Where some of us might reach for salt, smart cooks know to grab a bottle of soy sauce. Sure, soy sauce delivers that same salty flavor as straight-up sodium chloride, but it’s also a multifaceted ingredient that lends sweet, savory and acidic depth to a dish.

“I think soy sauce is such a special ingredient, but not just for Asian cooking,” says cookbook author Grace Young. “It’s such an incredible flavor enhancer.”

Even if you have your heart set on improving your soy sauce know-how, one look at the store shelves can make you question your resolve. With so many different varieties and products, “It can be very confusing,” says cookbook author and longtime public television host Martin Yan.

Well, we’re here to help. Here’s how to make sense of and make the most of this powerhouse ingredient.

How it’s made. There are two main production processes for soy sauce, Yan says. The first is the traditional method, in which cooked soybeans, and frequently wheat, are fermented with molds for a few days, then with a salt brine for a few months to more than a year. The fermented mix is then pressed to extract the soy sauce, after which it is pasteurized. The pasteurization provides more opportunity for flavor to develop under heat.

This natural process permits plenty of variety in quality. The better, more flavorful soy sauces are fermented longer, which allows the proteins in the soy (and wheat) to break down into the amino acids that lend the condiment its glutamate-rich content. Glutamates trigger the taste response we know as umami, or perception of savoriness. The first extraction of soy sauce is the richest, which Young says may be labeled premium, premium superior, premium light or superior first extract. Manufacturers may do additional rounds of salting and extraction, which get weaker each time — and result in them being less expensive. (You can also find white soy sauce, a milder, sweeter option that is extracted before the color turns.) Double-fermented soy sauce is a potent product in which a first extraction is the basis for a batch which goes through the entire fermentation process again.

The second production process is chemical. In this method, hydrochloric acid is used to break down soybeans, after which the mixture may be doctored with other colors, flavors and chemicals. These types of soy sauce can come across as overly salty or metallic tasting. Young thinks hydrolyzed soy sauce is so common that it “sets the wrong baseline” for what people think soy sauce tastes like, citing the analogy of people who in a taste test preferred orange juice made from frozen concentrate as opposed to the fresh stuff, based on what availability used to be like.

Types. Soy sauce can be classified in a few overarching categories.

  • Light. This is the most common variety, dominated by Chinese- or Japanese-produced soy sauces, though depending on where you shop, you may come across Thai, Vietnamese and Korean (ganjang) options. Light “is what we think of as regular soy sauce,” according to Young. You may also see it referred to as thin or superior light. Traditional Chinese soy sauce is all or mostly soy, while Japanese (shoyu) has closer to half soybean, half wheat, which is sweeter (thanks to the wheat starch) and less salty than Chinese varieties. Compared to dark soy sauce, Yan says, light has a paler color, thinner consistency and saltier flavor profile. Light soy sauce is multifunctional, meaning it can be used in many types of situations, including marinades, dipping sauces, stir-fries, braises and steamed dishes (fish, poultry and vegetables). Young says you shouldn’t limit your use of this type to Asian fare, as a little soy sauce can add depth to a wide variety of dishes where you might otherwise season with salt. Think tomato sauce, soups, stews, chili, meatballs or meatloaf. “It blends so magnificently,” you won’t even detect the soy flavor, Young says.
  • Dark. Also called black, double dark or superior dark soy sauce, this variety is thicker, sweeter and less salty than light soy sauce. Yan says it ferments longer and may be mixed with molasses or caramel before bottling. It’s very good in braises and other hearty dishes, and sometimes a recipe will call for both light and dark for a proper balance. Dark soy is a trademark ingredient in such dishes as red braised pork belly, short ribs and char siu pork, Young says. “I never use it for dipping anything,” she says.
  • Tamari. This Japanese variety originated as what was left over after extracting miso paste, Yan says. It is slightly thicker and can be more complex than light soy sauce. Tamari is popular as a gluten-free substitute for regular soy sauce, though you should always read the label, as some brands may include wheat. Young enjoys tamari as a dipping sauce for sushi and sashimi. She recommends Kikkoman’s gluten-free tamari-style sauce and the San-J organic tamari.
  • Flavored. You’ll find quite a number of iterations of soy sauce mixed with other ingredients. One large category is sweetened, a typical ingredient in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Its thickness means it coats rice and noodles well. The version referred to as kecap manis may include palm sugar and spices (galangal, star anise, lemongrass) in the mix. Young recommends the Bango brand. Other flavored varieties you may see, especially when browsing the shelves of Asian markets: mushroom, seafood and chile. If you want to add flavor to your soy sauce, Yan recommends blending your own, using ground dried mushrooms or dried shrimp, red pepper flakes, etc.

The sodium question. There is no way around it. Most soy sauces have around 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, Young says. She and Yan represent two schools of thinking on this. Yan is not a big fan of so-called lite, not to be confused with light, soy sauces, which generally have 40 to 45 percent less sodium than regular. You may see these labeled as less sodium or reduced sodium. He would rather use half of a regular soy sauce (diluted with water or broth as needed). He also urges people to keep in mind the amount a recipe calls for and the number of servings. How much of the soy sauce will you actually consume? “You’re not drinking the soy sauce,” Yan says. “It’s for flavoring.”

Young says sodium is on her mind a lot. “I think this is a really serious consideration for Americans,” she says. Whereas in the past, when she may have preferred Yan’s strategy, some (but not all!) of today’s brands offer excellent-tasting reduced-sodium options that she highly recommends, including Yamasa and Kimlan. Young notes that you can also mix a low-sodium soy sauce with coconut aminos for more flavor without a lot of extra sodium.

Which approach you take may depend on who you’re cooking for, what you’re making and how often you plan to use the soy sauce.

You get what you pay for. The same pervasive thinking that prompts people to expect and demand that their Chinese takeout be cheap carries over to soy sauce, where it can be hard to overcome the expectation that you can get a huge bottle for a few bucks. Yan encourages cooks to consider soy sauce the same way they do olive oil or balsamic vinegar: Aim to buy better or best quality.

The most important thing to do, Young says, is read the label. It should indicate that it is naturally (or traditionally) brewed or fermented, though the exact language can vary. Read the ingredient line and check whether it lists hydrolyzed proteins or other additives and preservatives. “When time is part of your recipe, you taste the difference,” Young says, explaining that naturally brewed soy sauces that have been fermented for a year or more can have close to 300 identifiable aroma compounds.

If you’re looking for a better than average but not overly dear soy sauce, Young recommends Kikkoman’s organic soy sauce, Yamasa and Kimlan. Osawa’s organic is another she likes, though it’s somewhat less accessible. Yan likes Lee Kum Kee, especially its premium and double-fermented options. These all make good everyday soy sauces.

As with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt, there are special items you invest in when you really want soy sauce to shine, especially in small amounts. Young raves about Zhongba, made by the same family in China since 1828, which will set you back $14 for about 17 ounces (they also have a handcrafted version stirred daily that clocks in at $40 for about 24 ounces). For a unique product worthy of gift-giving, she suggests the Bluegrass Soy Sauce from Kentucky’s Bourbon Barrel Foods ($8 for about 3 1/2 ounces or $55 for 32 ounces), which is unique in that it includes yeast and is aged in, of course, bourbon barrels. Yan is a fan of Jammy Chai, a first-press Chinese soy sauce with a history going back to 1608, sold in beautiful ceramic bottles ($22 for about 17 ounces). These are the types of products you would use for delicate dumplings or steamed fish, or as a judicially dispensed table condiment, so that the flavor can really be showcased.

Stocking and storing. If you’re looking for advice on what soy sauces to keep on hand for a well-rounded Asian pantry, Young recommends a better-quality light, a reduced-sodium, a dark and a more splurge-worthy/special occasion bottle as described above.

Yan advises storing soy sauce in the bottom of a cool, dark cupboard. You can also refrigerate it.

After opening, bottles will generally last about a year, Young says. Over time — and if the cap is not on tightly — you will lose the aromatic compounds that give soy sauce its distinctive qualities. She says she typically prefers smaller bottles to make sure she uses them fast enough while they’re in peak condition.

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