Soy sauce is a familiar ingredient even to Western cooks these days. It holds a special place of importance in our list of 10 Essential Chinese Pantry Ingredients, and is truly essential to not just Chinese cooking, but Asian cooking in general.
But some of our recipes call for “light soy sauce,” while others call for just “soy sauce,” and still others call for “dark soy sauce.”
At the Asian market, you may have also seen bottles labeled “seasoned,” “black,” “gluten-free,” “sweet,” and “thin.” The options are dizzying and can certainly be confusing!
In this article, we’ll talk about the many different types available today, geographic origin, and differences!
We’ll also focus on light soy sauce, a term we use interchangeably with “soy sauce” or “regular soy sauce” in our recipes. It’s the type we turn to most often in our pantry, with the most versatility when it comes to Chinese cooking.
What Is Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce (jiàng yóu, 酱油) is a liquid condiment and seasoning, originating in China and brewed by fermenting soybeans, grains (usually wheat, which is why most soy sauce is not gluten-free), and mold cultures/yeast. The process can take months, or in the case of very high quality artisanal varieties, even years.
What Does “Light Soy Sauce” Mean?
If our Chinese recipes call for “soy sauce,” “regular soy sauce,” or “light soy sauce,” we are always referring to Chinese light soy sauce (shēng chōu, 生抽). It is generally thinner and lighter in color than the familiar (Japanese) Kikkoman you may have seen on dining tables at sushi restaurants and takeout joints. (We’ll get to the differences between Chinese and Japanese soy sauce later in this article.)
Here, the distinction of “light” differentiates light soy from Chinese dark soy, which is darker, thicker, and a little bit sweeter (see photo below, where dark is on the left, and light is on the right).
But light soy is essentially just the default to use in most situations for Chinese recipes.
On our blog, “Light Soy Sauce” does NOT refer to low sodium, which can be especially confusing, since some brands like Kikkoman and La Choy have applied the word “light” or “lite” to their low sodium products in the past.
Examples of Chinese light soy sauce products on the market are Kimlan Soy Sauce, Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce, Lee Kum Kee Premium Soy Sauce, Haitian Superior Light Soy Sauce, and Wan Ja Shan Soy Sauce. In the photo below, see the bottles for these different brands. Some bottles say “light” while others don’t.
General rule of thumb: if it is a Chinese brand of naturally brewed soy, and it does not say “dark” on it, it is light soy!
In our house, we’re partial to Pearl River Bridge brand.
They make a regular Superior Light Soy Sauce as well as a slightly more expensive (about $1 difference per bottle) premium “Golden Label” light soy.
You’ll often see a distinction within brands between a regular and a “premium” product.
The difference is that the premium soy sauce is the first batch extracted from the fermentation process. Additional ingredients are then added and fermented further to create subsequent batches that are slightly less flavorful than that initial batch.
Think of it like first pressed olive oil. It’s the oil extracted from the very first pressing of the olives, making it higher quality and more pure than subsequent pressings.
Give different brands a try and see which you like best!
Types of Soy Sauce:
Soy sauce sounds like a simple ingredient, and for the most part, it is. However, there are many types. Below are brief descriptions of some of the most common varieties you’re likely to find at your local Asian market.
The most common types available in the U.S. are Japanese and Chinese. However, we’ve also included some common Southeast Asian kinds:
- Light Soy Sauce (Chinese): The word for light soy sauce in Chinese translates to “fresh” soy sauce, as it is traditionally made from the first pressing of fermented soybeans. It is the most commonly used sauce in Chinese cooking. If our recipes call for “soy sauce,” we mean light soy sauce!
- Dark Soy Sauce (Chinese): Thicker and sweeter than light soy sauce, as it often contains added sugar. It’s used in small amounts, for color as well as flavor in dishes. While it often contains slightly more sodium than light soy sauce (about 15% more, to be exact), its flavor is balanced by sweetness and is therefore not as intensely salty.
- Mushroom Flavored Dark Soy Sauce (Chinese): Dark soy sauce that has been flavored with mushrooms, used to add umami to dishes.
- Double Black Soy Sauce (Chinese): Made with added molasses, with a similar consistency to Chinese dark soy sauce.
- Seasoned Soy Sauce (Chinese): A Chinese light soy sauce with added seasonings––usually a bit of sugar and Disodium guanylate (an MSG-like flavor enhancer) or MSG. Often labeled as “seasoned for seafood.”
- Light Soy Sauce (Japanese): Unlike Chinese Light Soy Sauce (which is used all the time in Chinese cooking), Japanese cooks generally use Japanese Light Soy sparingly. It’s thinner than the more common Japanese Dark Soy Sauce, with a saltier flavor, and it seasons foods without changing the color.
- Dark Soy Sauce (Japanese): Used more often than Japanese light soy sauce. Kikkoman’s All-purpose Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce is a Japanese dark variety. Don’t confuse Japanese dark soy sauce with Chinese Dark Soy Sauce!
- Tamari (Japanese): Made with soybeans, but little to no wheat, originally as a by-product of miso (Japanese soybean paste) production. Often used today as a gluten-free alternative to soy sauce, though not all tamari is 100% gluten-free, so read ingredients labels carefully!
- Sweet Soy Sauce/Kecap Manis (Indonesian): A sweetened, seasoned variety from Indonesia that’s flavored with sugar, galangal, and other aromatics. It’s the go-to seasoning for Indonesian cooking.
- Thin Soy Sauce (Thai): The Thai equivalent of Chinese light soy. Very versatile, used to add saltiness and flavor to stir-fries, marinades, dipping sauces, noodles, fried rice, etc.
- Black Soy Sauce (Thai): Similar to Chinese dark soy sauce and used to add color and flavor to dishes. Slightly sweet, but not nearly as sweet as sweet soy (below).
- Sweet Soy Sauce (Thai): Similar to Indonesian Kecap Manis. Contains caramel and sugar, with an intense sweet flavor and thick consistency. Used to add color and sweetness to dishes.
- Low Sodium Soy Sauce: Regular brewed soy sauce with about 40% of the salt removed, depending on the brand.
- Gluten-Free Soy Sauce: Made without wheat in the fermentation process, several Japanese brands offer gluten-free options, including San J, Kikkoman, and Ichibiki. Chinese brands like Pearl River Bridge and Lee Kum Kee are catching up, though we see their gluten-free products in stores less often. Note: While often billed as gluten-free soy sauce, not all Tamari is 100% gluten-free, so read labels carefully.
- Chemical Soy Sauce (i.e. fake soy sauce): Not naturally brewed or fermented; made with a chemical process involving hydrolyzing soy protein (hard to explain what that is without a chemistry degree), corn syrup and caramel coloring. You’re more likely to find these at regular supermarkets than in Asian stores. Don’t buy them!
This is not an exhaustive list. We took a look at the products readily available in our local Chinese supermarkets, but we certainly did not cover all types available in Asia, in countries like the Philippines, Korea, etc. where this ingredient is just as important.
But if you have questions or other information to share, please let us know in the comments below!
How Is It Used?
Soy sauce is probably the most important condiment across Asia. It acts as a seasoning, as well as a color enhancer, darkening the color of dishes to a rich amber. You’ll use it in stir-fries, sauces, soups, braises, fillings, noodle dishes, dumplings, and more.
Different types have different uses (for more detail on that, click the links for each type of soy sauce above). In general, however, when cooking a particular dish from a particular Asian cooking tradition (say, Chinese), always use the proper types of soy––in this case, Chinese light soy sauce and dark soy sauce.
We don’t mean to be snobby, but using Japanese soy in a Chinese dish or Chinese soy in a Japanese dish will yield different flavors!
Kikkoman is a great brand, and we’ll use it when cooking Japanese dishes or enjoying sushi, but we’ll rarely (if ever) use it for Chinese cooking.
That said, if you enjoy the flavor of a particular type or brand over another, you can use whatever floats your boat. That’s the beauty of home-cooking––you’re the boss!
Buying & Storing
Not all sauces are created equal. There are naturally brewed/fermented ones, which is what you want to look for, and then there are chemical versions, which you should stay away from.
Check ingredients labels and look for fewer ingredients, soybeans in the ingredients list, and the word “brewed” on the bottle.
The best place to buy this ingredient is at a Chinese or Asian grocery store, but if you don’t have any near you, it can also be purchased online. Our favorite brand is Pearl River Bridge (and they didn’t pay us to say that!), but feel free to buy whatever brand suits your tastes.
Store it in a cool, dry, dark place like your pantry or cupboard. No need to refrigerate.
Soy Sauce is such an essential ingredient in so many dishes, it’s hard to find a substitute for it. If you have a gluten allergy, gluten-free soy sauces and gluten-free tamari can be found relatively easily these days.
If, however, you have a soy allergy, you can try coconut aminos. We haven’t cooked with coconut aminos, but we hear this salty-sweet condiment is a good alternative for those who need to follow a soy-free diet.
Our Favorite Dishes That Feature This Ingredient:
Too many to name! But here’s a selection:
- Cantonese Soy Sauce Pan-fried Noodles
- Supreme Soy Sauce Fried Rice
- Shanghai Scallion Oil Noodles
- Soy Sauce Butter Pasta with Shrimp and Shiitakes
- Perfect Dumpling Dipping Sauce
- Soy Sauce Chicken
- Enoki Mushrooms with Garlic & Scallion Sauce
- Grilled Ribeye with Soy Butter Glaze
If you have further questions, let us know in the comments––we try to answer every single one!