Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Soy Sauces – aren’t they all the same?

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When you go to the supermarket to get soy sauce, you will probably only see a handful of brands and not much variety in terms of type of soy sauce. If, on the other hand, you go to an international market, you will see dozens and dozens of different brands and different types. How can there be that many different soy sauces and is it worth it to seek out those rather than the supermarket ones? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Soy sauce, as its name implies, is made from soybeans. There are two methods of making soy sauce. It can be either naturally brewed/fermented or chemically produced.

Naturally brewed

This method involves mixing together soybeans, wheat, salt, water and a mold (koji). This “mash” is then left to ferment. Most will use stainless steel tanks although some will utilize barrels. During fermentation, proteins are broken down into amino acids. One of these, glutamic acid, is primarily responsible for the umami taste for which soy sauce is known. It is fermented for months or longer with the best said to be at least 2 years. This results in a much more complex flavor and aroma.

Chemically made

According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, in this method “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 with corn syrup, caramel, water and salt.” This allows the production time to be reduced to days. However, it also results in a product that lacks the complex or nuanced flavor of brewed soy sauce. It tends to also be very salty.

I don’t know about you but chemically-made soy sauce doesn’t sound very appetizing. Yes, naturally brewed soy sauce may be more expensive ($3.00 vs $1.50 for a 10 ounce bottle) but it will certainly be worth it. To be able to tell the difference in the store, look for the words “brewed” or “traditionally brewed”. Also, look at the ingredient list. Here is an example:

  • Kikkoman traditionally brewed soy sauce – “water, soybeans, wheat, salt”
  • Store brand chemically made soy sauce – “water, hydrolyzed soy protein, salt, dextrose, caramel color”

There are different styles of soy sauce including Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Filipino and Peruvian. The main ones you will see in stores are Chinese and Japanese style and these will be the ones I discuss.

The Chinese style traditionally did not use wheat although today this style does contain wheat. It may also contain added sugar. In general, it has a denser and saltier flavor as well as being thicker & darker than Japanese soy sauce.

Japanese soy sauce is brewed with roasted wheat. It is slightly sweeter and has a more rounded flavor than the Chinese style.

Among these two styles there are also variations. The main variation I will discuss is light versus dark soy sauce, which is mostly due to the length of the aging. Light soy sauces are thinner in texture and lighter in color but more intense in flavor. Note that the word “light” does not mean low sodium. There are low sodium soy sauces, which can have 40% less salt. However, you must look on the label for this specifically. Also, you will probably not find a reduced salt version in the higher end soy sauces.

Chinese – the two varieties are known as Sheng Chou (light) and Lao Chou (dark).

The light variety is the most common. It is reddish brown in color and has a floral or port-like aroma. It is an all-purpose soy sauce and would be what to choose if the recipe doesn’t specify which type of soy sauce.

Good brands are:

  • Zhongba
  • Pearl River Bridge
  • Lee Kum Kee

Dark Chinese soy sauce is aged longer and often is sweeter due to the addition of a sweetener. Its taste is slightly sweet with a roasty and wine-like characteristic. It is darker brown and more viscous as well as being less salty than the light. It is often used to add color to dishes and is typically added towards the end of cooking and used sparingly.

Good brands are:

  • Pearl River Bridge
  • Lee Kum Kee
  • Zhongba
  • Kimian

Japanese – light Japanese soy sauces are known as Usukuchi Shoyu and dark is labeled Koikuchi Shoyu.

The Japanese light soy sauce is amber in color, thin in texture and saltier than the dark. It has sharp, acidic, bright, alcohol-like notes. It is used in Japanese dishes where you just want seasoning without changing the dish’s flavor, color or aroma.

Good brands are:

  • Kikkoman
  • Yamasa
  • Suehiro Shoyu

Japanese dark soy sauce is the most common even if the bottle does not say this. It is dark brown in color and sweeter than the light. Its taste is described as bright and bourbon-like with notes of salted caramel. This is the everyday and all-purpose soy sauce for Japanese cuisine. It is also probably what most of us think of when we think of soy sauce. Most major supermarket brands such as Kikkoman’s will not specify this on the label but they are most likely of this type. It is a very good all-purpose choice used in marinades, sauces, gravies, braising, stir fries.

Marudaizu” on the label means it is made only from whole soybeans rather than a combination of whole and defatted soybeans. Whole beans take longer to ferment, which means a more complex flavor.

Good brands are:

  • Kikkoman
  • Aloha Shoyu

There are some other types of Japanese soy sauce.


This is technically not soy sauce but the liquid byproduct formed during miso-making. It is thicker and richer than soy sauce and is made just with fermented soybeans but little or no wheat. Because of that, it is touted as a gluten free soy sauce. However, not all of the brands are totally free of wheat and so, you need to check the label. It is used in dipping sauces, for a finishing seasoning or glazing cooked meats.

Another product that some people use as a gluten free alternative to soy sauce is coconut aminos. See this Tip for more information on this product.

Good brands of tamari are:

  • San-J
  • Kikkoman
  • Yamasa

Shiro Shoyo

This variety is white or very light in color. It is used as a dipping sauce for raw, white fish or seasoning in clear soups. Since it is brewed with more wheat, it is lighter in both color and flavor.


This is a Japanese sweet soy sauce. It is a high end product and is primarily used for dipping sushi and sashimi.

Soy sauce is a long lasting product as long as you store it properly. Keep it in a dark place away from any heat source. Refrigeration is not necessary but it will extend its flavor and freshness.

If you are in a general supermarket, the best brand you are probably going to find is Kikkoman. I hope you venture out to an international market, though, to see and try some of these other products.