What Is Soy Sauce? Here’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Discover how the salty, savory pantry staple is made, learn about different types of soy sauce, and find out what you can use as a substitute if you run out.

A prominent cooking ingredient and condiment in many Asian cuisines, soy sauce is now a universally beloved ingredient. Growing up in a Filipino-American family, it was common practice to keep toyo (meaning soy sauce in Tagalog) on the table during mealtime. For me, I especially loved when the soy sauce was mixed with a squeeze of calamansi (tiny Philippine citrus) to add savory-tart flavor to a bed of stir-fried rice noodles. I didn't realize how little I actually knew about soy sauce until I chatted with The Korean Vegan's Joanne Lee Molinaro. For starters, she pointed out there are hundreds of varieties of soy sauce. This led me to really dive into the nitty-gritty on soy sauce and how it's evolved to become the powerhouse ingredient it is today.

small bowl of soy sauce on Japanese sushi rolling mat with chopsticks
Atlas / Adobe Stock

What Is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce, or shoyu, is a dark brown, salty liquid used as a condiment or ingredient in recipes. Soybeans are, of course, the main ingredient in soy sauce, but the base recipe also usually contains wheat, salt, and water. There is also usually an acid or fermenting agent such as mold or yeast.

What Does Soy Sauce Taste Like?

Soy sauce provides a salty, savory flavor to dishes when used as a condiment. You might also find some varieties of soy sauce to provide a hint of sweetness, sourness, and/or bitterness.

How Is Soy Sauce Made?

Back in 17th century China when this salty condiment got its start, soy sauce was traditionally made by soaking and cooking the soybeans in water before combining with crushed wheat, and a bacterial culture such as aspergillus. The wheat could be roasted or other ingredients could be added to provide more flavor. From there, it's aged and fermented—a process that can take days or months. Today, there are ways the food production world speeds up the process without fermentation through chemical production by mixing the soybeans with hydrochloric acid, which breaks down the proteins in the soybeans. In this variation of soy sauce-making, there is usually additional color and salt added to achieve the desired flavor.

Types of Soy Sauce

The varieties of soy sauce go beyond just plain. There are different types from different parts of Asia that complement certain dishes. As I mentioned earlier, there are literally hundreds of varieties you can find in your local Asian market.

  • Light soy sauce: This is the variety you'll most commonly find in grocery stores and on the table at restaurants that you'll want to use in recipes simply calling for "soy sauce" or to add flavor to dishes as a condiment.
  • Dark soy sauce: This variety of soy sauce is thicker and darker, resulting in a sweeter and richer flavor. It may taste less salty than regular light soy sauce due to the sweetness, but the sodium content is still about the same (or less). It is commonly used in making sauces for dishes such as beef and broccoli or giving fried rice a deeper flavor.
  • Low-sodium soy sauce: If you're following a low-sodium diet for health reasons, low-sodium soy sauce can be used interchangably with regular soy sauce. The difference here is that sodium is removed from the sauce once brewed. As a comparison, 1 tablespoon of regular soy sauce will have approximately 900 mg of sodium vs. 550 mg of sodium.
Gluten Free Shrimp and Soba Noodles
Blaine Moats

Soy Sauce Substitutes and Gluten-Free Options

Since traditional soy sauce is made with wheat, you might be wondering how to enjoy that same flavor if you have allergy restrictions. Good news: There are plenty of gluten-free soy sauces and substitutes to complete your recipes. Feel free to use any of these in place of soy sauce for a gluten-free option:

  • Tamari: This is a Japanese soy sauce that is made solely from soybeans without any wheat. It's processed similarly and still provides the same salty, umami flavor as the wheat-included varieties.
  • Coconut aminos: This is a dark brown sauce that looks like soy sauce, but is made from the sap of a coconut plant (not the actual coconut) without any soy or wheat. It's fermented and the natural sugars are released, revealing a liquid that tastes nothing like coconut but rather perfectly savory.
  • Liquid aminos: This dark-colored liquid can be made with either hydrolyzed soybeans and/or coconut sap. If you have a soy allergy, make sure you're looking for ones without any soy.
  • Worcestershire Sauce: This fermented liquid condiment is made with a blend of vinegar, molasses, anchovies, garlic, tamarind, chili pepper, and salt. Used in more Western cuisine, it doesn't have the same flavor as soy sauce, but will still provide savory, umami flavor to your dishes.

Soy Sauce Storage

Like any product you find on grocery store shelves, there's an expiration date on the package somewhere. But does soy sauce go bad? Unopened bottles can be stored in the pantry for two to three years. Once opened, the microorganisms in soy sauce actually make it OK to keep the opened bottle in the pantry as well, but it may start losing its original flavor after six to seven months. It's recommended to keep opened bottles in the refrigerator to keep soy sauce tasting its best.

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