Every Type of Soy Sauce Home Cooks Need to Know About and How to Use Each

published Dec 21, 2022
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A popular seasoning in East and Southeast Asian cooking, soy sauce is called Jiangyou in Mandarin, Shoyu in Japanese, Ganjang in Korean, and Kecap Manis in Indonesian. Each country has a variety of soy sauces — dark, light, sweet — all of which have different flavors and levels of intensity. But they are all made from the same ingredient: soybeans. 

Soy sauce was once relegated to a single shelf on the “international food” section in American grocery stores. However, at Korean, Japanese, Chinese, or Southeast Asian supermarkets, entire aisles are dedicated to this salty soy-based liquid condiment. The choices can be overwhelming. Home cooks often wonder when a recipe calls for soy sauce, which do they mean? To help, here’s a guide to the various types of soy sauce and how to use them.

Ganjan: Korean Soy Sauce

There are four basic kinds of Korean soy sauce: Yangjo Ganjang, Hansik Ganjang, Sanbunhae Ganjang, and Jin Ganjang. 

  • Yangjio Ganjang is a soybean- and rice-, barley-, or wheat-based soy sauce that takes at least 6 months to ferment. It’s the least salty and the most expensive of the four soy sauces. It’s often used to season leafy vegetables for banchans, Korean side dishes. 
  • Hansik Ganjang (sometimes called Guk Ganjang or Joseon Ganjang), is a Korean-style soy sauce used in traditional cuisine. Made of simply soybean, water, and salt, it’s the saltiest option and often used to season soups. 
  • Sanbunhae Ganjang is a chemically brewed soy sauce that’s made from soybeans boiled in hydrochloric acid. 
  • And finally, Jin Ganjang (also known as Honhap Ganjang) is a blend of Yangjio Ganjang and Sanbunhae. 

Most home cooks favor Jin Ganjang because it’s richer, saltier, and less expensive than Yangjio Ganjang. Korean food YouTuber and cookbook author Maangchi uses Sempio-brand Honhap Ganjang as a dipping sauce and flavoring agent.

The quality of Korean soy sauces are determined by a T.N. number. T.N. measures the total nitrogen in the soy sauces from 1.0 to 1.7; the higher the number, the higher quality the soy sauce. The number is reflected (somewhat) on Sempio bottles. For example, Sempio 701 has 1.7 T.N. and Sempio 501 has 1.5 T.N.

Shoyu: Japanese Soy Sauce

Japan produces some of the highest-quality soy sauces in the world. Like fine wine, artisanal natural-brewed soy sauces take months, even years to age in barrels, and can cost up to $150 a bottle. 

There are five main categories of soy sauce: Koikuchi (dark soy sauce), Usukuchi (light soy sauce), Tamari (a thicker, richer sauce), Shiro Shoyu (white or very light), and Saishikomi (sweet soy sauce). 

  • Made from wheat and soybean, Koikuchi is the most commonly used soy sauce in Japanese cooking. 
  • Saltier but less flavorful, Usukuchi is often used in simmered dishes and broths. 
  • Tamari is not technically soy sauce but rather the liquid byproduct formed during the miso-making process. Since it’s made with just fermented soybeans and contains little to no wheat, tamari is a great option for folks who are gluten-free (check the label to be sure). Its thick, rich elements complement raw fish and make a great marinade for teriyakis.   
  • The high-end Saishikomi is used to dip sushi and sashimi. 
  • Shiro Shoyu is used as a finishing sauce. 

Just One Cookbook author Namiko Hirasawa Chen relies on Kikkoman brands to season her recipes.

Jianyou: Chinese Soy Sauce

There are two main soy sauces in Chinese cooking: light soy sauce and dark soy sauce.

The light soy sauce is thinner and saltier and is used most often in cooking and dipping. Dark soy sauce is thicker, less salty, richer, and slightly sweet. It’s usually added to a dish to give it a darker color. My go-to brand is Pearl River Bridge, although I always end up going through my light soy sauce a lot faster than the dark soy sauce.

Sometimes, you might see a recipe call for thick soy sauce, or double black soy sauce, which is a kind of dark soy sauce with added molasses. Similar in taste to Kecap Manis (see below), it’s typically used to add a darker color to braises or noodles, as a dipping sauce, or a finishing drizzle in clay-pot rice. 

Kecap Manis: Indonesian Soy Sauce

Kecap Manis is a thick, molasses-like soy sauce sweetened with palm sugar. This sweet soy sauce is the key ingredient in Indonesian dishes nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles). When used in a marinade, the sauce adds a caramel note to grilled meats and satays. ABC Sweet Sauce is one of the country’s most beloved brands.

Chemical Soy Sauces

To speed up the fermentation process, some companies like La Choy and Aloha Shoyu use hydrochloric acid to break down soy protein. The mixture is then flavored with corn syrup, caramel coloring, and Potassium Sorbate. Sanbunhae Ganjang, mentioned above, is another example of this type of soy sauce.

What Is the Difference Between Light and Dark Soy Sauce?

As you can see, there are many different categories of soy sauce that go beyond dark and light. That said, the two categories apply specifically to Chinese soy sauce.

Light soy sauce: As the name implies, it is lighter in flavor and color. Light soy sauce is typically used in cooking.

Dark soy sauce: This is used mainly to tint food a darker color. Double black soy sauce has added molasses, which makes it sweeter and thicker. It’s also used as a dipping sauce or a finishing sauce.

Cooking Tip

If you accidentally poured too much soy sauce into your dish, you can remedy it by adding a sweet element (like sugar) or a sour element (vinegar or Worcestershire sauce).

Proper Storage of Soy Sauce

Soy sauce expires after two to three years. It will keep longer if you keep it refrigerated.

A Little Soy Sauce History

The ancient version of soy sauce was said to date back to 160 CE in China, during the Han dynasty. The first mention of soy sauce in Japan, known as shoyu, was recorded in a Buddhist monk’s diary entry in 1568. Soy sauce was introduced to the West in the mid-17th century, by way of the Dutch East India Company — the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan back then. In the mid-18th century, former British East India Company seaman Samuel Bowen sold pints of an American version made in Savannah, Georgia. In fact, we in the U.S. have been enjoying soy sauce since before the Revolutionary War.