December 21

Dark Soy Sauce Substitutes: Vegetarian, Shellfish-Based, and Beyond

Written by: Dolly

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Is there anything more upsetting than being halfway through a recipe and realizing you’re missing a vital ingredient? I don’t think so!

There are hundreds of substitutes out there, but they don’t all replace the same element. Of course you can use all-purpose flour if you run out of semolina flour, but the texture will be all sorts of wrong. 

When swapping ingredients, it’s important to remember what exactly it is you’re replacing. 

For dark soy sauce substitutes, the key elements to consider are: 

  • Flavor

  • Appearance (Color & Shine)

  • Thickener

Once you’ve narrowed it down, you’ll be able to find the best substitute on this list and, hopefully, in your pantry.

What is Dark Soy Sauce?

sushi-on-plate-with-soy-sauce

Dark soy sauce (lăo chōu) is aged longer than light soy sauce to enrich and thicken it up.

In the aging process, they also sweeten it using sugar or molasses to add a more complex flavor profile.

While dark soy sauce may taste less salty than regular soy sauce, it actually contains more sodium. The molasses or other sweetener dilutes the saltiness and fools our tastebuds. 

Dark soy sauce is good for adding color to a dish or making rich glazes.

It’s also perfect as a dipping sauce for sushi or sashimi, as it won’t overpower the flavor of the raw fish.

For example, dipping blanched geoducks or barnacles into dark soy sauce won’t overpower them. 


The Best Substitutes for Dark Soy Sauce

Of course, you could also make your own dark soy sauce with a few staple ingredients. If you have dark brown sugar, soy sauce, and water, you’re well on your way. 

If you have mushroom-flavored dark soy sauce on hand, that’s another handy substitute. It will add even more of an umami flavor, thanks to those mushrooms, while doing the most when it comes to glazes.

However, since it’s still dark soy sauce, I won’t be including it in this list.


1. Teriyaki Sauce

teriyaki-sauce-poured-over-fish

If you’re whipping up a glaze, teriyaki sauce is a great substitute. The dark richness adds a similar shine to glazes and sauces, and the color is spot-on. 

The flavor profile of teriyaki sauce is a bit different though. Aside from the umami flavor, there’s also added ginger and garlic in many store-bought brands. Depending on what you’re cooking, that may or may not be a problem. 

You can find teriyaki sauce at any grocery store, or you could try and make your own. If you’re looking for a simple recipe, try this one by Okonomi Kitchen.  


2. Light Soy Sauce

bottle-of-soy-sauce

Light soy sauce is actually regular soy sauce, which almost everyone has on hand. This sauce is much thinner and saltier than dark soy sauce, so it won’t work as well in glazes.

However, it’s great for meat or toppings, or to add that nice umami flavor! 

You can find light soy sauce at any grocery store or market on the block. Not all soy sauces are gluten-free, so if you’re intolerant, please read the label first!


3. Hoisin Sauce

pouring-dark-brown-sauce

This is a staple in my kitchen and many others around the world. Hoisin sauce is sweeter and less salty than dark soy sauce, but it can still work in a pinch.

Some brands use plums, sweet potatoes, sugar, or a variety of all three to add sweetness. Its thick consistency works wonders in glazes. 

You can usually find hoisin sauce at any grocery store, though you may have more luck at your local Asian market. 


4. Oyster Sauce

oyster-sauce-white-background

Talk about umami flavors! Oyster sauce is not vegetarian, so plant-based eaters beware. 

Looking for flavor and consistency? Oyster sauce will bring it! But be ready for a fishy aftertaste as well. 

You can find oyster sauce at your regular grocery store or local Asian market. 


5. Tamari

tamari-on-spoon

Tamari is the Japanese version of soy sauce and is widely regarded as the healthier option of the two.

Since it’s a byproduct of miso paste, tamari usually has fewer ingredients and/or preservatives, plus a whole lot of protein. 

Tamari is as thin as light soy sauce, so it won’t work as well in glazes. But if you’re only looking for flavor, this is a great option! 

Tamari is available at most grocery stores and markets, especially health-focused ones like Whole Foods. 


6. Coconut Aminos 

Coconut aminos is yet another healthy alternative to soy sauce. This concoction is soy-free, gluten-free, and plant-based, so it’s safe for most, if not all, eaters. 

It's thin, so if you need to add shine and color to a glaze, this one might not cut it. Coconut aminos is great as a dipping sauce, thrown into soups, or in stir-fries, not for thickening up glazes.

Coconut aminos is usually available in most grocery stores, especially in health-conscious retailers. 


7. Worcestershire Sauce

bottle-of-Worcestershire-Sauce

You’ve probably been using Worcestershire sauce to season your burgers or chicken for years now. But did you know it could also be used in Asian-style cooking? 

This sauce can add saltiness and color, but not so much the shine or texture of dark soy sauce.

Surprisingly enough, Worcestershire sauce is usually flavored with shellfish, specifically anchovies.

Also, classic versions aren’t gluten-free, as they’re made from malt vinegar. There are gluten-free varieties out there made with distilled white vinegar, but you have to go looking. 

Worcestershire sauce is available everywhere, so you should have no problem finding it.


8. Miso Paste 

red-miso-paste

Soy sauce and tamari are all made from fermented soybeans, and so is miso paste!

Most commonly used to make miso soup, miso paste also works as a great substitute for any soy sauce due to its strong umami flavor.

Miso paste is made from fermented soybeans and koji, the same type of mold used in making sake.

Depending on the brand and type, they may also add in some type of grain, which is why miso paste isn’t always gluten-free. 

Honestly, if you love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, you’ll want miso paste around. It’s versatile, delicious, and elevates any and every meal it’s added to. 

For every cup of dark soy sauce, use one tablespoon of miso paste.
You can water it down to your preferred consistency as well.

Miso paste is most commonly found in Asian markets, though I’ve also seen it in my local grocery. 


9. Fish Sauce

bottle-of-fish-sauce

Like oyster sauce, this substitute contains fish, so plant-based eaters best stay away. 

Fish sauce will bring the umami action as well as a strong fish flavor. Generally, less is more with fish sauce, so start small and build up from there. 

You can find fish sauce in every Asian market and potentially your local grocery store too! 


The Best Substitutes for Vegans/Vegetarians

veggie-sushi

Sadly, fish sauce and oyster sauce contain animal products. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, that won’t fly.

If you’re a pescetarian, no worries! Throw in that sauce to your heart’s content! 

As for great alternatives, you can try any of the following.


1. Teriyaki Sauce

If you’re worried about any extra ingredients, you can easily make some at home! The basics of most teriyaki sauces are all the same. 

Ingredients: soy sauce, mirin (wine), vinegar, salt, water, and sugar.


2. Light Soy Sauce

While it’s not always gluten-free, soy sauce is inherently plant-based! 

Ingredients: water, soybeans, salt, and, occasionally, wheat or other grains. 


3. Hoisin Sauce

This sweet treat is a must for much of my cooking. It truly works wonders! 

Hoisin sauce is a bit more complicated than, say, light soy sauce, but the basics remain the same. 

Ingredients: soybeans, water, salt, vinegar, sugar, starch, and others depending on brand.


4. Tamari

Tamari is a great alternative for both gluten-free and plant-based folks. The basic ingredients are the same as soy sauce but without any pesky grains. 

Ingredients: water, soybeans, and salt. 


5. Coconut Aminos

This is the holy grail of “safe-for-all” sauces. Coconut aminos is plant-based, soy-free, and gluten-free, making it the friendliest of all. 

Ingredients: Braggs’ coconut aminos is made of apple cider vinegar, sea salt, and “coconut blossom nectar,” or whatever that means. 


6. Miso Paste

Miso paste is yet another all-purpose kitchen product that can be used in sauces, glazes, and even hot cocoa!  

Miso paste is about as pure as they come, with only two ingredients. 

Ingredients: soybeans, salt. 


The Best Substitutions for Shellfish Allergies

Fish and oyster sauce are obviously derived from fish, but, unfortunately, so is the famous Worcestershire sauce. They use anchovies to add that delicious flavor!

There are vegetarian versions out there. In fact, I found a vegetarian oyster sauce at my local Asian market.

But to stay safe, here are some good alternatives. 


1. Teriyaki Sauce

Great for glazes and adding color! 


2. Coconut Aminos

This friendly option is safe for most eaters out there. 


3. Tamari

The healthy and richer soy sauce, tamari is a great substitute for flavor and depth. 


4. Light Soy Sauce

Although this won’t add the sweetness or thickness, it will bring major umami action! 


5.Miso Paste

Last but not least, the beloved miso paste is all about umami, less so about thickening or coloring. 

Depending on what you’re making, different substitutes will work better than others. 


The Best Substitutes for Gluten-Free

bottles-on-a-grocery-store-shelf

If you’re celiac or gluten intolerant, please look at the labels before purchasing to ensure it is gluten-free and made in a gluten-free facility. 

Soy sauce is often made with wheat – though there are gluten-free varieties out there – so let’s focus on some other options.

Hoisin sauce and Worcestershire sauce are two other options that occasionally have gluten, and occasionally don’t.

For Worcestshire sauce, look for bottles made with distilled white vinegar instead of malt vinegar. For hoisin sauce, it’s best to buy those specifically gluten-free varieties. 


1. Coconut aminos

Coconut aminos is soy-free, so it’s great if you’re sensitive or allergic to soy as well. In fact, this is probably the most “friendly” option on this list: it’s gluten-free, vegan, kosher, and soy-free.

Bragg’s Coconut Aminos is made of sea salt, organic apple cider vinegar, water, and organic coconut blossom nectar, or whatever that means. 


2. Tamari

More often than not, tamari is gluten-free, but please read those labels to be sure! 

Fun fact: Tamari was first a by-product of miso. Let’s be grateful for those happy accidents! 

Ingredients: Fermented soybeans


What Does Dark Soy Sauce Taste Like?

bottle-of-soy-sauce-and-chopsticks

Dark soy sauce is known for its rich, umami flavor, not entirely unlike regular soy sauce.

However, despite having a higher sodium content, dark soy sauce is also rather sweet and thick. So, thicker soy sauce with a hint of molasses. 

This rich flavor complex comes from a longer fermentation process. Although the basics remain the same, each dark soy sauce will vary by brand, so don’t be afraid to shop around!


How Long Will Dark Soy Sauce Keep?

You can store it in a cool, dry, and dark place. Your kitchen pantry is a great place to do so!

Most sauces have a shelf life of 2-3 years, though some can even range from 5-10. Generally you will need to get a new bottle within a few months, so I wouldn’t be overly concerned with the expiration date.

Store it in an airtight bottle – usually, the containers it comes in will work, unless there’s a crack or broken seal. 

Keep it away from sources of heat and water, as both can make it go bad.

Some brands recommend refrigerating it after opening, but I’ll leave that up to you and your bottle of choice. If you’re buying one without preservatives, it may be best to store it in the fridge.  

Once open, soy sauce will last from 1-2 months. It doesn’t necessarily go bad, but it will lose its flavor over time.

 If you don’t go through it very fast, definitely store it in the fridge. Unless you’re like me and fly through every bottle, in which case storing it in a pantry works too. 

Of course, if there’s mold or the flavor or aroma is off, let it go! 

Top tip: Any soy sauce bottled in glass instead of plastic will usually last longer. 


Conclusion

There you have it! Every substitute works best in different scenarios, whether that be as thickeners, blasts of flavors, or adding color. 

Remember that you can always add but can’t take away when it comes to cooking. Start small and then build it up! 

And, as always, happy cooking!

Dolly 


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About the author

Dolly is a student at Goldsmiths, University of London and an avid cook. After managing a miniature organic farm for a year, she fell in love with the art of cooking and the taste of homegrown greens. Dolly first became plant-based eight years ago, and she is now a full-blown vegan; her plant-based journey has made her creative and experimental in the kitchen. If she’s not writing or cooking, Dolly can be found on her front porch, strumming her guitar and singing for anyone who will listen.

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