Get to know this essential condiment in some of its many variations.
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buying soy sauce at grocery store
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Condiments are powerful pantry staples that have the power to elevate the flavor of a basic meal or else transform the character of a familiar dish. We think the best condiments are also the most versatile, and the perfect example of that is shape-shifting soy sauce—it's able to stand suavely alone or blend gracefully with other ingredients in marinades, glazes, dressings, and pan sauces.

Soy sauce is so much more than the meager pickings at the average American supermarket would lead you to believe. To help expand your condiment repertoire, we are delving into the rich differences in soy sauce styles, from sumptuous to austere, reviewing how soy sauce is made, talking about dark and light soy sauces, and exploring naturally fermented versus "chemical soy sauce" (is it as suspect as it sounds? Spoiler alert: Yes!). In many countries in Asia there are enough regional variations of soy sauce to fill an encyclopedic tome. Most of the soy sauce sold in the U.S. is Japanese or Chinese in origin and style, which is what we'll focus on here. Want more choices? Shop at a supermarket that specializes in Chinese and Japanese foods, where you'll find that the choices are pleasingly wide (and they're even wider online).

How Is Soy Sauce Made?

First, a quick overview: The basic ingredients of traditionally made soy sauce are simple: soybeans, wheat (in Japanese shoyu), water, and salt. Cooked soybeans and toasted wheat (if used) are combined with an Aspergillus mold during a brief fermentation. Enzymes break wheat starch into sugars and also break down wheat and soy protein into what Rich Shih, one of the authors of the seminal book Koji Alchemy ($25.23, amazon.com), describes as the "koji-driven umami core" at the heart of soy sauce: amino acids. At this stage brine, yeasts, and lactic bacteria are added for a second fermentation that takes months. When that is complete, the mixture is pressed, the raw soy sauce is usually pasteurized, and it becomes ready to be deployed by the cook (unless it is held back for aging). To speed up the fermentation process, most big-brand soy sauces are made from defatted soy residue, and in some cases sweeteners or alcohol are added.

Not all industrial soy sauces are fermented. Instead, a synthetic chemical process cuts out the time-consuming work of beneficial microbes: Hydrochloric acid hydrolyzes soy meal into amino acids and sugars, colorants are added, and some genuine soy sauce may be included. Read the label to learn what you are buying: If there is anything more than soybeans, wheat, water, and salt, it's chemical soy sauce.

Japanese Styles of Soy Sauce

The soy sauce most of us are buying in the U.S. (think Kikkoman) is dark soy sauce or koikuchi (which means "dark mouth"). Also known as Tokyo-style soy sauce, it's usually made with equal parts soybeans and wheat. And remember that dark soy sauce is actually less salty than light. In Connecticut, artisanal shoyu maker Bob Florence, a former chemist who turned to Japanese soy makers for serious soy mentorship, ages his small-batch koikuchi shoyu for six months to a year. "A certain depth, richness, and body are developed over time that simply cannot be rushed," he says. In 2020 the brewer launched the Moromi brand in partnership with acclaimed chefs James Wayman and Brad Leone, Moromi Shoyu ($15, moromict.com).

Light or usukuchi (or "light mouth") soy sauce is intensely-flavored. This Kyoto-style soy may be lighter in color, but it is saltier than dark soy, and a little sweet, from the addition of amazake. It is used sparingly. Irene Khin Wong, the founder of Saffron 59, a renowned Asian catering and events company in New York City, says about light soy sauce that "naturally you use less for seasoning, the result is bringing out more natural flavor of the ingredients rather than covering with dark soy sauce." Try Yamasa Usukuchi ($9.99, amazon.com) as a dip for delicate dumplings.

Other types of Japanese soy sauce to know about? First, there's nama shoyu: "Nama" means raw, or unpasteurized, soy sauce. Ohsawa Nama Shoyu ($34.99, amazon.com) is a delicious version, made organically. Next up is tamari. Originally a by-product of miso-making, tamari is usually made from soybeans only, with little to no wheat. It is very dark, and slightly sweet. Khin Wong's go-to tamari is San-J ($8.71, amazon.com). Lastly, there's so-called white soy sauce or shiro shoyu, like Yoshi Shiro Shoyu, which is made with a higher percentage of wheat, and is lighter in color and mild in flavor.

Chinese Styles

Most Chinese soy sauces are made chiefly of soybeans, salt, and water—no wheat. Generally speaking, Chinese soy sauces will be perceived as saltier than Japanese. Translated as "fresh" soy sauce, light soy sauce it is made from the first pressing of the fermented soy beans and is the go-to style for Chinese cooks. For Zoey Gong, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) nutritionist and chef and the founder of Five Seasons TCM, light soy "sheng chou in Chinese" is the most used item in her pantry, deployed to season, marinate, and make dipping sauces. At home, Khin Wong uses light soy "for roast or steamed fish...since I don't want to take away the freshness of delicate fish." Try Pearl River Bridge's Superior Light Soy Sauce ($12.99, amazon.com).

Thicker and sweeter due to the addition of molasses or sugar, Chinese dark soy sauce, or lao chou, which translates as "old" style sauce, so called because it is fermented for longer than light. It is used in small amounts to finish cooked dishes. Gong only uses dark soy when she wants the food to have "a beautiful dark brown color." (And in TCM, she explains, soy sauce in general is considered a cooling ingredient, noting that fermentation "makes it more suitable for the body to digest.") Try Pearl River Superior Dark Soy Sauce ($9.99, amazon.com).

Expert Advice for Finding Your Soy Sauce Match

How to begin the soy sauce adventure? Follow Florence's advice: "Try as many brands as you can." Line up the dipping bowls, pour a splash into each, dip a finger, and start your tasting engines.

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