Reviews you can trust.See why.
A Celebration of Soy Sauce
Soy sauce is essential in many culinary traditions—and no two styles are the same.
Published Jan. 26, 2023. Appears in Cook's Illustrated May/June 2023
What You Need To Know
Soy sauce originated 2,000 years ago in ancient China, where it was created to stretch salt, an expensive commodity at the time. After making its way to Japan in the seventh century, it eventually spread throughout East and Southeast Asia and across the globe.
From the funky and papaya-like flavors of see ew khao in Thai cuisine to the earthy and sharp toyo common in Filipino food, flavors and aroma vary greatly from one style of soy sauce to another and go far beyond Kikkoman, the top-selling brand in the United States. No matter how much you know about soy sauce, there is always more to learn. Come along with us as we celebrate this incredible ingredient and find new styles to expand your cooking repertoire.
How Soy Sauce Is Made: Artisanal versus Commodity
Chinese soy sauce was originally made with soybeans only. The Japanese method added wheat, which speeds up the fermentation process and lends a touch of sweetness from starch. That subtle sweetness has become part of the characteristic flavor profile of soy sauce, and these days most contain wheat.
Small-batch artisanal soy sauce typically begins by mixing soybeans, wheat, salt, water, and a mold called Aspergillus oryzae (referred to as qu in Chinese and koji in Japanese). The mixing process creates a mash, which is regularly churned by hand during a fermentation stage that can last from six months up to several years. In some places, fermentation takes place inside locally made clay barrels or wooden barrels, which impart aromas and flavors unique to the locale because of the presence of particular microbes, according to Christopher St. Cavish, a culinary consultant based in Shanghai.
The production of commodity soy sauce looks a little different. Large quantities of soybeans, wheat, salt, water, and enzymes ferment in steel containers. The process is considerably faster, usually lasting several weeks to a year. Soy sauce made this way is sometimes labeled “naturally brewed.”
The fastest method of all results in something called “hydrolyzed” or “chemically produced” soy sauce. Soy and wheat protein are heated with concentrated acid, a process that takes no more than a few days.
Fermentation Equals Flavor
During the fermentation process of all soy sauces, the soy and grain proteins are split into their component amino acids. These flavorful compounds—primarily one called glutamic acid—create the umami-rich taste. As time passes, the flavor intensifies as the continued fermentation generates new flavor compounds. The longer a soy sauce is fermented, the more complex it becomes. We noticed this while tasting, preferring more multidimension...
Everything We Tested
Chinese Cuisine - Sheng Chou (Chinese Light Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Not too punchy with fermented notes” with “sauce-y, umami on the front”
Tasting Notes: “Intense saltiness” with a “cheesy funk” that “lingers on the palate”
Tasting Notes: “Yeasty and malty” notes with a “sweet caramel finish”
Tasting Notes: “Lots of robust soy flavors” with “funky fermentation notes”
Chinese Cuisine - Lao Chou (Chinese Dark Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Briny,” “medicinal and herbal flavors,” and “darkly caramelized sugar”
Tasting Notes: “Glossy and viscous” texture and a “sweet, almost cedar-y” flavor
Tasting Notes: “Viscous” and “roasty” but with “a hint of fruitiness”
Japanese Cuisine - Koikuchi Shoyu (Japanese Dark Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Sharply salty” with “a bit funky fishy on the finish”
Tasting Notes: “Strong fortified wine aroma” and “vegetal,” “slightly nutty” and “briny” on the palate
Tasting Notes: “Salty caramel scent and flavor” with “lots of aged, oaky notes”
Tasting Notes: “Very floral and oaky” aroma with a “bright and almost tart” flavor
Japanese Cuisine - Usukuchi Shoyu (Japanese Light Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Straightforward saltiness” with a “mild yeast” flavor
Tasting Notes: “Bright,” “acidic,” and “tangy”
Japanese Cuisine - Tamari
Tasting Notes: “Very salty and bracing” with notes of “candied ginger”
Korean Cuisine - Ganjang (Korean Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Strong umami-forward and fragrant on the nose” and “caramel-y” and “briny” flavor
Tasting Notes: “Very sweet, almost syrupy in taste” with “mushroom,” “seaweed savory flavors”
Korean Cuisine - Guk-Ganjang (Korean Soy Sauce for Soup)
Tasting Notes: “Salinity and sharp” with “kelp-like, oceanic aroma”
Tasting Notes: “Caramel and toasted sesame” with a “hint of sugarcane”
Thai Cuisine - See Ew Khao (Thai Thin Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Both aroma and flavor are very fruity with almost papaya-like fermented flavor.”
Tasting Notes: “Funky, fishy and fierce,” “intensely salty” with “a hint of sweetness”
Thai Cuisine - See Ew Wan (Thai Sweet Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Yeasty,” “big scent of mushrooms” with a bit of “fishy aftertaste”
Tasting Notes: “Thick, burnt molasses” in texture with “dark sweetness, almost raisin-y” flavor
Filipino Cuisine - Toyo (Filipino Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Thick consistency, sweet but not overly sweet” in flavor, “aroma has slight cocoa notes”
Tasting Notes: “Heavier sauce with more deep soy flavors” with notes of “fermented fruits”
Tasting Notes: “Thin,” “salty,” and “very savory”
Indonesian Cuisine - Kecap Manis (Indonesian Sweet Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Very molasses-y and sweet on the nose” with “sweet and floral” flavors and “not briny”
Tasting Notes: “Slightly sweet” and “a little earthy,” like “diluted ketchup”
Peruvian Cuisine - Sillao (Peruvian Soy Sauce)
Tasting Notes: “Sweet floral delicate scent followed by a strong salty tangy flavor,” “sweet and bright, a bit like a classic Kikkoman but with less body,” “intensely salty”
Reviews you can trust
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Valerie Sizhe Li
Valerie is an assistant editor for ATK Reviews. In addition to cooking, she loves skiing, traveling, and spending time outdoors.