May 19

Soy Sauce Substitutes – Vegan, Nonvegan and Low Sodium

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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Soy sauce variations have been in production for around 3,000 years! Originating in China, this ingredient has a rich umami flavor that compliments meat, eggs, and vegetables quite fantastically.

There are many reasons why you might be seeking a soy sauce substitute, from avoiding allergens (soy and wheat) or cutting back on salt.

Check out these recommendations for vegan, non-vegan, and low-sodium soy sauce substitutes.

On-the-Go Reference Table


What is Soy Sauce?


bowl-of-soy-sauce-with-chopsticks

To make soy sauce, roasted and crushed wheat is combined with steamed soybeans plus spores of the mold Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae.

The mold acts on the wheat and soy for a few days, breaking them down and releasing flavorful components before a very salty brine is added to the mixture.

After six to twelve months, the mixture is strained, and the resulting savory, brown liquid is soy sauce. 

Making dark soy sauce or Kecap Manis involves an additional step of cooking soy sauce with sugar until the mixture thickens and reduces to a shiny, caramelized syrup.

Despite its lovely flavor, soy sauce contains two common allergens (soy and wheat), and it is also extremely high in sodium.

Below, you’ll find some alternative umami-rich ingredients and a discussion of their advantages and disadvantages.  

Low Sodium Soy Sauce Substitutes


1) Coconut Aminos (gluten free)

coconut-split-open

Made from fermented coconut sap, coconut aminos has only about ⅓ the sodium content of soy sauce but is a powerhouse umami ingredient.

Similarities: With less salt, it may seem slightly milder than soy sauce.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Umami, rich, brown; no taste of coconut 

Suggested Dishes: Marinades, sauces, dipping

2) Miso Paste (usually gluten-free but double-check; usually soy-based)

bowl-in-dark-room

Miso involves a solid-state Aspergillus mold fermentation of cooked soybeans mixed with salt. The result is a thick paste with a rich depth of flavor.

Similarities: Despite having about ¼ the salt content of soy sauce, miso paste is profoundly flavorful due to its long fermentation. Unlike soy sauce, miso also acts as a subtle thickener, though it can also reduce the shine and clarity of a dish.

Suggested Conversion: Substitution quantity will change depending on the age and type of soy paste; start with about double the volume of soy sauce and taste frequently.

Flavor Notes: Earthy, savory, umami, salty, aromatic.

Suggested Dishes: Soup, stew, sauces, or any dish with enough liquid that you can stir in the thick paste.

3) Dried Mushrooms (soy-free, gluten-free, sodium-free)

dried-mushrooms-in-bowl

Dried shiitake mushrooms are just what they sound like. Rehydrate the chopped mushrooms in water, then use the water (and the mushrooms if desired) in place of soy sauce.

If they're frozen, here's how to thaw your mushrooms properly

Similarities: While this technique offers a lot of background umami flavor, it will be far less concentrated than what you get from soy sauce.

Suggested Conversion: You’ll have to do a lot of tasting here; chop the mushrooms as small as possible and soak them in slightly warm water for at least 20 minutes to concentrate the flavor. Don’t worry about using too many! 

Flavor Notes: Brothy, savory, earthy.

Suggested Dishes: Soups, stews, curries; avoid this technique in dishes that call for a large quantity of soy sauce.

Vegan Soy Sauce Substitutes


4) Tamari (may contain wheat)

tamari-sauce-and-sushi

This dark, pourable sauce was originally the byproduct of miso fermentation. It is often said to be a Japanese-style soy sauce.

Similarities: Although tamari is soy-based, it contains very little wheat (sometimes none). It is fermented with the organism Aspergillus tamari instead of A. oryzae or A. sojae

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Umami, salty, well-rounded fermented flavor.

Suggested Dishes: Marinades, stir-frys, great for dipping!

5) Liquid Aminos (gluten-free, contains soy)

stir-fry-on-stove

Made from hydrolyzed soy protein, this thin, watery condiment looks and tastes much like soy sauce.

Similarities: With a texture, viscosity, and salt content similar to soy sauce, liquid aminos are a very convenient substitute.

 Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Strongly umami, extremely salty.

Suggested Dishes: Dipping, marinades, stir-frys, dressings.

6) Maggi Seasoning (Soy-free, contains gluten)

Dipping-fish-in-maggi-seasoning

Made from fermented hydrolyzed wheat protein, this Swiss seasoning comes in liquid, powder, and cube forms. 

Similarities: Maggi seasoning is very similar to soy sauce and can be used interchangeably; like soy sauce, it is extremely high in salt

 Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Herbal, vegetal, meaty, umami, salty

Suggested Dishes: Soups, stews, curries, marinades.

Non-Vegan Soy Sauce Substitutes


7) Worcestershire Sauce (soy-free, gluten-free)

pot-full-of-seafood

A fermented liquid sauce based on anchovies, tamarind, and chili peppers, Worcestershire also contains sugar and salt.

Similarities: An excellent substitute for soy sauce, Worcestershire is a heavy hitter in the umami category and has a similar texture to soy sauce; it also has the advantage of being lower in sodium.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio

Flavor Notes: Rich, umami, sour, salty

Suggested Dishes: Stew, soup, curries, marinades, stir-frys

8) Anchovies (soy-free, gluten-free)

anchovies

These small fish are sold whole in tins or in tubes of paste; ½ tsp of paste is equivalent to one whole tinned anchovy.

Similarities: Anchovies are chock-full of umami flavor, and they will provide depth and richness. A few finely chopped anchovies will have much the same flavor punch as soy sauce.

Suggested Conversion: For every 1 tsp of soy sauce, use approximately one chopped anchovy fillet.

Flavor Notes: Fishy, heavily umami, salty.

Suggested Dishes: Curries, stews, cooked sauces

9) Fish Sauce (soy-free, gluten-free)

small-bowl-of-fish-sauce

This distinctive tasting sauce is made from small fish and salty brine due to a natural fermentation process.

Similarities: Heavily umami and very salty, both soy sauce and fish sauce hit the same flavor notes. However, fish sauce has an unmistakable funk that means it is not always an appropriate substitute.

Suggested Conversion: Start with just a dash of fish sauce!  A little goes a very long way. Increase the amount as you taste; rarely does a recipe require more than a tablespoon or two.

Flavor Notes: Funky, fishy, salty.

Suggested Dishes: Stews, soups, stir-fry, marinades

Dark Soy Sauce (Kecap Manis) Substitutes


10) Teriyaki Sauce (contains soy and wheat)

teriyaki-chicken-in-bowl

Dark soy sauce is the base for teriyaki sauce, but teriyaki contains additional ingredients like garlic and ginger.

Similarities: Shiny and viscous, teriyaki sauce has a very similar visual and textural property to kecap manis.

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio.

Flavor Notes: Sweet, umami, citrus, sesame, ginger, garlic, salty.

Suggested Dishes: Teriyaki dishes, stir-fry, bastes, marinades, dipping sauces.

11) Oyster Sauce (may contain soy or wheat)

fresh-oysters

A thickened reduction of oyster juices along with salt, sugar, and sometimes soy sauce, oyster sauce is incredibly shiny.

Similarities: Sweeter than kecap manis, this sauce has the same rich, silky property

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio.

Flavor Notes: Umami, caramelly, briny

Suggested Dishes: Kung Pao shrimp, stir-frys, noodles

12) Hoisin Sauce (contains soy, may contain wheat)

3-sauces-hoisin-in-front

Also based on fermented soybeans, hoisin sauce contains flavoring agents like vinegar and garlic as well as sources of starch.

Similarities: Thick, dark, and shiny, hoisin sauce is sweeter than the dark soy sauce (indeed, it is even sweeter than oyster sauce).

Suggested Conversion: Use up to a 1:1 ratio, but slightly less may be appropriate because hoisin sauce is so sweet.

Flavor Notes: Sweet, salty, spicy, umami

Suggested Dishes: Glaze for meat or fish, stir-frys, dipping sauce

Concluding...


With so many alternatives available, you’ll always have the umami booster you need to make the perfect stew, jerky, or stir-fry. Use the list above to find the substitute that meets your needs.

If you have any questions/comments, don't hesitate to leave a note below.

Thanks!

Caitlin


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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