Salty, Dark, Distinctive

Soy sauces are made from the same basic ingredients, following the same basic process. And yet celebrity chef Ming Tsai says, “Different soy sauces have very different flavors and uses.”

Light soy sauces work best for dishes that require the distinctive flavor of soy sauce but not its color. Dark soy sauces add richness and intense flavor and color to simmered and braised dishes. And then, within light and dark choices, there are numerous flavor nuances.

Soy sauce is made by cooking and mixing whole soybeans or defatted soy meal with a roasted grain (usually wheat, sometimes barley or rice), then adding koji, a starter mold, to this mixture.

After the mold is left to grow and spread for a few days, yeast and salted water are added to create a mash called moromi, which is fermented for anywhere from a few days to several years. The brown liquid that is extruded from the mash, filtered (usually), pasteurized, and then bottled is soy sauce.

But variations in fermentation methods and timing, plus the proportions, quality, and nature of the ingredients, produce a range of soy sauces, each with its own distinctive flavor, color, and consistency. For example, mass-produced soy sauce tends to have a slightly alcoholic taste because it’s fermented using machine-controlled techniques (i.e., in underground fermentation holding tanks rather than outdoors in large urns, under the sun).

Probably the most critical difference is between naturally and artificially brewed soy sauces. Naturally brewed soy sauces use real soybeans, while artificially brewed soy sauces (La Choy brand, for example) use hydrolyzed vegetable or soy protein with caramel coloring and often corn syrup for color and flavor. Naturally brewed soy sauces have robust flavors that can include smoky, sweet, and earthy tastes, while artificially brewed soy sauces typically taste burnt, sweet, or just simply fake.

Some chefs claim that choosing the proper soy sauce can make or break a recipe, adding just the right flavor, color, or umami, the infamous fifth taste.