Strange IndiaStrange India

As a kid I remember wondering why anyone would need salt when they could use soy sauce instead. I still kind of wonder this, but I do use my fair share of plain ol’ salt crystals. (If you love salt, you should read about it here.) Soy sauce does more than make food salty. It also adds nuance, complexity, and soul to a dish, which you can adjust depending on the soy sauce you choose. Here are a few important soy sauces that you can get familiar with, how they differ, and when to use each of them. 

What is soy sauce?

Soy sauce made in the traditional method is a liquid condiment or seasoning made from salt and roughly equal parts fermented soybeans and wheat (read on for when this varies). Other soy sauces are produced chemically from acid-hydrolyzed soy protein, which is faster and cheaper, but produces a less flavorsome product. Soy sauce is often incorporated directly into dishes, like chawanmushi or pad see ew, but can also be served on the side as a dipping sauce, like with sushi, or how I eat chicken nuggets sometimes. 

It’s prized for delivering earthiness and umami to everything it’s added to, from soups and marinades to stir-fries or brownies. Although soy sauces range in color from golden to nearly black, it is clear, not cloudy. Different soy sauces have varying levels of sodium concentration, color, flavor, and aroma depending on the ratio of ingredients and the length of fermentation.

Soy sauce

The standard soy sauce is the one you see on the store shelf simply labeled “soy sauce.” It’s produced in the traditional manner by fermenting soy and wheat. It’s usually available in the normal sodium concentration, which is about 900 mg to 1,000 mg per tablespoon, or in a low-sodium version, which is around 550 mg to 650 mg per tablespoon. To put it in perspective, one teaspoon of table salt is 2,300mg of sodium.

This type of soy sauce is dark brown in the bottle, but when it’s added to a dish the soy sauce will impart a subtle tan stain to all of the ingredients. The flavor and aroma varies depending on the producer and style of fermentation, whether it’s Japanese or Chinese, but always delivers a warm earthiness and savory layer of flavor. Use this soy sauce as an all-purpose seasoning for adding depth to stews, soups, marinades, or chili, adding umami to desserts, or as a dipping sauce for your chicken wings. 

Light soy sauce

Light soy sauce can be a tricky labeling technique depending on where you are. You might see “lite” soy sauce in the big box supermarket, but often this is referring to the sodium content. The product is the same as low-sodium regular soy sauce. However, there are Japanese variations of soy sauces that are light-colored, lightest colored, and white. I have never seen these in a large American supermarket, but you can find them in Asian grocery stores or buy them online. 

Japanese light soy sauces are produced with a much higher ratio of wheat to soybeans than their darker soy sauce counterparts, and are usually fermented for a shorter time period resulting in the blonde hue. These changes result in a much more delicate seasoning without the rich aroma and robust umami you might have come to expect from soy sauce. Light soy sauces will not impart color or strong flavor to the ingredients they’re added to, so use this type of soy sauce for custards, omelets, salad dressings or anything you don’t want to stain.

Black or dark soy sauce

Regular and dark soy sauce on a plate

Left: regular soy sauce, Right: dark soy sauce
Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann

Speaking of staining, let’s go to the opposite end of the spectrum. Made in the traditional method with a longer fermentation period than regular and light soy sauce, some dark soy sauce is made by further fermenting the residual soybean mass, almost like a second pressing but after a long wait period. You might also find dark soy sauce labeled as double-fermented soy sauce. Other soy sauce producers might add ingredients to affect the color, like molasses or even straight-up caramel color. 

Black soy sauce is darker, thicker, and although it might have the same or slightly more sodium per tablespoon, dark soy sauce tastes less salty than regular soy sauce. Frankly, it’s so powerful that you would probably never use a whole tablespoon at once. Add black soy sauce to dishes for a slightly sweet umami flavor, and dishes that you want to stain dark brown, like pad see ew or fried rice. You can even add a splash of it to stews or gravy if you want a “beefier” color. It is seriously dark, so start with a half-teaspoon and add more from there.


Tamari is the only soy sauce that usually uses only soybeans in the fermentation recipe. Since all other soy sauces include wheat in their fermentation process, tamari is one of the best options for gluten-sensitive diets. It offers the same salty, umami-forward flavor profile as regular soy sauce, with the addition of a distinct tanginess. 

Some tamari manufacturers do incorporate wheat into their mix, so always check the label carefully to make sure it works for your dietary needs. Use tamari in the same way that you’d use regular soy sauce in recipes, or as a dipping sauce.

Mushroom soy sauce

Mushroom soy sauce is a variation of regular soy sauce that is fermented in the traditional manner, with soybeans and wheat, but with the addition of black mushrooms. Some producers simply add in mushroom extracts. I’m including it here because I consider mushroom soy sauce an important variation that offers up slightly different qualities. 

There is both mushroom soy sauce with a light color, and dark mushroom soy sauce. As far as color and salt are concerned, use the light variety as an all-purpose soy sauce, and the dark mushroom sauce for staining particular dishes. When it comes to flavor, I like mushroom soy sauces; the umami flavor is richer, and it has balance and complexity with a well-rounded warmth when added to dishes. When I’m cooking, I usually opt for this variety over, or in combination with, plain soy sauce. Try these out for yourself, and see what you like.

By the way, it’s totally okay to have five different soy sauces in your fridge. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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