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Are You Using The Right Soy Sauce? Here's How To Find Out

04/08/2014 07:00 am ET
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Soy sauce is one of those ubiquitous condiments that you may use often, but may not fully understand. There's a lot more to it than you might think. It's one of the oldest condiments in the world, after all. For all you know, you could be using the wrong kind of soy sauce without even realizing it. Let us break it down for you.

Soy sauce is made from fermented soy beans, water and a variety of roasted grains, like wheat, barley, or rice. Jenny Lee-Adrian of Serious Eats explains that to make soy sauce, first you add aspergillus mold to the soy beans and grains to produce a mixture called koji. Next, mold grows over for up to three days and you combine the culture with salt water and lactobacillus, "a bacteria that breaks down sugars into lactic acid." You're left with a product called moromi, which may age anywhere from six months to a few years before it is strained, pasteurized, and put on the market.

There is Japanese soy sauce and Chinese soy sauce, and within those categories a few important variations. Japanese soy sauce is known as shoyu, and is clearer and thinner than its Chinese counterpart.

Dark Japanese soy sauce (koikuchi) is richer, less salty and more commonly used than light (usukuchi). Light Japanese soy sauce is slightly sweeter than the dark kind because of the addition of mirin, a sweet rice wine, and it is also saltier. Tamari is made almost exclusively with soy beans, with only some wheat or no wheat at all.

Chinese soy sauce can also be broken down into dark and light. Dark Chinese soy sauce is richer and less salty than light and might also have added sugar, like molasses. Light soy sauce is more common in Chinese cooking. It is thinner and often used as a light seasoning or for dipping sauces.

Another category of soy sauce is low-sodium, which is made with extra chemicals. Cooking instructor and author of "The Chinese Takeout Cookbook" Diana Kuan recommends diluting regular soy sauce if you want less sodium instead of buying the low-sodium stuff.

Here are some commonly used types of soy sauce, and what they're good for:

  • Dark Soy Sauce - Japanese
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Richer, less salty, most commonly used Japanese soy sauce
    What it's good for: All-purpose, good for marinades and cooking, as well as dipping sauces
  • Light Soy Sauce - Japanese
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Slightly sweeter and saltier, overall more intense flavor
    What it's good for: Seasoning without turning food a deeper color and all-purpose in small amounts
  • Tamari - Japanese
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Little to no wheat, strong flavor
    What it's good for: Dipping sauces; wheat-free kinds are good alternatives for people with a gluten intolerance
  • Dark Soy Sauce - Chinese
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Richer flavor, less salty, may contain added sweetener like molasses
    What it's good for: Cooking and sauces
  • Light Soy Sauce - Chinese
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Thinner, also known as "fresh soy sauce" and common in Chinese cooking. "If a Chinese recipe calls for 'soy sauce' without any further detail, you can assume it means light soy sauce." -- Jenny Lee-Adrian, Serious Eats
    What it's good for: Dipping sauces and light seasoning
  • Low/Less Sodium
    Amazon
    Characteristics: Less salt but more chemicals
    What it's good for: People trying to cut down on salt, although another alternative is diluting regular soy sauce.

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