Known for its umami quality, soy sauce is the most basic condiment in Japanese cooking. Learn about the uses, benefits, variety, substitutions, and delicious recipes using soy sauce today!
If you are familiar with Japanese or Asian cuisines, you probably recognize the dark brown, salty liquid used as a condiment in many dishes. That’s Soy Sauce (also called Shoyu in Japanese, 醤油) – the all-purpose ingredient in Japanese cooking, and many other East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Originated in China, it is one of the oldest condiments on the planet. These days soy sauce is almost as mainstream as ketchup, where it has been used in many creative modern world cuisines.
How It’s Made
Soy sauce is made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and sometimes roasted grains, and left fermented for several months. With so many varieties of soy sauce available, you can find different methods being applied and the two main groups are: traditional VS chemical productions.
The typical traditional method starts with cooking the raw ingredients (soybeans and wheat), and then bacterial cultures are added to begin the fermentation for a few days. After this, the mixture is combined with liquid salt brine and allowed to brew and age for 5-8 months. Once that’s completed, soy sauce is heated and pasteurized, then bottled.
High-quality soy sauce uses only natural fermentation. These varieties are often labeled “naturally brewed.”
This is a cheaper and faster method of making soy sauce, where a chemical acid is added to break down the proteins in the soybeans and wheat. The method produces soy sauce in a few days instead of months. The finished product is usually flat and less aromatic in taste and flavor. Therefore, you’ll find additional addictives and salt may be added to the product for extra color and flavor.
What Does Soy Sauce Taste Like?
The primary taste of soy sauce is saltiness, but it also has a naturally sweet, slightly earthy, sour and umami (savory) note in the profile. A good quality soy sauce should be aromatic and balance in taste.
In Japanese cuisine, soy sauce is commonly used to:
- flavor and enhance a dish
- season ingredients
- enhance the color of a dish
- make sauces and dressing when combined with other ingredients
Its role is almost as basic as salt, where you can use it in the middle of cooking or to go with the food when you eat. Soy sauce lends fragrance and savory characteristics to the dishes we cook. Without it, Japanese food wouldn’t be what it is.
Since soy sauce is a fermented product, it is a good source of antioxidants, protein, Vitamin K and a rich mixture of nutrients. Some studies have even shown there are phytonutrient antioxidants in soy sauce than red wine!
There’s no question that soy sauce is a salty food, but it is lower in sodium than table salt. The overall nutritional values will vary depending on the soy sauce and the ingredients used to make it.
Our recommendation is to use soy sauce in a moderate amount. A little goes a long way. And look for soy sauce that is made with the traditional method, instead of chemically processed.
How is Japanese soy sauce different from other soy sauce?
To cook Japanese food with integrity, it’s important to use only Japanese soy sauce and not Chinese, Korean, or Thai soy sauce. It’s important to know that different soy sauce is made differently and the variants can result in different flavors.
Compared to the other soy sauce, Japanese soy sauce is more delicate and has a complex umami flavor. If you wish to achieve the best flavors and consistency in Japanese dishes, please use only Japanese soy sauce. You’d taste the difference right away!
Generally, you’ll find 2 types of soy sauce in Japanese cooking:
- Koikuchi shoyu (濃口醤油, dark-colored soy sauce)
- Usukuchi shoyu (薄口醤油, light-colored soy sauce)
Koikuchi Shoyu (Dark Colored Soy Sauce)
Developed in the east of Japan (Tokyo area), Koikuchi Shoyu is dark-colored with a slightly fruity flavor that reduces fishy and meaty smells in cooking. It is made with a higher percentage of soybeans and sometimes without wheat.
The soy sauce shown in the picture above is my favorite organic soy sauce (imported from Japan) from Kikkoman. Japanese grocery stores, H-Mart, and some Asian grocery stores carry this brand. You can also purchase the same soy sauce (in English package) on Amazon.
Usukuchi Shoyu (Light Colored Soy Sauce)
Originally favored in the west of Japan (Osaka area), Usukuchi Shoyu has a lighter color and saltier taste than koikuchi. We use lighter color soy sauce to make udon noodle soup, chawanmushi, and simmered dishes (nimono). Use this soy sauce when you want to keep the broth lighter in color. Regular soy sauce can make the broth/sauce too dark in some dishes.
Amakuchi Shoyu (Sweet Soy Sauce)
The sweet soy sauce is the mainstream soy sauce in southern Japan (they use this as regular soy sauce). I actually have never used this soy sauce but if you happen to use it, please reduce the amount of sugar in my recipes.
How to choose the best soy sauce?
Good quality soy sauces should have only the simple ingredients listed – that’s soybeans, wheat or barley, salt, and water. Look for the label with ‘naturally brewed’. Avoid buying any soy sauces that contain preservatives, corn syrup and other chemical-sounding names that you couldn’t pronounce.
There is really no substitution for soy sauce. It is a unique fermented product that defines Japanese cuisine. I highly recommend using Japanese soy sauce because I can differentiate Japanese and other kinds of soy sauce.
If you are allergic to gluten, there are many gluten-free soy sauce options to choose from these days.
Gluten-Free Soy Sauce
Kikkoman USA has gluten-free soy sauce!
From left, gluten-free soy sauce, gluten-free tamari soy sauce, and gluten-free less sodium tamari sauce. The regular gluten-free soy sauce is just like ordinary soy sauce!
For gluten-free recipes, please click here.
If you are interested in learning about Tamari Soy Sauce, read Tamari Soy Sauce
Is there any alternative to soy sauce? Can I substitute with coconut aminos?
For authentic Japanese flavors, I would not recommend substituting unless you really cannot consume soy. For those who are allergic to soy, you’ll find suggestions of using coconut aminos or Bragg’s liquid aminos as the alternative. Coconut aminos is a liquid condiment made from the fermented sap of a coconut palm tree and sea salt. It does not replicate the exact flavor of soy sauce, but it does give you a little salty-savory taste. You can use coconut aminos or Bragg’s liquid aminos just the same to substitute soy sauce in recipes. It should really be used as the last resort.
Is soy sauce high in sodium?
Soy sauce does contain high levels of salt, but it is all about the amount you add to a dish. It does not necessarily add a salty taste to your food, but more of a savory soy sauce fragrance. That’s why you still may need to add salt to most of the recipes, especially cooking with meat and vegetables. If you prefer, you can always start with a smaller amount, then add in a bit more after taste tasting the flavor.
I am on a low-sodium diet, what should I do?
The only recommendation I have for you is to use less amount of the sauce and increase aromatics (ginger/ garlic/ scallions/ spices) to enhance the flavor of the dish.
Recipes Using Soy Sauce