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Soy sauce: why this classic umami sauce became so famous

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  October 4, 2022

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There are several brown-colored liquid seasonings in Asia, but perhaps none is more famous than soy sauce.

It’s part of stir-fries, drizzled on sushi, and used as a table condiment all over the world these days.

But what exactly is this salty sauce, and how did it become such a popular ingredient?

Soy sauce- why this umami classic sauce became so famous

Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat with salt and water.

The fermentation process breaks down the soybeans and wheat, giving soy sauce its characteristic salty, umami flavor.

Soy sauce, or shoyu in Japanese, is a fermented sauce made from soybeans, wheat, salt, and water. It has a salty, umami flavor that is perfect for adding depth of flavor to dishes. Soy sauce is an essential ingredient in many Japanese dishes, such as sushi, tempura, and noodle soup.

I’m sharing all you need to know about soy sauce, including how it’s made, how it’s used, and why it has become such an integral part of Asian culinary tradition.

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What is soy sauce?

Soy sauce is a brown, liquid seasoning made from fermented soybeans, wheat, salt, and water. It has a salty, umami flavor that is perfect for adding depth of flavor to dishes.

Soy sauce is an essential ingredient in many Japanese dishes, such as sushi, tempura, rice bowls, noodle soups, and stir-fries.

But it’s also used in marinades or as a dipping sauce all over Asia.

This seasoning has a color that ranges from light amber to dark brown, and it has a runny texture. It’s typically sold in glass or plastic bottles with a screw-top lid.

What makes soy sauce special is its unique fermentation process. The soybeans and wheat are fermented with salt and water.

The fermentation process breaks down the soybeans and wheat, giving soy sauce its characteristic salty, umami taste.

What does soy sauce taste like?

Soy sauce imparts salty, sweet, umami (savory), and even a touch of bitter taste. This condiment’s well-balanced flavor profile makes it a superior condiment.

The salt, sweetness, and umami predominate, obscuring the final bitter note.

The free amino acids generated by hydrolysis or fermentation create monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is essential for the umami flavor.

Some soy sauce is sweeter than others because of the addition of molasses or other sweeteners during the fermentation process.

Types of soy sauce

There are many different types of soy sauce, all with their own unique flavors and uses.

These are the 5 most popular types of Japanese soy sauce:

Koikuchi Shoyu (Regular)

This is what is known as regular soy sauce and is the most common type. About 80% of Japanese soy sauce produced is koikuchi.

It’s actually referred to as “dark soy sauce” because of its brown hue, which resembles fish sauce.

This soy sauce is characterized by its medium dark brown color and umami taste.

In addition to its runny texture, it has a robust umami and salty taste, a bit of sweetness, reviving acidity, and bitterness that unifies the flavors.

The flavors are well-balanced, not too strong, and go well with most dishes.

It is a versatile condiment that can be used in cooking or at the table right on top of the food as a topping.

Most of the bottles of soy sauce found in supermarkets are this type.

Important side note: many Americans think light soy sauce is “regular” soy sauce, but light or white soy sauce is saltier and lighter in color.

Usukuchi Shoyu (Light soy sauce)

The light soy sauce has a light reddish-brown color and is also called “usukuchi shoyu.”

The light-colored soy sauce originated in Japan’s Kansai region and accounts for approximately 10% of the nation’s total production.

It contains approximately 10 percent more salt than standard soy sauce in order to slow down the fermentation and maturation processes.

Therefore, although it’s called “light” soy sauce, the flavor is NOT light – it’s saltier.

Its color and aroma are diminished to highlight the ingredients’ original flavors.

It is utilized in the preparation of dishes that preserve the color and flavor of their ingredients, such as sugar-boiled stews and takiawase, in which the ingredients are cooked separately but served together. Using usukuchi soy sauce won’t really change the food’s color.

Shiro Shoyu (White soy sauce)

Compared to Usukuchi, this even lighter than light-colored soy sauce was created in the Hekinan district of the Aichi prefecture. Shiro is also called white soy sauce.

It has a pale-colored hue and a milder flavor. Compared to the other soy sauce varieties, it is very sweet because it’s made with more wheat and less soybeans.

It is used in delicate dishes where you don’t want the color or flavor of the soy sauce to overpower the other ingredients.

Therefore, it’s utilized in dishes such as soups and chawanmushi egg custard due to its light aroma and color. Additionally, it is utilized in rice crackers, pickles, and other foods.

Saishikomi Shoyu (Refermented)

This soy sauce is produced in the San-in region and Kyushu, with Yamaguchi Prefecture as its center.

While other soy sauce is made by combining koji with brine for brewing, this type is made by combining other soy sauces, hence the name “refermented.”

Since soy sauce is already a fermented product, combining them makes this a “double” fermented product.

It has a dense hue, flavor, and aroma and is also known as “sweet soy sauce.” It is predominantly used at the table to flavor sashimi, sushi, chilled tofu, and similar dishes.

It’s still umami, but sweeter, so you won’t taste that intense saltiness.

Tamari Shoyu

This soy sauce is primarily produced in the region of Chubu.

Tamari soy sauce is distinguished by its density (it’s thicker than the others), its umami concentration, and its unique aroma.

It has long been known as “sashimi tamari” because it is frequently served alongside sushi and sashimi.

It is used in grilling, boiling in soy sauce, and the production of products such as senbei rice crackers, where it imparts a pleasing red hue.

The darker color and thicker texture resemble teriyaki sauce, although the flavor is very salty and not as sweet.

How is soy sauce made?

Soy sauce is made by fermenting soybeans and wheat with salt and water.

The fermentation process breaks down the soybeans and wheat, giving soy sauce its characteristic salty, umami flavor.

Traditional soy sauce production involves soaking soybeans in water for several hours and then steaming them.

The roasted wheat is then ground into flour and combined with the steamed soybeans.

Typically, Aspergillus oryzae, A. sojae, and A. tamarii spores are added and left for three days. These are all types of fungal spores.

In the fermentation process, a brine solution is added. This can ferment anywhere from one month to four years.

A raw soy sauce mixture is added to some premium soy sauces, such as double-fermented soy sauce (saishikomi-shoyu).

After fermentation, the mixture is pressed to remove solids, heated to kill molds and yeasts (pasteurisation), and then packaged.

The acid hydrolysis method is significantly quicker, requiring only a few days. This contains oil-free soybeans, wheat gluten, and hydrochloric acid.

For 20 to 35 hours, the mixture is heated to denature the proteins.

Learn more about the benefits of eating fermented foods here

What does shoyu mean?

The Japanese name for soy sauce is shoyu. In Chinese, it is called jiang you or jiu niang. In Korean, it is ganjang.

The word “soy” comes from the Japanese word for soybeans, daizu. “Sauce” comes from the Chinese word jiang, meaning “salty liquid.”

So shoyu literally means “salty liquid made from soybeans.”

The Chinese word for soy sauce, jiangyou, has a similar meaning. It is made up of two characters: jiang, meaning “salty” or “sauce,” and you, meaning “oil” or “fat.”

What’s the origin of soy sauce?

Soy sauce has a long history in Asia, dating back thousands of years. It was originally used as a way to preserve food, but it eventually became a popular seasoning.

In fact, it’s probably one of the earliest condiments to be used as a seasoning and as a preservative.

Soy sauce was originally created to preserve meat and vegetables during the Chinese Han Dynasty.

During this time, soybeans were first fermented into a paste, and then the paste was combined with brine (salt water).

This early form of soy sauce was called jiang, and it was used as a dip for meat and vegetables.

Contrary to popular belief, soy sauce was not invented in Japan. Instead, it was created in China over 2000 years ago as a way to preserve food.

Jiang eventually made its way to Japan, where it was called shoyu. Shoyu became a popular seasoning and marinade for fish.

It wasn’t until the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that soy sauce became a common table condiment in Japan.

This was due to the influx of Westerners during this time, who were introduced to soy sauce through dishes like sushi and tempura.

Soy sauce eventually became a popular condiment in other parts of Asia, such as Korea and Vietnam.

Each country has its own unique style of soy sauce, which is reflective of the local cuisine.

How to use soy sauce

Soy sauce is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes. It’s commonly used as a dipping sauce, marinade, or seasoning.

Soy sauce is added directly to food and is used as a condiment and seasoning salt when cooking.

It is commonly served with rice, noodles, sushi, or sashimi, and can also be dipped in wasabi powder.

In many nations, bottles of soy sauce for the salty seasoning of various foods are commonly found on restaurant tables, just like oil and vinegar.

Here are a few ways to use soy sauce:

  • Dipping sauce: Soy sauce makes a great dipping sauce for sushi, tempura, and dumplings.
  • Marinade: Soy sauce can be used to marinate meat, fish, and vegetables. It’s a great way to add flavor to dishes.
  • Seasoning: Soy sauce can be used to season soups, stews, and stir-fries. It’s also a common ingredient in many Asian sauces.

If you’re looking for a way to add flavor to your dishes, soy sauce is a great option.

It’s a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of ways. Give it a try the next time you’re in the kitchen!

What’s the difference between soy sauce and tamari?

Tamari is a type of soy sauce that is made without wheat. It has a richer, more intense flavor than soy sauce, and it is also less salty.

Tamari is a by-product of miso production. It is the liquid that is left over after the Miso paste is made.

Although tamari was originally created as a way to use up this by-product, it eventually became a popular condiment in its own right.

Tamari is popular among people who are gluten-free as it does not contain wheat, so it makes a good soy sauce substitute (find more alternatives here).

What’s the difference between soy sauce and liquid aminos?

Although these two foods look similar, they are actually quite different.

Soy sauce is made from soybeans that have been fermented and then brewed, while liquid aminos are made from soy protein that has been hydrolyzed (broken down with water).

This difference in production gives soy sauce a stronger flavor and a higher sodium content than liquid aminos.

Is soy sauce gluten-free?

Soy sauce is traditionally made with wheat, so it is not gluten-free.

However, there are many brands of soy sauce that are now made without wheat, so they are suitable for people who are gluten-free.

If you’re looking for a gluten-free soy sauce, be sure to check the label to make sure that it does not contain wheat.

Where to buy soy sauce

Soy sauce is a common ingredient in Asian cuisine, and it can be found in most grocery stores. It is usually sold in the international aisle or in the Asian section.

If you’re having trouble finding it, you can also purchase soy sauce online.

If it’s an imported Japanese soy sauce, it might be labeled as “shoyu.”

Best brands

Kikkoman

Kikkoman soy sauce is a cheap and popular option that can be found in most grocery stores.

It’s a great all-purpose soy sauce that can be used for cooking, marinating, and dipping.

Iconic kikkoman soy sauce in glass bottel

(view more images)

Learn more about the Kikkoman brand and it’s amazing soy sauce here

Yamaroku Shoyu

This is a premium artisan soy sauce that is made in the traditional Japanese method.

It’s aged for several months, which gives it a rich and complex flavor. But it’s much pricier than other varieties.

 Yamaroku Shoyu Pure Artisan Dark Sweet Japanese Premium Gourmet Barrel Aged 4 Year Soy Sauce "Tsuru Bisiho"

(view more images)

Lee Kum Kee

Lee Kum Kee is a Chinese company that makes a variety of Asian sauces.

Their soy sauce is made from soybeans and wheat, and it has a dark color and a strong flavor.

Lee Kum Kee Premium Dark Soy Sauce

(view more images)

How to store soy sauce

Soy sauce is usually sold in plastic or glass bottles. Once opened, it should be stored in a cool, dry place.

It is possible to store soy sauce at room temperature, too, but it’s best to store it away from heat.

Soy sauce can last for up to two years after the bottle has been opened. However, it’s best to use it within six months of opening.

Experts recommend that soy sauce be stored in the fridge after it has been opened, as this will help to prolong its shelf life.

Once soy sauce has been opened, it’s important to seal the bottle tightly. This will prevent the sauce from going bad.

If you notice that your soy sauce has changed color or texture, it’s best to throw it away.

Best soy sauce pairings

Soy sauce is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes. It goes well with many different flavors and ingredients.

Here are a few of the best pairings for soy sauce:

  • Rice
  • Noodles
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Sushi
  • Dumplings
  • Fried foods
  • Garlic
  • Ginger (like in this ginger soy sauce recipe)
  • Sesame oil
  • Lime
  • Scallions
  • Vinegar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cilantro and Japanese parsley

Is soy sauce healthy?

Soy sauce is a popular ingredient in Asian cuisine. But is it healthy?

Soy sauce is high in sodium, which can be detrimental to health if consumed in large amounts. It’s also worth noting that some soy sauces may contain MSG.

However, soy sauce is also a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. It can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet.

If you are celiac or sensitive to gluten, make sure to buy gluten-free soy sauce or genuine tamari.

Moderation is key when it comes to soy sauce. Enjoy it in moderation, and be sure to check the labels for sodium content and MSG.

FAQs

Here are some more answers to popular questions about shoyu.

Can we eat soy sauce without cooking?

Yes, soy sauce can be eaten raw, even though it’s salty. For example, it’s used as a topping for sushi.

Soy sauce doesn’t have to be cooked to be eaten, but it can be used as a cooking ingredient, too.

Can I use soy sauce as a marinade?

Yes, soy sauce can be used as a marinade. It’s a great way to add flavor to meat, seafood, and vegetables.

Just be sure not to use too much soy sauce, as it can make food overly salty.

Also, soy sauce can be combined with other condiments for meat marinades.

Is soy sauce healthier than salt?

Soy sauce contains about six times less sodium compared to salt. Therefore, most nutritionists consider it a healthier option.

Keep in mind that soy sauce is still high in sodium, so it’s best to consume it in moderation.

Does soy sauce need to be refrigerated?

Not necessarily, but if you want to store soy sauce for a long time, keep it in the fridge. The fridge will help to prolong its shelf life.

What is a good replacement for soy sauce?

There are many suitable substitutes for soy sauce.

Some of the best include Worcestershire sauce, tamari, coconut aminos, fish sauce, and dried mushrooms.

The sauces have a similar color and texture to soy sauce. However, they may have a slightly different flavor.

When substituting soy sauce, start with a small amount and add more to taste.

Takeaway

Soy sauce is a great way to add flavor to your dishes.

Its perfectly balanced flavor means you get a bit of savoriness and a bit of sweetness that works well when paired with Asian dishes!

Whether you’re eating sushi, tempura, or dumplings, soy sauce is a perfect dipping sauce. You can also use it to marinate meat, fish, and vegetables.

It’s a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of ways. Give it a try the next time you’re in the kitchen!

To make sure you don’t confuse miso with soy sauce I explain them both here

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.