Soy sauce is a lot like wine. The longer it ages, the more interesting and complex its flavor. Soy sauces vary in richness of flavour, saltiness and viscosity depending on the place of their manufacture and the care with which they are produced.
Soy Sauces are essential parts of the cuisine in various countries, including China, Indonesia and Japan, and each country has an approach to making soy sauce that is rather different from the others. Just to confuse matters more, there are light, dark and sweet soy sauces.
You can browse our recipes using Soy Sauce here.
How Soy Sauce is Made
One of the oldest condiments in the world, soy sauce is a by-product of fermented soybeans (and wheat, particularly in Japan) that have been mixed with brine. First, Aspergillus molds are added to cooked soybeans (and roasted wheat). After the molds grow over 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.
The resulting mixture is allowed to ferment for a time period ranging from a few months for standard supermarket brands to several years for high-end bottles. The soy sauce is finally strained, pasteurised, bottled, and sold.
Soy sauce was first used in China more than three thousand years ago, when it was a thin, salty liquid in which fragments of fermented soybean floated. Its use has been documented throughout Chinese history, and the process by which it is made has changed many times over the years. Today, the type of soy sauce we use has been strained to remove all traces of the bean solids.
Tradition has it that a Japanese monk studying Buddhism in China in the 13th century tasted a delicious extract of fermented soya beans and took the recipe back to Japan. There is a lovely video showing the method and the town where soy sauce originated here.
In the following 4 centuries many experiments were made with techniques and ingredients. In the 16th century a roasted, cracked wheat was added, and this gave smoothness, complex flavours and a good color to the finished product. This became shoyu, a Japanse dark soy.
Natural soy sauce is made from a combination of soybeans, roasted hard red wheat, sea salt, and water in more or less equal proportions. The mixture is ideally allowed to ferment in cedar vats for at least 18 months. When fully aged, the mixture is pressed to extract the liquid. Results vary according to specific recipes and regional preferences in Japan and China. The color of soy sauce ranges from light amber to black, and the flavor from pungent and salty to a more mellow salty-sweet. The quality and precise proportions of ingredients, the length of time aged, and the vats used in fermentation all contribute to differences in the flavor, color, and aroma of the sauce.
Sadly, these days, there are mass-produced commercial soy sauces made around the world. The processes used to manufacture these are markedly different from the traditional ones used to create natural soy sauce, by using chemicals and temperature control to reduce fermentation time to 3 or 4 months. 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 neutralised with alkaline sodium carbonate, and flavored and colored with corn syrup, caramel, water, and salt. So chemicals and coloring agents are used to enhance the product. Be careful before you buy – read the label. It should say “soya beans, wheat, salt”. Other additions indicate lesser products.
It is worth looking for a natural soy sauce, for example, a natural shoyu, and comparing tastes.
Chinese Soy Sauces
Light soy sauces are by far the most common cooking sauce in Chinese cuisine. If a Chinese recipe calls for soy sauce without any further detail, you can assume it means Chinese light soy sauce. It is designed to enhance flavors when cooking. More expensive than dark soys, they are made from the first pressing of fermented soy beans. Therefore they are also known as fresh soy sauce, or thin soy sauce.
Twice-fermented light soy sauces with a mellower but more complex flavor profile are also available. Rather than cooking, these are used primarily for dipping.
Chinese dark or thick soy sauces are darker in color and thicker in texture with a more full-bodied flavour. Paradoxically, they tend to be lighter in saltiness. These sauces are fermented and aged for a longer period of time than the thin, or light, soy sauces. They often have added sugar, molasses or caramel, giving them a sweet-salty flavor and viscous texture.
Dark soy is used solely for cooking, often added at the last stages to season and add flavour and color to sauces. It is used primarily in cooking because it needs heating to bring out its full flavor. Dark Chinese Soys are considered an acquired taste. The thick soys should be used sparingly as the flavour can overwhelm the dish.
Mushroom Soy Sauce
Mushroom Soy Sauce is a delicious dark Chinese soy sauce that is infused with dried straw mushrooms. It has a deep, rich flavor and can be used in place of other types of soy sauce in most recipes. It is especially nice as a table condiment where its unusual flavor can come through.
Hoisin Soy Sauce
A soy bean derivative, this thick, smooth, sweet, spicy, dark red sauce is mild in taste and both sweet and spicy. It is made from soy beans, chillies, flour, vinegar, sugar, garlic, and various spices such as Chinese Five Spice Powder, and is widely used in Southern Chinese cooking as a condiment and in cooking. It is advisable to cook hoisin in oil for a few minutes to rid it of its raw bean flavour.
It can be quite strong in flavour, so being by using small amounts. Keep in the refrigerator after opening.
Although Hoisin means seafood, the sauce does not contain any seafood products, nor is it typically used with it. This sauce does not contain plums, even though it is frequently misidentified as plum sauce in the UK. Nor does it contain raisins, even though it is occasionally misidentified as raisin sauce.
Indonesian Soy Sauces
Sweet Soy | Kepac Manis
The traditional Indonesian Kecap manis is a dark, sweet soy sauce native to Indonesia made with fermented soy beans and flavored with palm sugar, star anise, garlic, galangal and other aromatics. It’s widely used in many Indonesian dishes. This sauce is sweeter and more syrupy and complex than Chinese or Japanese soy sauces, and less salty, and excels as a marinade ingredient.
Dark Chinese soy sauce sweetened with brown sugar can be used as a substitute in emergencies.
Thin or Light Soy | Kepac Asin
Thin, or Light, Soy Sauce from Indonesia is thin with a clear, delicately salty flavour, and is used as a condiment. Light Soy Sauce as the name implies, is light in colour, but it is full flavour and is often the best one to use for cooking. It is saltier than dark soy sauce.
Japanese Soy Sauces
Japanese soy sauces are different to Chinese soy – the Japanese varieties are sweeter and lighter. Japanese soy sauces are graded into light and dark, dark being better for general cooking, and light being paler and stronger is used for aesthetic purposes, to avoid darkening a light coloured dish. Use light soy sauce if the type is not specified.
Do not use Chinese Soy sauce as a substitute for Japanese soy.
Shoyu and Tamari
Both Japanese soy sauces taste more balanced and less salty than the sometimes harsh bite of Chinese style soy sauce, which makes them great for dipping as well as general use. The differences in production give each sauce its own unique flavor. Japanese soy sauces are clearer and thinner, and have darker color and richer flavor than the common Chinese soy sauces. Tamari has a rich texture and intense flavor. It can be used anywhere regular soy sauce is called for, and is especially good to use as a table condiment and dipping sauce.
In the west, the words Shoyu and Tamari are often used interchangeably. In Japan, Shoyu is the Japanese name for soy sauce which is made from a mash of soybeans and wheat, while Tamari is a non-wheat product made by drawing off the liquid content of soybean miso.
Tamari was first produced as a by-product of the soybean miso. People who were making soybean miso discovered the value of the raw liquid drawn off from the cedar kegs during the fermentation process. Since then, Tamari itself has become a popular soy sauce product. The actual translation of tamari is “puddle,” so called by the way it would pool on top of the miso.
Since genuine Tamari is a non-wheat product, it has a distinctive aroma as well as thicker texture, deeper color, and stronger taste. There are only certain areas where Tamari is produced, whereas Shoyu is much more widely available. Because of its distinctive characteristics, Tamari’s popularity overseas is just as widely recognised as Shoyu.
George Ohsawa, the Founder of Macrobiotics, first introduced natural Shoyu to the western world. To distinguish the naturally produced Shoyu from the inferior commercially produced Shoyu, he called this Shoyu, Tamari. As a result, particularly in the natural food industry, many people still called this Shoyu, Tamari. This has caused confusion amongst consumers as to the differences between Shoyu and Tamari. As genuine Tamari gains in popularity, the tamari manufacturers have been making an effort in correcting this misconception.
Koikuchi and Usukuchi
Japanese soy sauces are split into dark (koikuchi) and light (usukuchi) with the former being more commonly used. Koikuchi is the ubiquitous dark soy (shoyu) of Japan – if a soy sauce does not specify its type, it can be assumed that it is koikuchi.
Usukuchi is Japanese light soy sauce – lighter in colour and saltier in taste, they have a more assertive flavor and a slight sweetness from the addition of mirin, a sweet rice wine. The soya beans are boiled and not steamed, resulting in a diluted or weaker mash. It also uses more wheat that koikuchi. Use usukuchi when you don’t want to colour the dish. It is used exclusively in the kitchen and not as a table condiment.
Keep in mind that a dark Japanese soy sauce is equivalent to a Chinese light style.
Shiro and Saishikomi
Shiro, or white soy sauce, is brewed with more wheat. It has a lighter color and flavor, thin and briny. It’s typically used as a dipping sauce.
Saishikomi, or “twice-brewed” soy sauce, has a stronger flavor than tamari. It is used at the table, and not in the kitchen.
To produce it, the saltwater brine in the fermentation stage of standard shoyu is replaced with a previous batch of already-brewed soy sauce. Shiro and saishikomi are not as commonly found in stores compared to other soy sauces. Check out Japanese specialty markets to find them.
A soy sauce made from whole beans in a traditional manner, rather than using de-fatted, flake soya beans to facilitate manufacturing. Marudaizu retains the older methods.
Soy sauce will last for quite a long time without refrigeration. Its two main enemies are light and heat, so it is best to keep it tightly sealed and away from light and any heat source. Because it is already fermented, you don’t have worry about wastage. Once opened, especially if it is in a glass bottle, you might like to keep it in the fridge, although this is not strictly necessary. You can also purchase large metal cans of soy sauce and store them in a dark cupboard, refilling a smaller glass container in your refrigerator as needed.
Information from around the internet. The photo in no way endorses the use of any of the products. It simply reflects products in my pantry.
browse some of the Soy Sauce series
- Dipping Sauce or Broth for Japanese Noodles
- Soy Salad Dressing
- Japanese Simmered Eggplant with Soy
- Cherry Tomatoes with Soy Dressing
- Thai Steamed Eggplant with Soy and Sesame Dressing
- Spicy Herby Salad with Sweet Soy Dressing
- Black Pepper Tofu
- A Wicked Tamarind, Soy and Lime Dressing