traditionally used in dishes like udon noodle soup. Famous the world over is Japanese Kikkoman soy sauce, with its iconic red-topped bottle. The type of Kikkoman soy sauce manufactured outside of Asia can be used as both a thin or dark soy for Japanese cooking purposes.
Here's a side note to introduce you to another famous Japanese sauce: ponzu. Though it's traditionally made with the citrus fruit yuzu, rice vinegar, seaweed, and bonito flakes, you can now find a bottled equivalent. This version is most often soy based and is a light and fragrant sauce that is flavored with the yuzu rind. It’s great in a poke bowl, in a ceviche marinade, or as a simple dipping sauce.
Light Chinese soy sauce
Chinese light soy is an all-purpose soy sauce. Darker than the light Japanese soy, it’s the what's on the table next to the Chinkiang vinegar (if you haven’t tasted it, you are missing out) at just about every dim sum restaurant. If a recipe merely calls for ‘soy sauce’ then using this kind is the safest bet.
2. Dark soy sauce
Dark soy sauce is more viscous than light soy sauce and is of course darker—almost completely opaque. To test: If you tilt the bottle it should coat the glass and trickle away more slowly than light soy. It’s fermented for longer—giving it a much deeper flavor, is less salty, and is in fact a touch sweeter than its lighter counterpart.
Japanese dark soy sauce
Dark Japanese soy sauces usually contain more wheat and are darker and less salty than the light variety. They are thinner in consistency than their Chinese counterparts. Dark soy may be used in stews and grilled dishes. In Japan, the dark soy ‘tamari’ is a favorite for dipping sashimi or sushi because it has a rich umami flavor and is not too salty. It is made with a high percentage of soybeans and sometimes even without wheat. It can also be used to make teriyaki sauce.
Chinese dark soy sauce
In Chinese cooking, dark soy is the star in rich dishes and slow cooked stews as it gives both color and a deeper flavor. It also helps to create a thicker, glossy sauce, like in mapo tofu. Dark soy sauce sometimes has molasses added to it as a thickener.
How to tell the difference between dark and light soy sauce?
If you’re still confused between the light and dark soy sauces, compare the sauces in the following recipes. The steamed red gilthead uses only light soy sauce. It’s easy to tell by the pale color and thin consistency of the sauce on the plate. Meanwhile, the recipe for the whole braised fish uses a combination of light soy for umami-salty flavor and dark soy for color, texture, and richness. As you can see, the second sauce is therefore thicker and glossier.
Black soy sauce
Dark soy sauce is not to be confused with black soy sauce, also known as ‘cooking caramel’. It's the most viscous of soy sauces, with a texture akin to molasses. Popular in Southeast Asia, it is less salty than dark soy sauce and has a rich, almost metallic taste, and is only mildly sweet. Because of the addition of molasses, it’s great in stir fried dishes as the sugar caramelises and helps develop a tasty char.
This thick sauce can be difficult to find in many supermarkets as many sauces labelled as ‘thick’ soy sauce are in fact sweet soy sauce (that’s up next), so it’s best to check the ingredients and the sugar content on the label.
3. Sweet soy sauce
Popular in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand (where the local version is called siew dam), sweet soy sauce or ‘kecap manis’, is a mixture of soy sauce and palm sugar that results in a thick, sticky sauce. This adds an excellent finish to fried noodle and rice dishes (both during the cooking process or for serving) and is often added to homemade marinades or sauces like satay sauce to give it a sweet edge. You can make your own sweet soy sauce by boiling up equal parts of palm sugar and dark soy sauce and reducing the mixture until syrupy!
All your other soy sauce questions, answered
What’s the difference between thick and thin soy sauces?
You might see sauces labelled as thin or thick soy sauce, but this usually means the same as light soy sauce (‘thin’) and the dark soy sauce (‘thick’), as outlined above. Even more confusingly, the thickest of soy sauces is more often labelled ‘black soy sauce’ or ‘cooking caramel’ with no mention of its viscosity. It is possible to find thin sweet soy sauce, though you can rest assured that anything labelled ‘kecap manis’ should be satisfyingly syrupy in texture.
Is there an alternative to soy sauce?
Since soy sauce is a unique, fermented product, and a core tenet of many cuisines across Northern to Southeast Asia, it’s difficult to replace accurately, and alternatives should really be used as a last resort. If it’s the salty-umami base of soy that you’re after, you could of course reach for other soy products, like miso paste or black bean paste, which would be the most reliable contenders.
To varying degrees of success, you could also try using savory seasonings like (a few drops of) Worcestershire sauce, Bragg’s liquid aminos (available in the US), Maggi seasoning (a favorite in Europe), fish sauce, oyster sauce, or beef stock. I’d recommend using these lightly and only in dishes where soy sauce is used to help lift a dish, not where soy is the true base of a sauce. If you’re not careful, something like chicken in soy sauce would irrevocably become chicken in fish sauce—not the intended outcome. I am all for getting creative in the kitchen but as for an accurate dipping sauce replacement—you may just need to dash to the store.
How long does soy sauce keep for?
Though I’m convinced that soy sauce, or indeed, anything fermented and salted, could outlive us all, it’s generally advised that, once opened, soy sauce will last for months when stored in a cool cupboard away from light. Like most things, it will keep longer and retain its flavor longer in the refrigerator, where it’s said to last up to two years. Chemically produced soy sauce (ie. not naturally brewed), generally lasts longer as it often has preservatives or stabilizers added to the mix.
Is soy sauce gluten-free?
Despite the misleading name, most soy sauces do indeed contain gluten and are widely made with soy beans and grain, usually wheat or barley, which both contain gluten. Japanese tamari sauce is a favorite soy sauce alternative because it is usually made entirely with soy beans, or with rice, and can be 100% gluten free depending on the producer—so, as always, make sure to double check the label.
How can I choose the best soy sauce?
Good quality soy sauces should have only the essentials listed in the ingredients (that’s soy beans, wheat or barley, salt, and water), and they will be labelled as ‘naturally brewed’. A glance at the ingredients list will quickly indicate the sauce’s provenance, as many chemically produced soy sauces contain the dreaded E numbers, corn syrup, and other preservatives.
Is soy sauce high in sodium?
Soy sauce does contain high levels of salt but using it also means you won’t need to add it to a dish as you usually would—so dishes shouldn’t necessarily be saltier than usual. If you’re concerned about your sodium levels, simply dilute the soy with little water before using. There are also various low-sodium soy sauces on the market, but these are usually made via the chemical process rather than natural brewing.
More questions for us? Soy sauce tips you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments!
Published on August 18, 2018