Soy sauce is a true staple ingredient for me. In terms of seasoning, it adds a salty, savouriness to a dish but not only that, there’s a whole other level of umami going on. But not all soy sauces are created equal. In fact, I’d recommend stocking your pantry with three different varieties so you always have the right product to hand. With so much to choose from, where do you start? If you’re wondering what type of soy sauce is best for your Asian (and even your fusion!) cooking, you’ll want to read this handy guide.
What is soy sauce made of?
There are several varieties of soy sauce, and as such there can be variations when it comes to the ingredients. However, soy sauce is typically made using soybeans, wheat, salt and a fermenting agent – typically yeast.
What’s soy sauce used for?
As well as for seasoning purposes, soy sauce adds a strong umami flavour to dishes that adds an unmistakable layer of richness. It also imparts a golden hue to food that makes it look even more appetising (in my opinion), as is the case with fried rice, marinated chicken, stir-fried noodles and so on. On top of that, I like to use it as a dipping sauce for your dumplings, sushi or sashimi (either on its own or mixed with other ingredients), to add extra umami goodness to soups, stews and broths, or as part of a marinade for meat and seafood.
What soy sauce should I buy?
It’s a good idea to keep your pantry essentials stocked up with a couple of different variations of soy sauce, as they are each have their strengths when used in certain dishes. Hopefully this guide to the types of soy sauce will help.
Light soy sauce
Usually, whenever one of my recipes calls for soy sauce, I’m using an everyday, Chinese variety, which for me is ‘light soy sauce’. It might sound a bit confusing at first, but the ‘light’ part actually refers to the colour, rather than its level of saltiness. Try it in my Traditional Pad See Ew recipe (which uses dark soy sauce, too!). Want to know what is the difference between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce? Read on!
I use two varieties of soy sauce in my popular Pad See Ew Noodles.
Dark soy sauce
Next up, I’d recommend having a dark soy sauce in your cupboard. It’s less salty than your regular light soy sauce, and has a darker, more intense colour. Because it’s been aged for longer, it has a richer flavour, and therefore adds more depth to a dish. I find it’s a good one for marinades, or when you want that deep brown hue adding to a dish. Try it in my Soy Sauce Chicken & Noodles.
The difference between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce is mainly what they are used for. Light soy sauce is saltier and used more for flavour, and dark soy sauce is generally thicker, less salty and slightly sweeter than light soy sauce, so ideal for adding colour.
Dark soy sauce adds intensity and colour to my Soy Sauce Chicken & Noodles.
Dark sweet soy sauce
Finally, a sweet dark soy sauce – such as your Indonesian kecap manis – will give your dish a beautiful mahogany colour and a lovely layer of sweetness. You’ll notice it has a much thicker consistency than the other soy sauces I mention above. Try it in my Indonesian Nasi Goreng.
My version of Nasi Goreng features kecap manis, or dark sweet soy sauce.
Bonus buy: a Japanese soy sauce
I know I said three soy sauces… but just throwing this additional one out there for consideration! When I’m cooking Japanese-style dishes, like with my Shoyu Ramen, I tend to favour a Japanese soy sauce. I find it gives a rounder flavour and isn’t as salt-aggressive as the Chinese-style varieties.
Likewise, I typically like to use a Chinese soy sauce for when I’m rustling up Chinese recipes, a Thai soy sauce for when I’m making Thai food, and a Japanese variety when I’m making (you guessed it) Japanese food. To me, each country’s version has its own subtle variations and flavour profile that lends itself better to the cuisine. Of course, it’s not an absolute dealbreaker if you don’t have each country’s version, although I would definitely suggest adding both a Chinese and Japanese version to your repertoire and experimenting to find your own personal preference.
I favour Japanese soy sauce when cooking dishes that typically originate there.
Hopefully this soy sauces explainer will set you on the path to savoury goodness. Now it’s time to get cooking and crank up the umami.