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Salty, savory, and a little bit sweet, soy sauce introduces umami flavor to a wide variety of Asian dishes.

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What Is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce is the natural liquid byproduct of fermented soybean and wheat paste. Its warm, inky brown color is primarily a result of the sugar released during the fermentation process, an example of the Maillard reaction, which occurs when sugar and amino acids are introduced to intense heat. (Some soy sauces get their color from additional food coloring). Soy sauce is used as a condiment and a seasoning ingredient throughout Asian cuisine.

Inside the Origins of Soy Sauce

The roots of soy sauce go back at least 2,000 years to China’s Western Han dynasty. The multipurpose ingredient traveled to Japan on the heels of Buddhism in the seventh century and became popular as a vegetarian substitution for uoshōyu, a commonly used fish sauce. In Korea, the brewing methodology for soy sauce, or ganjang, is understood to predate the era of The Three Kingdoms (57 BCE), thanks to a Chinese account of fermentation techniques written at the time. By 1737, soy sauce regularly appeared on commodity lists belonging to the Dutch East India Trading Company.

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How Soy Sauce Is Made

Soy sauce is made by combining cooked soybeans and cooked wheat grains into a paste, then adding either Aspergillus oryzae or sojae molds to begin fermentation. The culture is added to a salt brine and left to ferment further before being pressed to produce the liquid condiment or sauce.

Commercial producers use an acid-hydrolyzed vegetable protein in place of bacterial cultures to speed up the process, creating batches within a few days. Traditional methods can take as long as six months. The longer the fermentation process, the deeper and more complex flavors the soy sauce will have.

4 Common Types of Soy Sauce

There are four main types of soy sauce, including tamari, shōyu, light, and dark:

  1. Light: Also known as Chinese-style soy sauce, light soy sauce is thin and carries a pronounced, concentrated flavor. This soy sauce’s saltiness is due to the bacterial cultures, which produce amino acids as they ferment and combine to create monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG. Light soy sauce is not the same as “low-sodium” soy sauce, which contains none of the active cultures and 40 percent less sodium.
  2. Dark: Dark soy sauce is a deeper, more viscous soy sauce due to a longer fermentation process and the addition of sweeteners or thickening agents such as molasses. Dishes made with dark soy sauce take on a caramel hue, and it is ideal for glazing meats and vegetables.