Of all the soy food ingredients, Americans are perhaps most familiar with soy sauce. While a bottle is almost always on hand at your favorite sushi restaurant or local Chinese spot, many of us enjoy cooking with it at home, too. In fact, one survey found that approximately 65% of American households keep soy sauce in their pantry!

However, soy sauce is much more than a delightfully salty sauce to accompany your favorite takeout order. It’s a versatile cooking agent and condiment with both a rich history and a rich flavor. Let’s make like a dumpling and dive into soy sauce!

What is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce is a liquid made from fermented soybeans. It is used as an ingredient in dressings and marinades as well as a dipping sauce across many Asian cuisines. Though it is renowned for its flavor, soy sauce was originally invented as a preservative.

In ancient China, when food was harder to come by and modern food storage techniques were centuries away, a fermented soybean paste known as jiang was the most effective way to keep food fresh. The process of preserving meat, seafood, vegetables, and grain with jiang traveled to neighboring countries, including Korea and Japan, where people began experimenting with using fermented soybeans to influence the flavor of food. Thus, began the Japanese tradition of home brewed soybean sauce, which is thought to be an early incarnation of the soy sauce people all over the world enjoy today.

How is Soy Sauce Made?

As is the case with many fermented soy foods, the soy sauce creation process is a long one. First, soybeans are soaked in water for several hours and steamed. Next, wheat is roasted, ground into flour, and mixed with the steamed soybeans. The recipe’s soy and wheat ratios vary by region and variety of soy sauce. Fungal spores, usually Aspergillus coryza, A. sojae, and A. tamarii, are introduced. These spores produce enzymes that break down large molecules and give soy sauce its umami flavor.  The mixture is then left for three days.

The next step is fermentation. A brine solution is added, and the mixture may be left to ferment for any length of time ranging from one month up to four years. After fermentation, the mixture is pressed to filter the solids and pasteurized before it is ready to eat.

What are the Different Varieties of Soy Sauce?

Asian countries have had thousands of years to experiment with the soy sauce creation process. China, Japan, and Korea each have several takes on this old standby.

Chinese Soy Sauce

The Chinese soy sauce recipe calls for a higher ratio of soybeans to wheat.

  • Light Chinese Soy Sauce: Light Chinese Soy Sauce originated in the Cantonese region of China. Light Chinese soy sauce is also known as “fresh” soy sauce, although it is sometimes labeled “pure bean” or “thin.” It is used in general purpose cooking and as a seasoning.
  • Dark Chinese Soy Sauce: Dark Chinese soy sauce is a deeper brown hue, less salty, and generally less expensive than its lighter counterpart. Dark Chinese soy sauce also has a slightly thicker texture and is typically sweeter, due to added sugar or molasses. Dark soy sauce is used solely for cooking. It is typically added at the last stages of cooking to season and add color to sauces.

Japanese Soy Sauce

The Japanese soy sauce recipe calls for equal amounts of soybeans and wheat. 

  • Dark Japanese Soy Sauce: Also known as koikuchi shoyu, dark Japanese soy sauce is likely what you think of when you think of soy sauce. It is a common ingredient in marinades, sauces, gravies, braising liquids, and stir-fries. Most major supermarket brands available in the U.S. are of this variety. If a recipe calls for soy sauce but doesn’t clarify which type, koikuchi shoyu is likely a good choice.
  • Light Japanese Soy Sauce: Usukuchi soyu, or light Japanese soy sauce, has a bolder, saltier flavor than darker sauces. This is likely due to additives such as mirin, a sweet rice wine, corn syrup, and vinegar. It is ideal for general purpose cooking and seasoning, particularly for light-colored dishes such as soups and braises.
  • Tamari: Sometimes referred to as tamari shoyu, tamari is a byproduct of miso production. Tamari has a higher soybean content, a stronger flavor, and a slightly thicker texture than other soy sauce varieties. It features notes of caramel and is ideally used as a dipping sauce, finishing seasoning, or glaze. An added bonus? Most major soy sauce brands offer gluten-free version.
  • White Soy Sauce: White soy sauce, or shiro shoyu, is brewed with more wheat than other types of soy sauce. It’s often served as a dipping sauce for sashimi made from mild, white fish that runs the risk of being overpowered by darker sauces. It is also used in certain soups and other dishes where clarity is a priority.
  • Twice Brewed Soy Sauce: As its name implies, twice-brewed soy sauce, also called saishikomi shoyu, is made with already brewed soy sauce. It is a great dipping sauce for sushi or sashimi and can also be used as a finishing sauce.

Korean Soy Sauce

Korean soy sauce, or ganjang, is made a bit differently. In the traditional Korean method, pressed blocks of boiled soybeans are inoculated with wild mold and bacteria using rice straw. The blocks are submerged in brine. After a few months, the solids are strained and fermented separately from the liquid.

  • Joseon Ganjang: Also known as guk-ganjang or soup soy sauce, this type is made from soybeans, salt, and water. It is a general-purpose soy sauce with a bold flavor.
  • Yangjo Ganjang: Yangjo ganjang contains wheat, which gives it a sweeter flavor profile. Yyangjo ganjang is typically used to marinate meats and in dipping sauces and can be used as a substitute for Joseon ganjang.

Additional Soy Sauce Varieties

The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean soy sauce types covered are just the tip of the iceberg. The full spectrum of varieties includes sweet soy sauce and a growing selection of soy sauce options tailored to different budget and dietary needs.

  • Sweet Soy Sauce: Whereas the soy sauce varieties listed above are more straightforward, there is a world of soy sauces enhanced with sweeteners and other spices. One popular option is kecap manis, an Indonesian soy sauce made with fermented soybeans and flavored with palm sugar, star anise, galangal, and other aromatics. While kecap manis is used in savory dishes, such as marinades, stir-fries, and stews, some sweet soy sauces are eaten with dessert, such as a topping for vanilla ice cream.
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP) Soy Sauce: Quicker to produce and sometimes less expensive than fermented soy sauce varieties, HVP soy sauces are made by hydrolyzing soy protein and combining it with other flavorings.
  • Low-Sodium and Gluten-Free Soy Sauces: While soy sauce offers benefits (see below), traditional varieties made with high salt content and wheat might not be ideal for people living with certain dietary restrictions. Fortunately, most mainstream American supermarkets carry low-sodium and gluten-free soy sauce options.

The Benefits of Soy Sauce

In addition to being delicious, soy sauce is also versatile, sustainable and low in calories.  

  • Low in Calories: Soy sauce is one of the few popular condiments that is low in calories. One tablespoon is less than nine calories!
  • Rich in Flavor: As illustrated by the examples below, soy sauce is versatile. Its nutty, umami flavor can add flavor to nutrient dense meals of vegetables and fish, making it easier to eat healthy.
  • Supports Sustainable Agriculture: Opting for soy sauce made from U.S.-grown soy is a great way to support sustainable food production practices.U.S. soybean farmers embrace precision technology and genetic modification to enable no-till farming and harvesting techniques. They also leverage sustainable transportation infrastructure for a more environmentally friendly supply chain.

How Can I Add More Soy Sauce to My Diet?

Soy sauce is a pleasant tasting, versatile, and familiar ingredient that can be found at mainstream grocery retailers across the country. Its accessibility makes it a perfect ingredient for party appetizers and home cooked family dinners alike. The following recipes demonstrate how soy sauce can contribute to a colorful glaze or flavorful sauce.

Appetizers Guests Will Love

Quick and Easy Lunch and Dinner Ideas

Awesome Sauce: The Power of Soy

Soy sauce is versatile and odds are you already have a bottle of it sitting in your refrigerator. (Hot tip: while storing soy sauce at room temperature is fine, refrigeration extends its shelf life!)

And now that you know about the range of soy sauce varieties, its many applications, and its fascinating history, you can be more intentional about adding soy sauce into your diet.

See our Soy Ingredient Index for more information about soy sauce and other sustainable soy foods.