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Pantry staples: soy sauce

Everything you need to know about this Asian condiment.


Soy sauce is a great way to introduce umami flavour to your cooking. To find out more about this Asian ingredient, read our pantry staples guide.

Our pantry staples series sees us take a look at the ingredients that most people usually have in their presses – chickpeas, beans, noodles and the like. Today, we’re looking at soy sauce.

Soy sauce, which is also called soya sauce, is a strongly flavoured liquid made from fermented soybeans, salt, water and roasted grain. It was created during China's Western Han dynasty around 2,200 years ago, before it spread around Asia and, later, the rest of the world. Salt was traditionally an expensive commodity, so soy sauce was created as a way to stretch it and make it last longer. 

How It's Made

Traditionally, soy sauce is made over a few months, depending on the recipe. First, soybeans are cooked, before bacterial and fungal cultures are added to start the fermentation process. At this stage, roasted grains are also added in order to provide extra depth of flavour. 

Following this, the mixture is combined with salt brine, before being left to mature. During maturation, the sugars and proteins found in soybeans are broken down, which helps to create the distinctive colour and flavour of soy sauce. After the maturation process, any solids are removed from the liquid, which is then pasteurised before being bottled and sold.

In modern times, the use of acid-hydrolysed vegetable protein has helped to speed up the process of making soy sauce, while also making it cheaper to provide. Many traditionalists avoid this method as they feel it doesn't create as deep a level of flavour as the traditional method.

Soy sauce. Image by Getty Images.
Soy sauce. Image by Getty Images.

Soy sauce varieties

While there are hundreds of soy sauce varieties, the most commonly used in Ireland are dark soy sauce, light soy sauce and tamari.

Dark soy sauce is aged for a longer period of time than the light variety, giving it a deeper flavour and colour. It's also thicker in consistency due to the addition of cornflour, as well as a little sweeter as caramel or molasses are often added to the mix too. Frequently used in marinades or as a dipping sauce, dark soy sauce is thought to contain more antioxidants than red wine.

Light soy sauce is the most commonly used variety due to its salty taste and light red-brown colour. It isn't aged for as long as dark soy sauce so the flavour is slightly less intense, making it a good addition to sauces and marinade that need an extra hint of saltiness or umami. It's also commonly used as a dip alongside Chinese and Taiwanese dishes. 

Tamari is a Japanese version of soy sauce made with no wheat or grains so it is suitable for coeliacs or those with wheat allergies – it's also suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Tamari has a more balanced flavour than regular soy sauce, with less saltiness, making it great to use as a general seasoning sauce for dipping, marinades, sauces and more. Soy sauce and tamari are fairly interchangeable, but you might find you prefer the flavour of one over the other, so taste both before you commit to keeping only one variety in your press.

Image by Getty Images.
Image by Getty Images.

Looking for some recipe inspiration? Read on for some of our favourite ways to use soy sauce.

  • Karl Whelan's stir-fried pork with cauliflower and Thai basil uses soy sauce to add extra flavour to vegetables.
  • This turkey bang bang salad with udon noodles is a really healthy dish that's packed with flavour. Try Takashi Miyazaki's recipe here.
  • Who doesn't love chicken wings? This recipe from Saba is one of our favourites and the soy sauce adds a great level of umami and saltiness to the marinade.
  • This traditional recipe for pork and chive dumplings comes from food writer Mei Chin. The recipe is very close to one her aunt makes and the flavours are out of this world.

Takashi Miyazaki's turkey bang bang salad. Image by Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.
Takashi Miyazaki's turkey bang bang salad. Image by Harry Weir and Brian Clarke.