Soy sauce isn't something that most people think a lot about. And since most recipes that call for soy sauce don't specify a type or brand, people will usually reach for what they have around, which is either what's most readily available at the store or the style and brand they grew up with in their households. For many Americans, because of its ubiquity in grocery stores, that means they're using Kikkoman soy sauce.
However, there are many different kinds of soy sauces out there, and they vary wildly in flavor, texture, and appearance. We've put together a primer on some of the varieties of soy sauces that you can buy, with suggestions for how to use them, as well as some of our recommendations for brands that we turn to most frequently in our kitchens.
What Is Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce is one of the oldest condiments in the world. It's believed to have originated during the Western Han Dynasty in China, over 2,500 years ago, a byproduct of fermented soybeans and wheat that have been mixed with brine. Known in Chinese as jiang you, soy sauce's manufacturing process slowly spread across Asia and was readily adopted by various different culinary traditions, and now is one of the most used condiments in the world.
While there are many different kinds of soy sauces, many of them share the same manufacturing process. First, a substrate of cooked soybeans, often mixed with roasted wheat, is inoculated with Apergillus mold. After the mold colonizes the substrate, a process that takes about three days, the culture is combined with salt water and transferred to large vats where lactobacillus—a bacteria that breaks down sugars into lactic acid—is added, and the resulting mixture ferments for a period of time, anywhere from six months for some standard supermarket brands to several years for more pricey bottles. Once fermented, the mixture is strained and the liquid is typically pasteurized, bottled, and sold.
Japanese Soy Sauce
Despite the fact that soy sauce originated in China, if you stand in the international foods aisle of a mainstream grocery store, you're most likely to see a range of shoyu, or Japanese-style soy sauces. While traditional Chinese soy sauces were made only using soy beans (some modern Chinese soy sauces contain wheat, too), when the brewing method made its way to Japan, the recipe was modified to use an even ratio of soybeans and wheat, producing a soy sauce with a sweeter flavor profile.
There are two primary types of Japanese soy sauce, koikuchi shoyu (dark soy sauce) and usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce), but there are three others, namely shiro shoyu (white soy sauce), tamari shoyu, and saishikomi shoyu (twice-brewed soy sauce).
Koikuchi Shoyu (Dark Soy Sauce)
Use: General purpose seasoning for cooked and raw applications.
Koikuchi shoyu is the most commonly used soy sauce in the Japanese kitchen, and it's likely what you think of when you think of soy sauce. Most major supermarket brands available in the US, like Kikkoman's All-Purpose Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce, don't indicate a type on the label, but they are koikuchi shoyu.
Koikuchi shoyu is a good all-purpose choice; it can be used in marinades, sauces, gravies, braising liquids, and stir-fries. If a recipe calls for soy sauce but doesn't specify a type, koikuchi shoyu is likely what is meant.
While the koikuchi soy sauces at your local supermarket are perfectly acceptable to use, if you are interested in a more premium product, we recommend seeking out marudaizu shoyu, which is koikuchi shoyu that has been made with whole soybeans. Unless the label specifies that the soy sauce has been made with whole soy beans, it's likely that the soy sauce was produced using soy bean mash, which reduces the cost of production but also reduces the quality of the final soy sauce. However, if you can't find it, while marudaizu soy sauce has a fuller and more nuanced flavor, barring a side-by-side taste test, it isn't likely that most people would be able to distinguish between the fuller, more nuanced flavor of a marudaizu shoyu and non-marudaizu shoyu, particularly in something like a pan sauce.
Kikkoman is a well-known brand whose koikuchi is widely available; consequently, it seems to be a standard in many cooks’ kitchens. Kikkoman produces a marudaizu shoyu (the branding in English simply states that it is “organic”) that’s quite easy to purchase online but rarely found in grocery stores, although specialty markets, including Japanese supermarkets, will likely have it on hand. Yamasa is another large, well-known Japanese mass-market soy sauce brand, and it similarly produces a marudaizu that is easily found at specialty markets and online.
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There are also pricier brands of koikuchi soy sauce for those who want to explore the style further. The higher price is typically due to the fact that these are produced in much smaller batches using a much longer fermentation process. There are many different kinds available for purchase, and we have a two recommendations: Takesan’s Kishibori Shoyu, which is widely available online and in specialty markets, and Yamaki Jozo’s organic soy sauce, which is available for purchase through The Japanese Pantry. No additional preservatives are added to either of these products, and while we recommend that you refrigerate all your soy sauces once you’ve opened the bottles, we strongly recommend you refrigerate both of these premium soy sauces once you’ve opened them.
While you can certainly use both of these pricier soy sauces in the same way you would use a Kikkoman or Yamasa koikuchi, many of their more subtle, volatile qualities are lost once heat is applied to them. They are excellent for use in raw applications, such as for dipping sauces, and for final seasoning of a range of dishes, which includes putting them, raw, in something like a ramen tare.
Usukuchi Shoyu (Light Soy Sauce)
Use: General purpose cooking and seasoning, particularly in light-colored dishes such as soups and braises.
These are lighter and thinner than their darker, richer counterparts, but have a more assertive, salty flavor with a slight sweetness and acidity, which can come naturally from the brewing process or, more commonly, from additives like mirin, a sweet rice wine, corn syrup, and vinegar. Most often used in the Southern Kansai region of Japan, usukuchi actually predates koikuchi, and was used in the exactly the same way, however it has come to be used for seasoning dishes where a lighter color is particularly important, such as in soups and braises. Usukuchi should not be confused with low-sodium soy sauces, since it's in fact saltier than koikuchi, and you should use your judgment (and taste preferences) before using it as a 1:1 replacement in recipes that simply call for soy sauce.
The most widely available usukuchi is, again, produced by large brands like Kikkoman and Yamasa, although you’re more likely to find their offerings at a specialty market or online, and these are typically blended products. However, The Japanese Pantry offers an usukuchi made by the company Suehiro Shoyu that is superior to either of those options. Unlike those produced by Kikkoman and Yamasa, Suehiro Shoyu’s usukuchi isn’t a blended product, as it has no additives. Greg Dunmore, a co-founder of The Japanese Pantry, notes that the lighter color in this usukuchi has to do with the higher proportion of roasted wheat used in its production. Dunmore also stresses that this usukuchi is designed for cooking with and should be thought of as a staple seasoning, like salt, rather than a finishing seasoning.
While we don't think usukuchi is a necessity for most home kitchens, we can attest that the Suehiro Shoyu usukuchi is noticeably superior to the offerings from Yamasa and Kikkoman. It has a rounded, smooth flavor—quite salty, for sure, but pleasant nevertheless to taste all by itself—whereas the blended products have a relatively harsher flavor profile.
Uses: Dipping sauces, finishing seasoning, glazing cooking meats; gluten-free shoyu alternative.
Tamari is typically referred to as tamari shoyu, which would suggest it has an identical manufacturing process, but it's a byproduct of miso production—it's the liquid that runs off when pressing miso. Tamari's use as a seasoning actually predates shoyu in Japan, according to the Japanese Culinary Academy textbook Flavor and Seasonings: Dashi, Umami, and Fermented Foods.
The different production methods for tamari and shoyu, Dunmore notes, means you shouldn't really think of tamari as gluten-free shoyu, even if tamari can be free of gluten, as it's primarily made from fermented soy beans and little else. However, for those who avoid ingesting gluten, tamari has emerged as a convenient soy sauce substitute. These days, many tamari-style soy sauces actually contain traces of wheat, though most major soy sauce brands, like San-J, Wan Ja Shan, Eden Organic and Ohsawa, offer gluten-free versions.
With a higher soybean content, tamari has a stronger flavor and slightly thicker texture, with hints of caramel, and it's ideally used as a dipping sauce. If you have a wheat allergy, tamari can be a good alternative to shoyu, though you should always be sure to check the ingredients list for the presence of wheat, and you should note that it will impart a slightly different flavor to recipes that call specifically for soy sauce.
For cooks and kitchens where avoiding wheat isn’t of paramount importance, we suggest picking up a small bottle of tamari from The Japanese Pantry, which stocks a delicious tamari produced by Ito Shoten. We suggest using it as a dipping sauce, as a finishing seasoning for soups, stews, sauces, and braises, and, as Dunmore noted, to brush on cooked meats right before serving.
Shiro Shoyu (White Soy Sauce)
Use: Dipping sauce for raw, white-fleshed fish; seasoning for clear soups.
While tamari is made with more soybeans, shiro, or white soy sauce, is brewed with more wheat. It has a lighter color and flavor. It’s typically used as a dipping sauce for sashimi made from mild, white-fleshed fish where a darker sauce would overpower and discolor the delicate slices. It is also used in dishes, like suimono, or soups, and tares, when clarity is prized and you don’t want the coloring stained by a darker soy sauce.
Saishikomi Shoyu (Twice-Brewed Soy Sauce)
Use: Dipping sauce for sashimi and sushi, finishing seasoning.
Saishikomi shoyu, or “twice-brewed” soy sauce, is made in the same way as koikuchi shoyu, but instead of combining the mold-inoculated substrate with salt water, it's combined with already-brewed soy sauce. Like tamari and shiro shoyu, saishikomi is typically used as a finishing sauce or a dipping sauce.
Both of these soy sauces can be hard to find at supermarkets, but they are readily available at specialty markets, Japanese markets, and online.
Chinese Soy Sauces
As befits the birthplace of soy sauce, there are many, many different kinds of soy sauce in China, and the styles and varieties vary from region to region. Unlike Japanese soy sauces, Chinese soy sauce naming conventions aren't as strictly defined, and they are further complicated by the existence of multiple Chinese dialects with different pronunciations for the same kinds of soy sauces. For example, the pronunciation of light soy sauce in Cantonese can be approximated by sang chau, whereas the Romanization of the Mandarin would be sheng chou. However, soy sauce is often referred to by the general term jiang you.
In the United States, Chinese soy sauces are typically thought of as being either light or dark soy sauces, which stems directly from the fact that most of the first Chinese immigrants to the US emigrated from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong (formerly Canton).
Light Chinese Soy Sauce
Use: General purpose cooking and seasoning.
In Cantonese cuisine, light soy sauce is made from the first pressing of fermented soy beans, and it’s generally more expensive than dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is also known as “fresh” soy sauce, although you’ll sometimes find it labeled “pure bean” or “thin.” Light soy sauce is by far the most common cooking sauce in Cantonese cuisine. As our contributor Tim Chin says, “I use light soy sauce liberally and often. I use it in stir-fries and light marinades, to season sauces and soups. I think of it as a staple seasoning—like salt, pepper, or sugar. I don’t feel bad about blowing through a bottle of the stuff.” If a recipe for a Chinese dish calls for “soy sauce” without any further detail, you can safely assume that you can use light soy sauce. (You can also safely substitute Japanese dark soy sauce, or koikuchi, for Chinese light soy sauces, and vice versa.)
Light soy sauces can also be double-fermented, with a light soy sauce being used as the brine component for a subsequent batch of soy sauce, which boosts the soy flavor without altering the salinity.
Dark Chinese Soy Sauce
Use: For cooking.
Dark soy sauce is darker in color and less salty than its lighter counterpart. However, unlike Japanese dark soy sauce, Chinese dark soy sauce has a slightly viscous texture and is typically sweeter, due to the addition of sugar or molasses. Dark soy sauce is used solely for cooking, often added at the last stages to season and add color to sauces, and there isn’t really a good substitute for it. As Chin says, “If I’m making soy sauce chicken or red braised pork belly, I’m going to reach for dark soy sauce—both for the deeper color and for the richer texture it gives the sauce.” Chef Lucas Sin, also a Serious Eats contributor, agrees, “For some dishes, you really need to use Chinese dark soy sauce.”
Because of the variety of Chinese soy sauces and production methods, Sin told us, “Most people I know tend to prefer specific brands, rather than types.” Pearl River Bridge is a brand that produces both light and dark Chinese soy sauce and its offerings are widely available in Asian markets in the United States. Sin suggests seeking out Lee Kum Kee soy sauce, and specifically recommends the brand’s double-fermented soy sauce as a good starter Chinese soy sauce. “That’s the basic soy sauce I grew up seeing my dad use,” Sin says.
For those who want to explore other options that are relatively harder to find in stores, Sin recommends what he uses at home, which is Shinho’s Liu Yue Xian Premium Soy Sauce. For those who want to sample an example of a non-Cantonese, region-specific soy sauce, we recommend the Zhongba light and dark soy sauces imported by Mala Market. The more expensive variety of light soy sauce is produced in smaller batches and hand-stirred every day, and while the less expensive version is quite pleasant, as Taylor Holliday, the owner of Mala Market, notes, “You wouldn’t know there was something better until you tried the more expensive one.” These soy sauces are naturally fermented, but they are also infused with mushrooms, and thus the flavor is rounder than a soy sauce made only with soybeans.
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Korean Soy Sauces
As Sonja Swanson wrote in our guide to Korean pantry ingredients, Korean soy sauce, known as ganjang, was traditionally one of two products made from pressed blocks of boiled soy beans inoculated with wild mold and bacteria using rice straw. The blocks would be submerged in brine and after a few months the solids would be strained out and fermented separately from the liquid, yielding doenjang and ganjang, respectively.
Today, there are three main types of ganjang:
- Joseon ganjang also known as guk-ganjang or soup soy sauce, is made just from soybeans, salt, and water, and its flavor is more assertive than the other two. It is a general purpose soy sauce.
- Yangjo ganjang differs from Joseon ganjang in that it contains wheat, a holdover from Japanese colonization, which gives it a sweeter flavor profile. While yangjo ganjang is typically used to marinate meats and in dipping sauces, it can be used as a substitute for Joseon ganjang.
- Jin ganjang is a chemically produced soy sauce, made with hydrolyzed soy proteins.
We recommend trying Joseon ganjang produced by the brands Sempio and Mac, and the yangjo ganjang made by Chung Jung One, all of which are relatively easy to find at Korean specialty markets like H-Mart and online.
Sweet Soy Sauce
Use: General cooking and seasoning, finishing.
In addition to the relatively straightforward soy sauces described above, there are varieties of soy sauce that have sweeteners and other spices added to them. Perhaps the most famous of these is Indonesia’s kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce made with fermented soy beans and flavored with palm sugar, star anise, galangal and other aromatics. It’s widely used in many Indonesian dishes and is integral to the flavor profile of nasi goreng and bami goreng. Sweet soy sauce can be used in the same way as other soy sauce—that is, in marinades, stir-fries, in stews, etc.
Mala Market also offers Kungming Tuodong Sweet Soy Sauce, a sweet soy sauce that features prominently in the cuisine of Yunnan, which is delicious in braises, stews, and drizzled on top of vanilla ice cream. (Really!)
Low-Sodium and Gluten-Free Soy Sauces
As mentioned above, in many grocery stores you'll find soy sauces that are branded as being low-sodium and gluten-free. For those who observe specific dietary restrictions, these are obviously good alternatives to using traditional soy sauces, many of which are made with wheat and which, of course, are quite salty. It has not been common in our experience to find higher-end soy sauces that are low-sodium or gluten-free, however.
Chemical Soy Sauce
Chemical soy sauces are made by hydrolyzing soy protein and combining it with other flavorings. Their flavor is far removed from traditional soy sauces made with fermented soybeans. As Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, “Defatted soy meal, the residue of soybean oil production, is broken down—hydrolyzed—into amino acids and sugars with concentrated hydrochloric acid. This caustic mixture is then neutralized with alkaline sodium carbonate, and flavored and colored with corn syrup, caramel, water, and salt.”
How to Store Soy Sauce
Like olive oil, soy sauce is a fresh product that immediately begins to degrade in quality after the bottle is opened and it begins to oxidize. In our opinion, soy sauces shouldn't be used sparingly, and you should resist the urge to treat them as precious commodities, particularly the more expensive varieties—you paid for them, you might as well use them when they're at their best. That being said, soy sauces do store well, since they contain a lot of salt and aren't likely to spoil in a way that will make you sick; they will simply not be as good if stored improperly.
Soy sauce's two main enemies are light and heat, so be sure to store your soy sauce a dark place away from a heat source (for example, above the stove or on the countertop). Once you open a bottle of soy sauce, we recommend keeping it in the fridge, particularly if you don't expect to use all of the soy sauce within a month or so. Stored properly in the fridge, soy sauce will most likely keep indefinitely. That said, if you have a crusty three year-old bottle of Kikkoman kicking around, we recommend just buying a new bottle.