How to Choose the Best Soy Sauce: Tips and Recommendations

Ken Adam
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Soy sauce, the much-loved seasoning in cuisines from across the world, is more than just a condiment – it’s a flavor enhancer, a culinary unifier, and a beacon of cultural heritage. Chasing umami, the so-called “fifth taste,” our search for the best soy sauce leads us to various supermarkets, grocery stores, and pantries, where multiple brands, flavors, and types of soy sauce await.

Choosing the best soy sauce begins with learning about its origins and craftsmanship. Discover more about the craftsmanship and origins of top soy sauce brands here. Soy sauce consists primarily of fermented soy, accompanied by grains – usually wheat. It’s the process of fermentation that gives the sauce its unique taste, a blend of saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, and exquisite umami.

While the ingredient list may seem quite humble, the wealth of flavors soy sauce can bring to a dish is substantial, infusing everything from sushi to stir-fries with its signature taste. From regular soy sauce to light soy sauce, dark soy sauce to tamari, the vast array of choices may appear daunting. However, understanding their differences guides you toward the best brand of soy sauce for your kitchen needs. 

Distinctions between Chinese and Japanese Soy Sauce

One cannot discuss the best soy sauce without pitting the Chinese and Japanese versions against each other. Although soy sauce originated in China around the 2nd century AD, it was Japan that diversified soy sauce, creating more variations suited to different culinary uses.

Generally, Chinese soy sauce tends to have a more robust flavor and darker color due to a higher ration of soybeans to wheat. They come in two primary types: light and dark. Light soy sauce, or “sheng chou,” is saltier and adds a beautiful umami touch to dishes without coloring them. On the other hand, the dark soy sauce, or “lao chou,” is thicker, less salty, and is typically used to give dishes a rich caramel color.

Japanese soy sauce, or “shoyu,” meanwhile, has a balanced ratio of soybeans and wheat. Their regular soy sauce, or “koikuchi,” is similar to Chinese dark soy sauce and is commonly used in Japan. They also have a lighter colored soy sauce, “usukuchi,” which is saltier and commonly used in stews and soups. Other Japanese soy sauces, like “tamari” and “saishikomi,” further diversify their offering, broadening the flavor profiles available.

Choosing the best soy sauce involves identifying the balance of flavors that best complements your culinary style and the particular dishes you’re preparing.

The Soy to Wheat Ratio: What Are The Key To Differentiating Factors?

When deciding which is the best soy sauce brand or type for your dishes, understanding the soy to wheat ratio in the sauce production forms an essential part of this decision process. The ratio contributes massively towards the resulting flavor, texture, and color of the sauce, producing subtle or stark differences in your final dish. 

soybean and wheat

Chinese soy sauces often contain a higher proportion of soybeans to wheat, intended to create a robust, full-bodied sauce. This combination typically found in the dark Chinese soy sauce illuminates the incredible depth of flavor that makes Chinese dishes tick. 

On the contrary, Korean and Japanese variants operate on a more balanced ratio. A notable example is Japanese shoyu or regular soy sauce. It uses equal parts of soy and wheat to achieve a savory yet subtly sweet profile. This variation in ratio is crucial as it fundamentally alters the flavor profile of the soy sauce, hence changing the characteristics of the dishes it seasons. 

The Art and Science of Fermentation: Traditional vs Modern Methods

Delving into the heart of soy sauce-making, the magic lies in the fermentation process. Traditionally, the mixture of soybeans, wheat, and a specific mold (koji) is left to age and ferment naturally, resulting in a complex blend of flavor and aroma. This process ensures that the essence of soybeans and grains is preserved, contributing a depth to the flavors and a wonderful umami that remains unmatched by modern alternatives.


Alternatively, modern fermentation techniques, driven by cost and time efficiency, employ additional chemicals or accelerants to hasten the process. This procedure, commonly seen in non-fermented or semi-chemical soy sauces, fails to capture the full depth of flavors compared to its naturally brewed counterparts. 

In choosing the best soy sauce, it would be prudent to opt for a sauce that employs the traditional brewing method – primarily because it carries a broader spectrum of flavor that can significantly elevate dishes.

Navigating the Varieties: Different Types of Chinese Soy Sauce

Exploring the best Chinese soy sauce warrants understanding the varieties and their unique features. Chinese soy sauces are primarily divided into “light” and “dark,” (click to see more difference between them) but these range far beyond mere color.

PRB soy sauce

Light soy sauce, or “sheng chou,” is the standard addition in most Chinese dishes, providing a strong soy flavor without overwhelming coloration. Although referred to as “light,” it refers to its color and not its salt content, with light soy sauce often carrying more sodium compared to its darker counterpart. It’s a multipurpose marinade, seasoning, and flavor enhancer. If you regularly make Chinese recipes calling for ‘soy sauce,’ it’s generally safe to use light soy sauce.

Dark soy sauce, or “lao chou,” is thicker, intensely colored due to prolonged fermentation, and sometimes sweetened with molasses or caramel, providing a fuller profile. Primarily, this variety is used for color in dishes like fried rice and stews where the rich hue is desired, without adding heavy salinity.

Understanding the difference between these two allows you to use the best soy sauce for your dishes, maintaining authentic flavors and delivering the most pleasing results. Besides light and dark soy sauce, we have more detailed guide on different types of soy sauce.

More Soy Sauce from Pearl River Bridge)

The Role of Soy Sauce in Different Cuisines

While soy sauce originates from China, it has found a place in pantries across borders, embracing and enhancing the flavors of myriad dishes beyond Asian cuisine. From stir-fries in China, sushi in Japan, barbecues in Korea, to even a salty addition in Western soups, the versatility of soy sauce is remarkable.

Choosing the best soy sauce can be dependent on the cuisine you prefer. If you favor Chinese-style stir-fries, the light soy sauce might be your best choice for its harmonizing qualities. Whereas, Japanese cuisine often prefers dark soy sauce or ‘koikuchi’, prized for its balanced flavor that doesn’t overshadow subtle ingredients used in dishes like sashimi.

Unveiling the Mysteries of Non-fermented Soy Sauce

In the quest for the best soy sauce, you may come across options marketed as ‘non-fermented’ or ‘chemical’ soy sauce. These versions arise from an accelerated production method known as acid hydrolysis, which significantly reduces the time required for producing soy sauce.

However, the appeal of shorter production time is often negated when it comes to flavor. Non-fermented soy sauces typically lack the depth of flavors showcased by naturally fermented counterparts. As a result, some brands might even mix chemical soy sauce with the naturally brewed kind to produce a semi-chemical soy sauce.

When opting for the best soy sauce, lean towards labels indicating ‘naturally brewed’ or ‘fermented,’ as these are more likely to deliver authentic flavor and quality promised by traditional soy sauce craftsmanship.

The Health and Nutritional Aspects of Soy Sauce

Choosing the best soy sauce isn’t just about taste – it’s crucial to consider its health and nutritional aspects. Soy sauce acts as an incredible source of antioxidants and can aid digestion due to the fermentation process involved in its making. On the other hand, soy sauce tends to be high in sodium which could potentially impact health if consumed in large amounts. 

For those following a strict gluten-free diet, alternatives like tamari provide the desired umami punch without gluten. Likewise, for those wanting to save on calories, low sodium versions might be the best soy sauce to reach for.

It’s essential to consider your dietary needs and restrictions while hunting for the best soy sauce, ensuring that flavor and health go hand in hand in your cooking adventures.

Indicators of Quality: Recognizing Authentic Soy Sauce

When it comes to determining the quality of soy sauce, a few indicators can guide you. Authentic soy sauce will have a short, simple ingredient list – primarily consisting of water, soybeans, wheat, and salt. 

Additionally, the best soy sauce should have no unnecessary preservatives or additives. The color should be clear, reddish-brown, and it should have a balance of saltiness, a tinge of sweetness, and a notable umami flavor.

Upon tasting, authentic soy sauce will present a multi-dimensional flavor profile, with notes of saltiness, sweetness, and a deep umami flavor all coming together to form a savory symphony. A flat, salt-dominating taste profile indicates a lack of depth, pointing towards a lower-quality product.

Grading Level of Soy Sauce: How to Judge the Quality of Soy Sauce?

One rarely discussed factor in choosing the best soy sauce is understanding the grading level of soy sauce, a concept critical to judging the quality, taste, and nutritional value of one’s preferred soy sauce. As most soy sauce aficionados would tell you, not all soy sauces are created equal, and the nuances often lie in their grade and method of production.

Despite being a condiment, soy sauce production involves careful, multi-step processes strikingly similar to those used in wine, cheese, or any other gastronomic treasure. The guidelines set out by the GB 18186-2000 formulated by the Standardization Administration of China indicate the four grades of soy sauce — special grade, first grade, second grade, and third grade. Primary among these guidelines is the quantification of amino acid nitrogen final – an important determinant of soy sauce’s taste and quality..

Amino acid nitrogen, often deemed as the soul of soy sauce, stems from the process of breaking down proteins into simpler structures, i.e., amino acids, during fermentation. The human body needs these amino acids to synthesize its proteins, and some of them are necessary to be absorbed through the diet, such as essential amino acids that the body does not produce. 

Consequently, the proportion of amino acid nitrogen stands as an essential dietary factor and lends soy sauce its umami, contributing to the overall freshness and richness of taste. The higher the content, the better the umami taste. The requirements for the content of amino acid nitrogen in different grades of soy sauce, according to the Chinese National Standard, are: ≥0.80, ≥0.70, ≥0.55, ≥0.40g/100ml for special grade, first grade, second grade, third grade, respectively. 

List of ItemsIndicatorHigh-salt dilute fermented soy sauceLow salt solid fermented drunkensy sauce
Grade of Soy Saucespecial1st2nd3rdspecial1st2nd3rd
Soluble unsalted solids, g/100 ml15.0013.0010.008.0020.0018.0015.0010.00
Total nitrogen(by nitrogen), g/100 ml1.501.301.000.701.601.401.200.80
Amino acid nitrogen (as nitrogen), g/100 ml0.800.700.550.400.800.700.600.40

But does this biochemical gauge tell the whole story? While it undeniably plays a colossal role in the classification, it represents one of the many facets that contribute to a genuinely superior product. The color, consistency, aroma, and even the foam it produces when shaken can provide insights into its quality.

A simple yet effective way to assess a bottle of soy sauce is referred to as “First observe, Second shake & Third taste.”

 “First observe” involves inspecting the manufacturing plant, the key ingredients used (whole soybeans or defatted ones, wheat or wheat bran), grade (whether the amino acid nitrogen content conforms to the national standard), and its intended use (whether to be used directly for servings or merely for cooking). 

“Second shake” is a fun yet practical test that entails shaking the bottle. High-quality soy sauces tend to form more foams that retain their shape for a while. Another critical indicator is the flow rate of the sauce down the sides of the bottle.

The last step, “Third taste,” is perhaps the most joyous, involving the tasting of the sauce. A good quality soy sauce encompasses harmony in the flavors – the right balance of saltiness, umami punch, a slight sweetness, sour facets, and a hint of bitterness.

Essentially, the quest for the best soy sauce is a journey – one that involves knowing the key differentiators, understanding the labeling, indulging in taste tests, and, most importantly, choosing one that caters to your unique flavor palette and dietary needs. Armed with the knowledge of soy sauce’s integral components and the grading system, you’re well on your way to finding your perfect companion to enhance your culinary endeavors.

Label-Reading Guide: Deciphering Ingredients on Soy Sauce Bottles

In your journey to find the best soy sauce, reading and understanding labels is key. Look for brands that mention “naturally brewed” or “fermented,” which typically signify traditional, time-honored manufacturing processes. 

Pay attention to the ingredient list – it shouldn’t be longer than a few items, primarily soybeans, wheat, water, and salt. Avoid sauces with added preservatives or unnecessary additives. Be cautious of sauces containing corn syrup, which is often used to mimic natural sweetness obtained from fermentation.

Moreover, watch out for terms like “hydrolyzed soy protein” and “amino acid byproduct,” which usually indicate an accelerated, chemical-laden production process.

Pairing Dishes with the Best Soy Sauce: A Flavor Guide

Discovering how to pair the best soy sauce with your dishes can remarkably enhance their flavors. Different soy sauces serve various culinary purposes. For instance, light soy sauce can add saltiness and umami without altering the color of your dish, making it perfect for delicate dishes like steamed fish, tofu, or quick heating stir-fries.

On the other hand, dark soy sauce introduces a rich color and a touch of sweetness, making it fit for slow-cooked dishes, roasts, and fried rice. If you’re cooking traditional Chinese food, you may need both to strike the perfect balance.

Japanese soy sauce, the best soy sauce for sushi and sashimi, complements their unique, subtle flavors without overpowering them. Sweet soy sauce, or kecap manis, is ideal for Indonesian dishes, providing a rich, syrupy flavor. Be sure to pick the proper soy sauce for the cuisine and particular meal to ensure the flavors are complementing each other beautifully.

Maintaining Quality: How to Store Soy Sauce?

Once you’ve found the best soy sauce, maintaining its quality is crucial for lasting freshness and taste. Storing soy sauce correctly will help extend its shelf-life and flavor, here’s an article about soy sauce shelf life, click to know more!. Unopened, soy sauce can be kept in a cool, dark place, like your pantry. 

Once opened, it’s best to store it in the refrigerator, particularly in warmer climates. The cold temperature will slow down any possible fermentation processes and prevent any possible alterations in taste or texture.

Despite this, naturally brewed soy sauce, free of additives and preservatives, will maintain its flavor and quality for a long time at room temperature if properly sealed after each use. 

Helpful Tips to Choose the Best Soy Sauce for Your Needs

Selecting the best soy sauce can seem overwhelming given the endless options available on grocery store shelves and online platforms like Amazon. Here are some helpful tips to pin down the best choice:

how to choose soy sauce

1. Identify your cuisine preference: 

Different cuisines favor different types of soy sauce. The best soy sauce for your pantry might differ if you’re a fan of Chinese cooking versus Japanese or Korean.

2. Explore beyond your comfort zone: 

Don’t hesitate to try out different types of soy sauce – from Korean ganjang to Indonesian kecap manis. You might discover new flavors that could enhance your culinary repertoire.

3. Use the best soy sauce for specific dishes: 

Light for seasoning, dark for color and sweetness, tamari for gluten-free cooking – each type offers unique benefits.

4. Watch out for artificial additives and preservatives: 

Always check the ingredient list. Stick to sauces with traditional ingredients – soybeans, wheat, salt, and water.

5. Consider health attributes: 

Whether it’s low-sodium, gluten-free, or organic soy sauce, your choice should also cater to health concerns or dietary restrictions.

Top Brands and Picks for the Best Soy Sauce: Editor’s Recommendations

Choosing the best brand of soy sauce from numerous labels worldwide can be tricky. Here are some recommendations to guide you:

1. Kikkoman: A well-established Japanese soy sauce brand favored globally, Kikkoman offers varieties like regular, less sodium, and gluten-free options.

2. Lee Kum Kee: This iconic Chinese brand impresses with its light and dark soy sauces – both featuring engaging depth and robust flavors.

3. Yamasa: Another commendable Japanese brand, Yamasa’s naturally brewed koikuchi (regular soy sauce) is balanced, adding a depth of flavor without overpowering the dish.

4. Pearl River Bridge: Known for its high-quality Chinese soy sauces, this brand is loved by many for its color and taste it imparts to dishes.

5. Kimlan: If you’re after the best soy sauce concerning the light variation, Kimlan’s light soy is a top contender – it offers a classic soy flavor with subtle sweetness and balanced saltiness.

Note: Everyone’s flavor preferences are unique, and these suggestions serve as a starting guide. To find your best soy sauce, experimenting with a few brands is encouraged.


The quest for the best soy sauce explores a multitude of flavors, cuisines, and culinary traditions. Understanding the choosing factors such as the crafting process, soy-to-wheat ratio, fermentation methods, and the specific cuisines you love to cook can turn this journey into an enriching experience. Remember, the best soy sauce brand ultimately depends on your personal palate and preferences. Enjoy the taste test and allow your senses to guide you to your best soy sauce.

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