Soy story

Which sauces to buy and why

May 22, 2009

Whenever I meet a food I don’t like, I suspect it may be suffering from too little soy sauce.

Soy sauce has become such a common ingredient, it’s easy to forget that — like bacon, butter, Parmesan cheese, or lime juice — it makes everything taste better. I’ve watched my five-year-old drink the stuff from a dish intended for dipping, and she had the wild-eyed look of the addict.

I know how she feels. Made from fermented soybeans, soy sauce is a fundamental seasoning in at least a dozen national cuisines. Even in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, where fish sauce dominates, every cook keeps soy sauce on hand.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that soy sauce is ubiquitous and good, but I’d like to introduce you to its several varieties, recommend a couple of good brands, and take you on a second honeymoon with this essential ingredient.

Let’s start off with good news: The ubiquitous Kikkoman brand of soy sauce is very, very good. A few years ago, I went to one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Szechuan Chef, to do a soy-sauce tasting. I wanted to make sure to include whatever the chef, Biao-Yang Cheng, used in his kitchen.

broccoli beef
Soy sauce amps up stir-fried beef.

I expected him to produce a big jug of something with no English words on it. Instead, he came back with a standard supermarket bottle of Kikkoman. It’s the most neutral, he explained.

The results of the taste test were equally heartening. Kikkoman — which has been produced in the U.S. since 1972, when the company established a brewery in Walworth, Wisconsin — tied with a gluten-free organic brand for second place, close behind Pearl River Bridge, a popular Chinese brand that is even cheaper than Kikkoman.

Ordinary soy sauce — dark and thin and very salty — goes by many names. It’s called shoyu in Japan and Hawaii, jiang you in China, and sometimes “light soy sauce” in English. (This should not be confused with low-sodium soy sauce, which I’ll talk about in a minute.) In Thailand, the stuff is called si ew — a term familiar to anyone who’s ever ordered pad si ew, stir-fried wide rice noodles in a soy-based sauce.

Dark soy sauce is another soy sauce worth inviting over. It’s not as strongly flavored or as salty as standard shoyu, but it has fantastic color from added molasses. Any time I make a stir-fry with beef, I add a tablespoon of dark soy sauce, which makes the meat look, well, beefier.

Dark soy sauce is sold under various names (superior soy, mushroom soy), but it’s easy to identify in the store: just give the bottle a gentle shake. If the sauce stains the neck of the bottle for a few seconds after you stop shaking, it’s dark soy. This stuff is also great with cellophane noodles (either Chinese saifun or Korean dangmyun); it lends them an appealing burnished hue.

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Sauces to buy

How many soy sauces do you need to keep on hand? I’d recommend three.

First, get a good light soy sauce, such as Kikkoman or Pearl River Bridge Superior Light Soy Sauce.

Second, try a dark soy sauce, such as Pearl River Bridge Mushroom Soy Sauce.

Third, pick up a bottle of wheat-free soy sauce, such as San-J Organic Tamari, because people who can’t eat wheat shouldn’t have to miss out on Asian food. If you cook Thai food, the Dragonfly brand is also a good bet.

For kicks, toss in a fourth bottle: kecap manis, a sweetened soy sauce common in Indonesian and Malaysian cooking. It’s easy to find in Asian groceries.

Sauces to avoid

Although buying good soy sauce is simple, it’s not all umami-infused hearts and flowers out there. There are two kinds of soy sauce I’d definitely avoid.

The first is sauce made from hydrolyzed soy protein and caramel color. La Choy is the most popular brand of this junk; it’s also commonly found in packets accompanying Chinese takeout. This stuff is like a bad comedian: grating, yet boring. It is a crime that manufacturers are allowed to sell it as “soy sauce” rather than, say, “imitation soy-flavored sauce.”

The second is low-sodium soy sauce. As with light coconut milk, you’re being charged the same price per ounce for a watered-down product. This is worse, though: light coconut milk tastes OK, but low-sodium soy sauce tends to come with off-flavors. Cheng thought the low-sodium soy sauce we tasted was even worse than the imitation sauce.

If you want to make your own low-sodium soy sauce, that’s easy: Combine equal parts soy sauce and water.

The kicker: sugar

Finally, a word on one of soy sauce’s traditional partners: sugar. I am usually cranky about adding sugar to savory food. I find sweet dinners unpleasant — even pork chops with applesauce — and a small amount of sugar can blunt and blur other flavors.

When cooking with soy sauce, however, I have to cast this prejudice aside. Soy sauce and sugar (in the form of cane sugar, mirin, brown sugar, or rock sugar) are a culinary tag team. Soy sauce isn’t just salty, it’s sour, and sugar helps moderate both of those traits, which lets you use more soy sauce without overwhelming a dish.

Plus, sweetened soy sauce is key to Seattle’s favorite lunch, chicken teriyaki: grilled boneless, skinless chicken thighs served with rice and thick, sweet teriyaki sauce. Maybe a little salad if you’re lucky.

I think I’m suffering from too little soy sauce, so I’m going to get some teriyaki right now.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 27 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on May 22, 2009 at 11:41 AM PDT

Re: low-sodium soy sauce, my spouse has high blood pressure and I’m always looking for inoffensive ways to cut down. For table uses (i.e., dipping) I dilute with rice vinegar rather than with water. This probably offends purists, but the flavors are complimentary and, well, we just like it that way.

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 22, 2009 at 12:17 PM PDT

It certainly doesn’t offend me; rice vinegar is almost as great as soy sauce. I use it constantly. My favorite brand is Kong Yen, which I think is from Taipei.

3. by Michael Ham on May 22, 2009 at 2:23 PM PDT

By far the best soy sauce I’ve found---and it’s far better than Kikkoman, IMHO---is Eden Organic Imported Shoyu Soy Sauce, which I buy by the case. You can get it in <a href="”><b>10-oz bottles</b></a> or in <a href="”><b>20-oz bottles</b></a>.

4. by Kim on May 22, 2009 at 3:34 PM PDT

Matthew, what about Bragg's Liquid Aminos? I’ve never tried them in a taste test with soy sauce, but I have friends who swear by them (it?).

5. by Michael Ham on May 22, 2009 at 4:25 PM PDT

I tried Bragg’s recently. It tasted just like Le Choy soy sauce: cheap, thin, and salty. The Eden Organic Imported Shoyu Soy Sauce, OTOH, has an aroma like a fine wine.

6. by anonymous on May 27, 2009 at 9:26 AM PDT

Any ideas on non soy soy sauce? I am newly allergic to soy, really miss it and wondered even about trying to make it from some other bean.
Many thanks for any help

7. by Dianasaur on May 27, 2009 at 12:35 PM PDT

I’m from Hawaii, and the only soy sauce we use there is pretty much Aloha Shoyu. I buy it by the gallon at an Asian store in Washington where I live now.

8. by Matthew Amster-Burton on May 27, 2009 at 2:01 PM PDT

Dianasaur, I was trying to figure out how to talk about Aloha and never ended up working it in.

anonymous, that is a good question and I have no idea. How about fish sauce?

9. by zegg on May 28, 2009 at 8:32 AM PDT

I agree that it makes everything taste better - my daughter has discovered she likes any green leafy veg, including spinach, if it is doused in soy sauce!

10. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:50 PM PDT

mamster, does ponzu make your short list of good shizznit to have on hand? you point out that soy is sour, but ponzu is even moreso. I made a stir-fry tonight with ponzu and tamari (and mirin and rice vin and toasted sesame oil) and it was pretty dope. Also is there any diff between tamari and soy or just semantics?

Call me crazy but I actually like the “reduced sodium” kikkoman and san-j soy/tamari products. They aren’t “low” sodium by any means, but they don’t seem watered down and they cut out a few of the Na+ ions so I can pat myself on my fat back.

11. by anonymous on Jun 9, 2009 at 8:26 AM PDT

Hey, Matt, how about including thoughts/comments/evaluations on non-GMO soy sauces (the choices would mostly organic, I’d guess). I prefer to avoid GMO soy products. Thanks.

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 9, 2009 at 9:23 AM PDT

Hank, ponzu, yes! Definitely.

anonymous, the Eden and San-J tamari are organic and GMO-free and both very good.

There’s a world of artisan soy sauce, mostly Japanese, that I have not yet explored but am looking forward to doing so.

13. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 9, 2009 at 1:12 PM PDT

I was just at Uwajimaya in the soy aisle and I was overwhelmed and panicked and got the spins. I seem to have come home with some dark chinese soy (and some black vinegar and my 7th new brand of sriracha - I have issues)

I noticed Kikkoman has an organic line too (before I blacked out)

14. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 9, 2009 at 1:24 PM PDT

Yes, it is a dangerous place.

I’ve tried the Kikkoman organic and it’s fine for cooking, but for dipping I find I taste the alcohol too much. I’m not sure what’s up with that. The imported Japanese Kikkoman also uses alcohol as a preservative but I don’t object to it.

15. by Michael on Sep 21, 2009 at 5:10 PM PDT

I must disagree with your perception of Kikkoman - it is overly salty and unbalanced, and in general it really sucks. I challenge you to try Kikkoman against Yamasa (made in Oregon). Yamasa is by far superior to Kikkoman in quality, as you will agree if you try this as a side-by-side tasting. It is much more “Japanese” in style, light and restrained. I am a winemaker and chef, and the best way I could describe Kikkoman vs. Yamasa is this: Kikkoman is like an over-oaked, harsh, over-extracted California Cabernet (basically, a food-killer), while Yamasa is like a fine, well-balanced Medoc Cabernet, that enhances correctly chosen food flavors (the essence of “Umami”, which Kikkoman has been incorrectly bastardizing in its marketing efforts in the past year or so). I would be very interested in your thoughts about this.

16. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 21, 2009 at 8:53 PM PDT

Thanks, Michael. I’ll try the Yamasa, and I didn’t know it was made in Oregon.

17. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 25, 2009 at 5:24 PM PDT

Okay, as promised, I bought a bottle of Yamasa today and did a side-by-side tasting with Kikkoman. My daughter Iris, 5, joined me. We both preferred the Yamasa for the reasons you described. I’ll try it in cooking and see what I think.

I should disclaim that this was the Tokyo-made Kikkoman, not the US version.

18. by anonymous on Oct 4, 2009 at 12:34 PM PDT

THIS IS A is a dangerous product, and should be avoided..READ FOR YOURSELF @

i’m sure this message will be deleted..

19. by anonymous on Dec 16, 2009 at 4:00 PM PST

Non soy sauce. Check out Coconut Aminos by Coconut Secret. It is awesome.

20. by Karin Edwards, Certified Rolfer on Feb 6, 2011 at 3:21 PM PST

Thanks for the great tips! I checked Cooks Illustrated, and they say that low-sodium soy sauce is not diluted but rather they use filteration or ion exchange to remove sodium. I don’t mind the flavor of Kikkoman Low Sodium but wanted to find an artisan-style, long-fermented soy sauce. Traditional fermentation makes soy much safer to eat (bad for thyroid, hormone balance, and digestion if not fermented).

Cooks Illustrated uses a panel of testers and gives detailed comments on each sauce. Lee Kum Kee Tabletop Soy Sauce was the favorite for cooking into dishes such as teriyaki. It’s commercially made but still has a 3-6 month ferment. It happened to be the highest in sodium of all the tested sauces.

Ohsawa Nama Shoyu Organic Unpasteurized Soy Sauce was the favorite for raw dipping. It’s made with a long fermentation, is sweet and multi-dimensional, and happens to have lower sodium than the others they tested.

La Choy was the only soy sauce tested that they thoguht was terrible, so you are right on the mark. Tasters thought it was “fake, burnt, stinky, acidic, nasty” and “like bicycle lubricant.” Wow!

21. by Kamalni on Mar 21, 2012 at 2:06 PM PDT

I too am from Hawaii and my parent use kiko for quick everyday use, but for pot luck and our Ohana parties we use the Aloha shoy..It was a joke when my dad being from Puerto Rico would ask my mom if we use the junk one or good stuff. My husband being Japanese loves his kiko, but admits he can tell the quality difference between the two. To me Aloha is not so strong a more of a shuttle sweet taste, but that’s IMO from my taste.

22. by karma on Mar 28, 2012 at 12:02 PM PDT

“I checked Cooks Illustrated, and they say that low-sodium soy sauce is not diluted but rather they use filteration or ion exchange to remove sodium”

Correct, all reduced sodium soy sauces are not necessarily watered down versions, San-J’s reduced sodium Tamari soy sauces are fermented 5-6 months and filter out the unwanted salt without diluting the sauce.

23. by anonymous on Apr 19, 2012 at 6:31 AM PDT

Thank you so much for writing this post! I really enjoy cooking all types of cuisine--French, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Thai--but I’ve always been confused about Chinese food for some reason. Understanding which soy sauces are the best really helps!

24. by Joe on Aug 15, 2012 at 7:26 AM PDT

I think I must have tried every soy sauce available over the last 20 years as a chef. Kikkoman, to me, stands out as the most consistent, balanced, and flavorful. Much better than Yamasa (weak, sweet), LKK (salty), and Chinese versions (inconsistent). I can always add sweetness myself via Mirin, or sugar. I want a soy sauce that delivers an umami kick with no off-flavors. Try as many brands as you can, but if you want one that will be great every time pick Kikkoman.

25. by Shon on Oct 18, 2012 at 1:52 AM PDT

Anyone done a side by side taste test of Japanese vs American Kikkoman. I want to try this.

26. by geekiestever on Nov 7, 2012 at 6:12 AM PST

I’ve tried both side by side. In this case it was the Kikkoman Organic Soy Sauce (Brewed in Japan).

The Japanese Organic has a richer, bolder flavor than the American one, along with a touch of Alcohol and an aroma that somewhat resembles Banana, which I would say is probably a by-product of natural fermentation because these aromas sometimes exist in some Beers as well.

I’d say it’s worth getting some. Though it is expensive (paid $5 for a 10 oz bottle).

27. by Shon on Nov 11, 2012 at 10:29 PM PST

Thanks. I seen them side by side at the oriental food store and was wondering if the Japanese Kikkoman was worth trying. Plan on getting some.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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