Soy sauce is one of the most popular condiments used in Asian cuisine, but few are familiar with the richer, darker variation of the sauce and its uses.
Dark soy sauce adds a deep, salty flavor to food, along with a vibrant color that can elevate a dish in ways regular soy sauce might not be able to.
Below we explain when and where dark soy sauce has the greatest impact on color and flavor. We also personally scrutinized the 7 most popular dark soy sauce brands to give you the inside scoop on what's worth buying.
After Reading This Article, You’ll Know…
- What sets dark soy sauce apart from other soy sauces, delving into its production process and the unique characteristics that result from it.
- The ideal scenarios for utilizing dark soy sauce in your cooking, as well as situations where light soy sauce may be the superior choice.
- The results of our taste test featuring 7 popular dark soy sauce brands, including our recommendations for the best pairings with each brand.
- Answers to common questions and misconceptions about dark soy sauce in our dedicated FAQ section.
Dark Soy Sauce and How It’s Different
Dark soy sauce is a thick and slightly sweet soy sauce with a full-bodied texture, commonly used as a marinade or dipping sauce. Like regular soy sauce, it flavors dishes and darkens rice, noodles, and sauces.
Since most people are familiar with light—or traditional—soy sauce, we compared each dark soy sauce to Kikkoman Traditionally Brewed Soy Sauce.
We found that the darker versions are more aromatic, have a thicker viscosity, and have a richer color because they are fermented longer.
The Production Process
Regular soy sauce is made by pressing fermented soybeans, wheat, salt, and water—then extracting the liquid. The mash, or paste, from the original batch is then fermented again for a more concentrated dark soy sauce—though still a salty condiment, it is less salty in flavor than its light counterpart (despite higher salt content) and has a deeper color.
There are even darker, more complex variations of soy sauce worth checking out. These options are deeper in color and offer a thicker viscosity.
Regular Soy Sauce vs Dark Soy Sauce: Which Should I Use?
Light soy sauce, known for its thin consistency, salty flavor, and lighter hue, is frequently the go-to choice in Cantonese-style dishes. Its milder taste also lends itself well as a dipping sauce, enhancing the flavors of sushi, fried tofu, and similar foods without overpowering them.
Dark soy sauce, on the other hand, boasts a full-bodied richness that distinguishes it from traditional soy sauce. Despite the higher salt content, the added sweetness in dark soy sauce balances out the flavor. This variant, however, has a more pronounced taste and a deeper color, which can dominate the dish if used in excess.
When deciding between the two, consider the flavor profile you're aiming for. Light soy sauce is often preferred when the goal is to add saltiness without significantly changing the dish's color. Dark soy sauce is your ally when you're after a deep, complex flavor and color, like in stir-fry and braised dishes.
But remember, the beauty of cooking lies in experimentation, and many recipes even call for a combination of both types for a more nuanced flavor.
How We Sampled Each Dark Soy Sauce
We sampled these seven sauces with white rice, fried rice, and egg rolls and found that each one added more depth of flavor than traditional soy sauce.
Three of the seven particularly tickled our taste buds depending on the type of food it accompanied.
- Dumpling Daughter stood out above the rest for egg rolls because of its consistency.
- Lee Kum Kee was especially flavorful over white rice.
- Truffletopia was excellent over fried rice, as the umami flavor of the truffles blended well with the fried vegetables and the starch of the rice.
There are plenty of ways to experiment with dark soy sauce: you can add it to sweet barbeque sauce for balance and brush over spare ribs or a pork loin on a smoker, and the thinner sauces are excellent for drizzling over onions or other vegetables as they sauté to create a whole other level of flavor and texture.
Are you adventurous with your condiment choices? Dark soy can make your pizza more interesting and give it an Asian flare. But be careful—dark soy sauce is powerful stuff. I tried the drizzle over a slice of thick-crust pizza, and while it was pretty good, it would've been better over a thinner crust. The crunchy texture would absorb less of the sauce, making it perfect for dipping.
7 Dark Soy Sauces Compared
We chose these dark soy sauces because they all offer something unique: some are organic, and some are GMO-free, while others don’t have the classic soy sauce flavor but add a lot of character to popular Asian dishes.
All of these sauces have their own unique influence and style, and we wanted to highlight each one.
1. Truffletopia Dark Soy Sauce (Fat-free, GMO-free, sugar-free)
Best use: Condiment or dipping sauce
Prominent notes: Truffle, tang, salt, oil
Color: Clear reddish-brown
Truffletopia is fat-free, sugar-free, and contains no GMOs or carbs. So I was delighted to discover that this is one of my all-time favorite soy sauces. The aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel are just right, with a subtle hint of truffles blending nicely with the saltiness.
I first noticed the aroma of the truffles and malt even before I cracked the seal. The sauce's rich, reddish-brown color tinted the white rice a light, translucent brown that gave it a nice depth.
The top note was classic truffle, and then I tasted a slight acidity with a salty aftertaste and a slightly oily mouthfeel. The overall balance of the sauce was subtle yet strong enough to add complexity without overpowering my dish—a delightful concoction of fried rice.
Best use: Highly recommended for egg rolls
Prominent notes: Sweet, spice
Color: Deep red-orange
This was an interesting pick—as far as dark soy sauces go—because Dumpling Daughter doesn’t have the traditional salty flavor of soy. The mild aroma is strongly reminiscent of dumplings, while the viscosity is thick with a reddish, dark tint that stains the food orange.
The flavor of Dumpling Daughter is great, with an immediate top note of honey. After the honey flavor, there is a back note of spicy that lingers pleasantly on the throat.
This excellent dipping sauce could easily double as a condiment when you need a rich and thick sauce. It does quite well on egg rolls and noodles, as the sauce is thick enough to stick to the surface without overpowering the other flavors.
Best use: As a condiment or a drizzle
Prominent notes: Salt, tang
Color: Intense red
This organic dark soy sauce comes in a decorative box that could make a nice gift for a fellow foodie. The sauce is light, with a smooth mouthfeel and pleasing aroma that accents fried rice nicely.
The first thing I noticed is the light aroma that is slightly acidic and not overly salty. When I drizzled it over white rice, the color was an intense red, even deeper than Dumpling Daughter’s.
The first flavor note is slightly acidic and salty, but not too much, with an acidic back note. The mouthfeel is clean, and the sauce is light enough for most dishes.
Best use: Classic cooking sauce or condiment
Prominent notes: Malt, salt, tang, oil
Color: Medium red
This is another organic dark soy sauce that comes in gift-worthy packaging. It has a clean, slightly fermented aroma (with hints of yeast and alcohol) and a medium-red color.
The top note is salty, with a middle note of acidity that pairs well with Asian cuisine. The flavor is milder than the aroma, so don’t let the aroma deter you.
The mouthfeel is smooth with a subtle oiliness that is still crisp enough to accompany fried foods effectively. This is a great dark soy sauce that accents, not overpowers, other flavors.
Best use: As a condiment or drizzle
Prominent notes: Sweet, malt, piscine
Color: Deep red-brown
Other than our homemade dark soy sauce (more on this later), this was the sweetest option we tested. It has a rich aroma, malty with a hint of fish and salt, and a beautiful deep red-brown color that tints rice dark brown.
The top note is slightly salty with a sweet back note that leaves a nice acidity in the throat. This sauce has a clean mouthfeel, and the maltiness pairs well with rice—a straightforward soy sauce that hits all the right points.
Best use: As a cooking sauce or condiment
Prominent notes: Malt, piscine, sweet
Color: Deep brown
Bao Ning is misleading because the aroma and viscosity look heavier than the light, almost airiness of the flavor. The aroma is rich and malty, and the color is a dark brown, almost black, but the flavor is sweet and pleasant.
The tasting notes are also unique as they are a complex blend of salty and sweet, with a middle note of fish, but not enough to overpower the other flavors of the food. It also has a clean and smooth mouthfeel that is refreshing.
This was the most complex sauce we tried, but not in a bad way. The complexity of the flavors means that this is a sauce that can be used in various dishes and in various cooking methods.
The flavors of Bao Ning complement spicy dishes and stir fries well. The richness of its flavors brings out the taste of fried vegetables and adds a subtleness to hot peppers.
Best use: As a condiment, particularly over rice
Prominent notes: Salt, malt, tang, piscine
Color: Light reddish-brown
Kimlan is one of the most popular brands of dark soy sauce because of its flavor and texture. It has a clean aroma that is salty and malted with a reddish brown color that tints food a light brown.
The flavor is light, with a strong top note of saltiness followed by an acidity that lingers only slightly. The clean mouthfeel and the quaint fishiness make this sauce a great choice over rice.
This is an excellent sauce to try if you’re new to dark soy sauces because of its subtle flavor and rich texture.
What are the Best Substitutes for Dark Soy Sauce?
If you’re making a recipe that calls for dark soy sauce but don’t have any on hand, teriyaki, tamari, hoisin, and Worcestershire sauce are acceptable substitutes with a similar flavor and texture to dark soy sauce. You can also use molasses and sugar or double black soy sauce.
Tamari sauce is the closest substitute as the light saltiness and rich color most closely mimic dark soy sauce. Often, when a recipe calls for tamari, it’s because it was formatted for gluten-free purposes. You can substitute tamari for dark soy sauce at a 1:1 ratio and vice versa.
Light soy sauce is more common than the darker variation, but the darker versions add such depth of flavor and color that they can’t be ignored. Each of the brands we tried had its own unique flavor, which opens many doors when cooking with them.
Some of these sauces are better used as a condiment, while some are more suitable for cooking, but they all delivered in flavor and texture. If you’re in the mood to do some cooking, the homemade sauce is quite easy to make and is a great way to try dark soy sauce for the first time.
Is Dark Soy Sauce Gluten Free?
Soy sauce is the liquid extracted from soybeans crushed with wheat, which contains gluten, and while most dark and traditional soy sauces do contain gluten, there are a few gluten-free options available.
Tamari sauce is a safer alternative for gluten-sensitive people (tasty too) because it is extracted from miso paste, which doesn’t contain gluten; (however, always check the ingredient list).
Truffletopia’s Truffled Soy Sauce that we reviewed here is also gluten-free. Plus, it’s keto, vegan-friendly, and yet still retains the richness of dark soy sauce.
Is Shoyu the Same as Dark Soy Sauce?
Shoyu is the Japanese word for soy sauce. So, in Japan, typical soy sauces are simply called shoyu. They can be light or dark, but if a recipe calls for shoyu, consider that it is calling for a Japanese-style soy sauce that closely resembles traditional recipes, which tend to be lighter and thinner.
What Is Light Soy Sauce?
Light soy sauce, or traditional soy sauce, is a thin, reddish condiment made from fermented soybeans and wheat. It adds saltiness and a slight acidity to a dish without staining it like dark soy sauce does. This is the same stuff that you typically find at the table at many different restaurants in the U.S. featuring Asian cuisines.
What’s the Difference Between Yuzu and Dark Soy Sauce?
Yuzu is a citrus with a flavor somewhere between a grapefruit and a lemon. The yellow or green zest is blended with green or red peppers and salt and made into a spicy Japanese sauce.
The primary difference between the two is the flavor. While dark soy sauce has a sweeter profile, yuzu is spicy and citrusy.
Does Soy Sauce Have to Be Refrigerated?
Technically, soy sauce doesn’t have to be refrigerated because it is fermented. However, the small amount of alcohol will degrade over time, and the quality of the sauce will deteriorate. You should keep soy sauce refrigerated to keep it at its peak quality.
Do You Really Need Dark Soy Sauce?
Can you replace dark soy sauce with its lighter counterpart? Technically, yes. Light soy sauce can substitute for dark in a pinch. However, there's more to this story.
Dark soy sauce is less salty, thicker, and adds a richer color and complexity due to longer fermentation and often added molasses. It gives dishes a deeper, more appealing color and a subtle sweetness.
In contrast, light soy sauce is thinner, saltier, and less sweet. Using it in place of dark soy sauce may impact the depth of flavor and color in your dishes.
So, while light soy sauce can step in if needed, having dark soy sauce on hand will truly elevate your culinary creations. In the end, the little nuances do count!
Is Kikkoman Soy Sauce Light or Dark?
In the world of soy sauces, the categorization of Kikkoman can be a bit complex. It's a Japanese soy sauce, and while it does share some characteristics with what we often refer to as “dark” soy sauce, it also has some notable differences.
Dark soy sauces are generally more complex due to a longer fermentation process. Japanese soy sauces like Kikkoman are also fermented for an extended period, which adds to their rich, umami flavor profile. They are also usually sweeter, which helps mask some of the saltiness, and this is a characteristic Kikkoman shares; it's a sweeter sauce compared to many Chinese soy sauces.
However, a significant factor distinguishing dark soy sauce is its addition of a depth of dark caramel color to dishes, which is where Kikkoman diverges, along with its thinner consistency. Despite its complexity and sweetness, Kikkoman's soy sauce doesn't impart the same coloring properties as dark soy sauce. According to Kikkoman themselves, their soy sauce won't significantly alter the color of your dishes.
In conclusion, while Kikkoman shares some properties with dark soy sauce, such as longer fermentation and sweeter flavor, it does not provide the deep color typically associated with dark soy sauce, nor does it have the same viscosity. Thus, it might be better considered as sitting somewhere in between light and dark soy sauces.
Is Tamari Dark Soy Sauce?
Tamari is a type of Japanese soy sauce, but it's not the same as what's typically referred to as "dark" soy sauce in the context of Chinese cuisine.
Tamari is usually darker in color and richer in flavor compared to a typical Japanese soy sauce (like Kikkoman). However, it's also generally less salty. One key distinction is that tamari is often made with little to no wheat, making it a good choice for those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease.
While tamari could be classified as a "dark" soy sauce because of its color and robust flavor, it doesn't have the thickness, additional sweetness, or strong coloring properties that Chinese dark soy sauce typically possesses.
So, while tamari might substitute for dark soy sauce in some recipes, there could be noticeable differences in the outcome. As always, it's best to use the type of soy sauce that a recipe specifically calls for whenever possible, to achieve the intended flavor and texture.
What Is Dark Soy Sauce Called?
In general, dark soy sauce is referred to as just that—"dark soy sauce." However, the exact terminology can vary depending on the regional cuisine.
In Chinese, it's often called "lao chou" or "老抽," which means old soy sauce, a reference to its longer fermentation period compared to light soy sauce.
Keep in mind that soy sauces can be very diverse, with different countries and even different regions within those countries having their own unique styles and naming conventions.
For instance, in Japan, there isn't a direct equivalent to the Chinese "dark" soy sauce. The closest might be "koikuchi," a type of soy sauce that's darker and more balanced than other Japanese varieties, but it's still different from Chinese dark soy sauce.
So, while "dark soy sauce" is a good general term, you may encounter a wide range of names for this condiment depending on the specific cuisine and region.
What Is the Difference Between Light and Dark Soy Sauce?
Light and dark soy sauces differ in several key ways:
1. Flavor: Light soy sauce is saltier and lighter in taste, while dark soy sauce is less salty, sweeter, and has a deeper, more complex flavor.
2. Color and Texture: Light soy sauce is lighter in color and thinner. Dark soy sauce is darker, thicker, and often used to add a rich color to dishes.
3. Fermentation: Dark soy sauce undergoes a longer fermentation process, sometimes with added molasses or caramel.
4. Use in Cooking: Light soy sauce is typically used for seasoning and dipping sauces, while dark soy sauce is more for cooking, especially in stir-fries and braised dishes.
Is Black Soy Sauce Dark Soy Sauce?
Black soy sauce and dark soy sauce are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually refer to two different types of sauce that have unique characteristics and uses.
Black soy sauce, also known as "see ew dam" in Thai cuisine or "kecap manis" in Indonesian cuisine, is extremely thick and sweet, almost syrup-like. It's predominantly used in Southeast Asian dishes.
On the other hand, dark soy sauce is a key element in Chinese cooking. It's less sweet and not as thick as black soy sauce but is still darker and more viscous than light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce also has a deeper, more complex flavor due to a longer fermentation process and the addition of caramel or molasses.
While it's important to note that some people might use "black soy sauce" and "dark soy sauce" interchangeably, it's more accurate to associate black soy sauce with Thai or Indonesian cooking and dark soy sauce with Chinese cuisine. They impart distinct flavors and textures to dishes and are generally not interchangeable in recipes.
Can I Use Dark Soy Sauce Instead of Light?
While you technically can substitute dark soy sauce for light soy sauce, it's important to note that it may significantly alter the taste and appearance of the dish.
Light soy sauce has a saltier, sharper flavor and is less viscous, while dark soy sauce is thicker, sweeter, and has a richer, more complex flavor. Also, dark soy sauce can add a deep brown color to the dishes due to its darker hue.
If you're considering using dark soy sauce as a substitute for light in a recipe, you might want to reduce the quantity to account for its stronger flavor and potentially adjust other sweet or salty ingredients in the recipe to maintain balance. But remember, the results may still be noticeably different from the intended flavor and color of the original recipe.
So, while it's possible, it's always best to use the type of soy sauce that a recipe specifically calls for whenever possible.
Is Regular Soy Sauce Light or Dark?
The terms "regular" and "light" soy sauce are often used interchangeably in many parts of the world, typically referring to the common soy sauce found in most supermarkets or used in various Asian cuisines. This is generally a salty, thin soy sauce that's suitable for a variety of uses, from cooking to dipping.
However, it's important to note a potential point of confusion: In some contexts, "light" soy sauce (also styled “lite”) refers to a less salty version of regular soy sauce, sometimes labeled as "low sodium" soy sauce. In other contexts, particularly in relation to Chinese cuisine, "light" soy sauce is not a low-sodium product, but rather a specific type of soy sauce that is lighter in color and flavor compared to "dark" soy sauce.
If we're considering a specific brand like Kikkoman, a commonly found soy sauce in many supermarkets, it's a Japanese-style soy sauce. It sits somewhere in between Chinese light and dark soy sauces in terms of color and thickness.
As always, if a recipe specifically calls for light or dark soy sauce, it's best to use that specific type to achieve the intended flavor and texture.
Is San-J Tamari Dark Soy Sauce?
San-J Tamari is a type of Japanese soy sauce, but it's not the same as what's typically referred to as "dark" soy sauce in the context of Chinese cuisine.
San-J Tamari is darker in color and richer in flavor compared to typical soy sauces. It is also gluten-free, being made primarily from soybeans with little to no wheat, which differentiates it from many other soy sauces that often contain wheat as a main ingredient.
While San-J Tamari could be seen as a "dark" soy sauce due to its color and flavor, it lacks the thicker consistency, additional sweetness, and strong coloring properties of Chinese dark soy sauce. Therefore, while it might substitute for dark soy sauce in some recipes, there could be noticeable differences in the outcome.
To sum up, San-J Tamari is a kind of Japanese soy sauce that is darker and more flavorful than many other soy sauces, but it doesn't fully align with the characteristics of Chinese dark soy sauce.
Is Dark Soy Sauce Sweet?
Yes, dark soy sauce is generally sweeter than light soy sauce. The sweetness in dark soy sauce comes from the addition of sweeteners like molasses or caramel during the fermentation process. This addition not only imparts sweetness but also contributes to the sauce's darker color and thicker consistency.
However, it's important to note that while dark soy sauce is sweeter than light soy sauce, it's not overly sweet. The sweetness is balanced by its inherent savory, umami flavors. Its overall flavor profile is richer and more complex than light soy sauce due to the longer fermentation process it undergoes.
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