Have you ever been intimidated by the soy sauce aisle at the Asian grocery store? It is usually the single biggest section dedicated to one type of product at most Asian supermarkets.
At my local store it's half of the entire aisle, and I've seen so many people stand in front of the aisle and looking entirely overwhelmed. Well, this article is here to help you pick the right soy sauce for the job!
Video: Soy Sauces Explained
If you prefer to watch rather than read, most of what's covered in this article is also covered in this video!
4 Main Types of Soy Sauces
The best way to attack this beast of a subject is to look at soy sauces by their main function. (FYI This is a system that I came up with to help people understand the different types of soy sauces. It is not an official categorization system).
The easiest way to understand the hundreds of bottles of soy sauce is to divide them into 4 main categories based on their main function:
Within these categories, there are various subtypes of course, and this guide will cover everything you need to know to get you cooking, without getting into all the obscure details that you likely won't need. At the end we will also cover soy sauce storage and soy sauce substitutes at the end.
But first, what is soy sauce?
At the basic level, soy sauce is made from 5 main ingredients: soybeans, wheat, salt, water and koji. Koji is a special mold that does the fermentation and is responsible for a few other food products such as miso paste.
Each manufacturer will have their own recipe and processes, and they often also add other ingredients such as MSG and/or other flavours.
Regular Soy Sauce
What it's for:
This is the stuff you'll need when a recipe calls simply for "soy sauce." And by "regular" soy sauce I mean soy sauces whose main function is to add saltiness, umami, and of course soy sauce flavour. By contrast, the main functions of dark and sweet soy sauces are added for colour and sweetness, respectively.
What to buy:
First, decide which cuisine you're cooking, and buy the soy sauce that is from that cuisine. If you're cooking Thai food, try to get Thai soy sauce, if you're cooking Japanese food, get Japanese soy sauce, etc. If you don't want to stock 3 different soy sauces, that's fine and understandable! For the most part you can use the "wrong" country's soy sauce and you will still have a fine-tasting dish, albeit slightly different.
Once you've narrowed down the cuisine, you want to go for the bottles that are simply labeled as soy sauce, light soy sauce (explained below), or in the case of the Thai ones, thin soy sauce. All of these are considered regular soy sauce. Of course if there are generic descriptors such as "premium" or "organic," that doesn't really count.
Low sodium and gluten-free soy sauce:
These are considered variations of regular soy sauce. If sodium and gluten are issues of concern, you can use these in place of regular soy sauce in the same amount. Note: The Japanese tamari is usually gluten free, but always double check as tamari can technically contain gluten.
Soy sauce for Thai cooking:
Since this is a Thai cooking site, let's go deeper on Thai soy sauce! The only brand of Thai soy sauce that I've seen overseas is Healthy Boy Brand, which is great cuz it's my favourite anyway. There are TWO types of Thai regular soy sauces, the "thin soy sauce" which is the original formula with a yellow label. And the "mushroom soy sauce" which is simply a mushroom flavoured version. Both are interchangeable in all recipes, it's just a matter of preference. Because I know you will ask, I use Healthy Boy Brand Mushroom Soy Sauce when I can get it.
*Thai mushroom soy sauce is not to be confused with Chinese mushroom soy sauce, which is much darker and is a different thing altogether.
What's the deal with light soy sauce?
You might think light soy sauce is lower in sodium, or somehow lighter in calories or colour, but it doesn't. It's actually just a way some companies label their regular soy sauce.
Some brands use the term "light soy sauce" to label their line of regular soy sauce in order to differentiate it from their dark soy sauce. For example, Lee Kum Kee does not carry anything called "light soy sauce", only "soy sauce." On the other hand, Amoy brand carries "light soy sauce," but they don't have anything that just says "soy sauce."
Dark Soy Sauce/Black Soy Sauce
What it's for:
The main function of dark soy sauce, or black soy sauce as Thais call it, is to give your dish a dark rich brown colour, and also a deeper, molasses-y flavour.
A little bit of this stuff goes a long way so you never need much, so while it is salty, it would not be the main source of saltiness in your dish. In fact, if you put too much it tends to taste a bit bitter because of that molasses flavour.
Most commonly you will find dark soy sauce called for in Chinese and Southeast Asian recipes.
What to buy:
Again, it's always best practice to match your ingredients to the cuisine, but because it is not usually used in large amount, you can be pretty relaxed about cross-country use of dark soy sauce.
Chinese dark soy sauce can be used in place of Thai black soy sauce, though generally the Chinese variety tends to be saltier, so if more than a dash is called for it's wise to hold back on other salting agents a bit just in case.
Black soy sauce for Thai cooking:
Things actually get a little confusing because for reasons beyond my understanding, there are so many formulas for black soy sauce in Thailand. Some are darker, some are lighter, some are sweeter, some are saltier. It's totally unnecessary IMO, but here we are.
My preference is Dragonfly brand black soy sauce (orange lid), which is the classic old-school brand that I like, but it can be hard to find. My second choice is Healthy Boy Brand Black Soy Sauce (formula 1), but it is MUCH darker than Dragonfly, which means I have to use much less of it. Note that Healthy Boy makes multiple formulas of black soy sauce, they're all fine to use.
If you can't find these, not to worry. Because you never use too much of this stuff, and its main purpose is colour not flavour, it's not a big deal if what you're using is different from mine. But it does mean that you have to be cautious and add a little at a time to ensure you don't accidentally over do it.
Sweet Soy Sauce
What it's for: The main function of sweet soy sauce purpose is as you might expect...to add sweetness! It's a thick, syrupy soy sauce that is not very salty at all despite its name, and it has a deep molasses flavour and a dark colour. It is most commonly used in Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine, and in Thailand we use it very rarely, usually to make dipping sauces.
What to buy: My go-to is the Indonesian ABC brand kecap manis (kecap manis mean sweet soy sauce in Indonesian). It also happens to be the most widely available.
Specialty Soy Sauces
There are other soy sauce-like seasonings, made from fermented soybeans, but are not really considered soy sauce because their flavours are significantly different from soy sauce. For example, Golden Mountain Sauce (aka Thai Seasoning Sauce), Maggi Seasoning, or Bragg's Liquid Aminos (or liquid soy seasoning).
What it's for:
These are usually comparable to regular soy sauce in terms of saltiness, and you can use them instead of soy sauce to change up the flavour. For me, I usually use them in combination with soy sauce to get a more complex flavour, or to add variety to different stir fries that might otherwise taste similar to each other.
What to buy:
It's a cook's playground! These are rarely "core" to a dish's flavour, so buy whichever you're intrigued by and consider these opportunities to explore various soy based seasonings. I
In my recipes I use Golden Mountain Sauce, so if you want to do what I do, that's the one to get. Though Maggi Seasoning is a favourite of people around the world for boosting umami in all sorts of dishes, and in Thailand it's commonly drizzled over fried eggs!
Getting Deeper into Non-Thai Soy Sauces
I wanted this article to give you just enough info to work with without becoming overwhelming, and definitely enough to get you through Thai cooking. But if you're a food nerd and love deep dives into all sorts of minute details, here are some good resources.
Serious Eats has a great guide to soy sauces that go deeper into Japanese, Chinese and Korean soy sauces. I also did not talk much about Korean soy sauces as I know less about it.
How to Store Soy Sauce
Even though most soy sauces are so salty that they won't go bad in your cabinet, I recommend refrigerating all types of soy sauces because the flavour does deteriorate over time. Keeping it in the fridge where is cold and dark will help preserve the flavour of soy sauce longer.
In the fridge soy sauce will last indefinitely, meaning it won't go bad even after years. However, if you find a 4 year old open bottle in the back of your fridge...the flavour isn probably not as good as a fresh bottle.
Soy Sauce Substitutes
If you're looking to avoid soy sauce because you're on a gluten-free diet, there are now many brands of gluten free soy sauces on the market, though there isn't a Thai one that is readily available outside of Thailand yet. Bragg's Liquid Aminos is also gluten free.
If you are allergic to soy, however, it gets a little more complicated. Fish sauce works in many situations, especially in stir fries. Here's my guide to choosing fish sauce.
The other option is coconut aminos, which is made from coconut sap. This is much less salty than soy sauce so you may have to supplement with salt or fish sauce. I have not personally tried it, but people on the internet seems to be in favour of it.
Explore Other Condiments in Thai Cooking
Now that you are well equipped with the soy sauce knowledge, are you ready to get to know other Thai ingredients? Yes? Well, here you are: