Soy sauce is probably one of the most well-known Chinese ingredients in the West. Known for its deep umami (xiān wèi 鲜味) flavor, it is used liberally in many East and Southeast Asian cuisines. While most people in the U.S. are familiar with soy sauce in general, many are unaware that there is more than one variety. Here we will discuss different varieties of Chinese soy sauce and their specific uses.
Brief History of Soy Sauce
The origins of soy sauce date back to the later part of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-206 BC). During this time, a fermented paste known as Jiang was made using meat, fish, or grains. Soybeans began to be fermented into paste, or “soy nuggets”, called douchi (豆豉) during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The liquid was extracted from the douche making process and this became the soy sauce closer to its current form. By the Song Dynasty (960 – 1276 AD) soy sauce became known by its current Chinese name, jiangyou ( 江油).
High quality soy sauce is made using soybeans, a small amount of wheat, salt, and time (up to one year or more). Cooked soybeans are inoculated with mold cultures (not unlike certain cheeses) and mixed with wheat flour, salt, and water. The mixture is fermented and stirred daily for anywhere from 3- to 12-months. The liquid soy sauce, or jiangyou, is then extracted. The naturally occurring free glutamates give it its deep umami flavor (known in Chinese cooking as xiān wèi 鲜味).
A more complete history of soy sauce can be read on the Soy Info Center’s website.
Chinese Soy Sauce Varieties
There are many different types of Chinese soy sauces (jiangyou 酱油). Jiangyou is the generic term for soy sauce, but there are unique names for different types of soy sauces. Here we list some of the most common varieties that you will use in Chinese dishes.
Light or Regular Soy sauce (sheng chou 生抽)
This is the most common and versatile of Chinese soy sauces. Light soy sauce is the default, “regular”, or all-purpose soy sauce used in Chinese cooking.
The term “light” used here should not be confused with some soy sauce brands in Western supermarkets labeling low-sodium varieties as light. In China, the term light soy sauce (sheng chou 生抽)is used to distinguish it from dark soy sauce (discussed below).
Distinguishing between light and dark soy sauce is thought to have originated in southern China, around Guangdong. Traditionally, outside of southern China, such as in Sichuan, there was only one all-purpose soy sauce used for cooking. Although, chefs regularly make their own unique seasoned varieties for cooking.
Light soy sauce is the same thing as “regular” soy sauce. Some brands label their “regular” soy sauce as "light", while others do not. In general, if you see soy sauce in a Chinese market labeled as “light soy sauce,” or just “soy sauce”, these are the same thing.
In the picture below the Pearl River Bridge brand has labeled their soy sauce “light soy sauce”, while the soy sauce from the Mala Market does not use the term “light.” These soy sauces would both be considered light or regular soy sauce and can be used interchangeably – although the Zhongba soy sauce sold by the Mala Market is a more expensive premium one-year aged soy sauce with no preservatives.
Taste and Color
Light soy sauce has a deep umami flavor. When poured into a light-colored bowl it is semi-transparent and reddish brown.
Unlike dark soy sauce, light soy sauce has a thin consistency.
Light soy sauce is versatile and is used for dipping sauces, marinades, and stir-frying.
Where to Buy
Light or regular soy sauce can be bought at Chinese or other Asian Markets. It can be difficult to find naturally fermented authentic Chinese soy sauce in Western grocery stores. Do not buy chemically brewed sauces such as La Choy that “front” as soy sauce.
Kikkoman soy sauce is widely available in Western grocery stores, but this is a Japanese soy sauce, so the flavor profile is a little different from Chinese soy sauces. If you cannot access an Asian Market to purchase Chinese soy sauce, you can purchase premium soy sauces from The Mala Market, or buy brands such as Pearl River on Amazon.
Light Soy Sauce Substitute
There is no great substitute for authentically brewed Chinese light soy sauce. If you can only access soy sauces sold at your local supermarket, Kikkoman is your best substitute for Chinese soy sauce.
If you need a gluten free alternative, try Japanese tamari, which is similar to soy sauce but brewed without wheat. Be careful though because some brands of tamari are not gluten free.
A soy and wheat free alternative is coconut aminos. While some advocates say that is taste like soy sauce, we disagree, although it does have an umami profile. This is still likely your best substitute if you need a soy and gluten free alternative. You can purchase at your local supermarket or on Amazon. Be aware though that your Chinese dishes will taste vastly different from ones using authentic soy sauce.
Dark Soy Sauce (Lao Chou 老抽)
Dark soy sauce also has a large place in Chinese cooking. The initial production process of dark soy sauce is similar to light soy sauce. The final step is what differentiates light from dark soy sauce.
Dark soy sauce is aged slightly longer than light soy sauce and then it is mixed with molasses and possibly a little starch as a thickener.
Taste and Color
Dark soy sauce appears black when poured into a bowl. It is commonly used to give dishes a dark reddish-brown tint. While some say it is used mainly to add color, dark soy sauce also has a richer, bolder flavor. It is usually used in smaller amounts compared to light soy.
Dark and light soy sauce have similar amounts of sodium, but dark soy sauce taste less salty due to its sugar content.
Dark soy sauce also has a higher viscosity than light soy sauce and is visibly thicker.
Dark soy sauce is used for stir-frying and braising. It is not usually used in dipping sauces. One famous dish that uses dark soy is hong shao rou. We use it when stir-frying our kung pao tofu (gong bao doufu) and eggplant stir-fried with tomatoes and peppers (qie la xi 茄辣西).
Where to Buy
We usually buy the Pearl River Bridge brand from our local Chinese market. It can be difficult to find in “Western” grocery stores, but is readily available at Chinese and Asian markets and on Amazon.
Dark Soy Sauce Substitute
There is no great substitute for dark soy sauce. You will see some information on the web that says you can mix light soy sauce and molasses to create dark soy sauce, but this is not accurate because true dark soy sauce has a different fermentation process and cannot be recreated just by adding a sweetener. Luckily, dark soy sauce is very easy to obtain at Chinese markets and online at Amazon and The Mala Market!
Dark Versus Light Soy Sauce
A quick recap of the differences in light and dark soy sauce.
Light soy sauce is the default, or “regular” version of Chinese soy sauce. Light and dark soy sauce start out being fermented in the same way. Dark soy sauce is fermented slightly longer and then molasses and corn starch are added. This results in a thicker consistency and a deeper, richer flavor than light soy sauce. When poured in a bowl, light soy sauce is slightly transparent with a reddish-brown hue, whereas dark soy sauce is almost black.
Light soy sauce is the default version to use unless your recipe calls for dark soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is used to provide a deeper more complex flavor and to give dishes a dark amber color. Dark soy is usually used in combination with light soy and used in smaller quantities.
Light soy sauce can be substituted for dark soy if needed, but do not substitute dark soy sauce for light soy sauce.
Mushroom Flavored Dark Soy Sauce (mó gū lǎo chōu, 蘑菇老抽)
Mushroom flavored dark soy sauce is just as it sounds, dark soy sauce (see above) that has been infused or fermented with mushrooms or mushroom powder. It can be used interchangeably with dark soy sauce.
Taste and Color
Mushroom flavored dark soy sauce is black when poured into a bowl and also gives dishes a dark reddish-brown tint. Similar to dark soy sauce, it has a richer, bolder flavor than light soy sauce, but the mushrooms give it a more intense umami flavored compared to dark soy sauce.
Mushroom flavored dark soy sauce has the same consistency as regular dark soy sauce.
Where to Buy
We usually buy the Pearl River Bridge brand from our local Chinese market. We’ve never seen mushroom dark soy sauce in “Western” grocery stores, but it is readily available at Chinese and Asian markets and on Amazon.
Mushroom dark Soy Sauce Substitute
Regular dark soy sauce can be substituted for mushroom dark soy.
Black Soy Sauce (lǎo tóu chōu, 老头抽)
Black soy sauce is used less commonly than dark soy sauce, but we wanted to list it here in case you see it in your local Asian Market. It is made by adding molasses to light soy sauce. While both Dark soy sauce and Black soy sauce use molasses, Black soy sauce is three times sweeter than Dark Soy Sauce and not as thick. One tablespoon of Dark Soy Sauce has only 1 gram of sugar, whereas one tablespoon of Black soy sauce has 3 grams of sugar. We never use Black soy sauce in our cooking.
Taste, Color, and Consistency
The color and consistency are similar to light soy sauce – thin, and reddish brown. It tastes like light soy sauce with added sugar. It is not as rich as high quality light or dark soy.
Where to Buy
Chinese Black soy sauce is not as common and not all Chinese markets carry it. You can find it on Amazon, but if you search for Black soy sauce you are likely to have a lot of Thai Black soy sauces in your results. Thai soy sauce is different from Chinese Black soy sauce.
Soy Sauce Storage
Most bottles of soy sauce sold in the West say to store in the refrigerator after opening. In China soy sauce is almost stored at room temperature just like vinegar. We never put it in the refrigerator, but then again, we go through bottles of soy sauce pretty fast. If you do not cook with soy sauce regularly, you can leave it in the refrigerator to extend the shelf life.