Turning soybeans, water and salt into a delicious elixir
Growing up, my mother always kept a bottle of La Choy soy sauce in the door of our harvest-yellow Frigidaire refrigerator. Like so many home cooks in the 70s, she would clip the occasional fried rice or stir-fry recipe from Good Housekeeping magazine in an attempt to introduce variety into our Southern-fried dinners and her Frances Bavier style cooking routine.
These recipes would inevitably call for “soy sauce,” and the brevity of that two-word description never once struck me as problematic—that is, until I escaped the tiny, Southern, suburban bubble that ensconced the pantry of my childhood.
Soy sauce is not a singular product, devoid of variation. In many ways, it’s a lot like wine. There are many varieties, each with its own texture, flavor, and appearance; the longer it ages, the deeper and more complex the flavor becomes; and there are devotees that will not hesitate to cut you if you think that acrid, brown liquid that comes with your Asian takeout is anything other than tiny packets of watered down motor oil.
There are two primary ways of turning soybeans, water, salt, (and sometimes wheat) into soy sauce—natural brewing or chemical processing. Naturally brewed soy sauce ferments for months or even a couple of years to produce a rich and complex flavor like a fine wine or whiskey, all while avoiding chemical additives that give chemically-produced sauces a sharp, saline aftertaste.
Non-brewed, chemically-produced soy sauce is manufactured in mere days, mixing hydrolized soy protein and flavorings such as corn syrup and caramel together into a thin, sad, shadow of what could have been.
In short, naturally brewed soy sauces have a discernibly rich aroma, complexity of flavor and are blacker than Pete Wentz’s eyeliner. Industrial soy sauce is a one trick pony, and that trick is giving you hypernatremia.
Among brewed soy sauces there are many styles that vary from cuisine to cuisine. Visit a well stocked Asian market and you’ll find an array of styles such as Indonesian, Thai, Korean, and Filipino, while the average American grocery store will typically only stock Japanese or Chinese styles.
Japanese soy sauce, or shoyu, is brewed with roasted wheat. Chinese soy sauce was traditionally made without wheat, but modern varieties have begun to use wheat flour as well as added sugar. These differences in ingredients and different brewing times give Japanese soy sauce a milder, more rounded flavor, while Chinese soy sauces have a saltier finish and thicker, darker texture. Shake a bottle of each and you’ll notice the Chinese soy sauce will coat the inside of the bottle, while Japanese styles are lighter and more delicate.
The third variation within the panoply of soy sauces is the distinction between light or dark. This variation is produced primarily as a result of how long the sauce is aged. Light Japanese and Chinese soy sauces are thinner and (obviously) lighter in color than the dark versions, but oddly enough, they have a more intense flavor than dark soy sauces.
The soy sauce you have in your pantry or refrigerator at home is probably dark Japanese soy sauce, known as koikuchi. These dark sauces are the most widely distributed in the U.S. and Japan and are the quintessential soy sauce you see from brands like Kikkoman and Yamasa. If a recipe simply calls for “soy sauce,” this is probably the type they mean for you to use.
In Chinese cooking, however, light soy sauce is more common. The bottle will usually say “light” “thin” or “superior” along with a brand name such as Lee Kum Kee or Pearl River Bridge.
One final note about tamari. Tamari is a thick, almost syrupy soy sauce that originated in central Japan. It is traditionally used as a dipping sauce for sashimi or as a finishing sauce for grilled meats or teriyaki. Tamari became popular with the gluten-free crowd because it was supposedly made without wheat. While there are some tamari’s that are made with 100% soy, tamari made the traditional way can contain wheat. If you have medically diagnosed celiac disease, please check the ingredients before ingesting tamari. If you do not have celiac disease, just eat the damn tamari.
The key thing to remember in all of this is to look for bottles that say “brewed” or “traditionally brewed.” Take a peek at the ingredient list too so you’ll know if you’re getting the good stuff or a beaker’s worth of chemicals. The fewer ingredients, the better.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan currently living abroad who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits