Knowing Your Soy Sauce (Shōyu 醤油)

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A collage images of soybean sauce bottles for pinterest

Soy sauce is a staple in Japanese cuisine and an essential ingredient in any Japanese pantry. With its deep flavour, rich aroma, and subtle sweetness, Japanese soy sauce is an all-rounder seasoning that can be used to enhance dishes and bring out the delicious umami flavour. Read on to discover all about what makes this sauce such an important element in Japanese cooking.

6 different bottles of Japanese shoyu

What Is Soy Sauce (Shōyu 醤油)

Soy sauce is a liquid fermented seasoning made from soybeans, wheat, salt and fermenting microorganisms. In Japanese, it is called Shoyu and is a staple and essential sauce in Japanese cooking. Shoyu is extensively used as a dipping sauce for sushi[1], as a marinating seasoning, as a soup base for ramen[2], and much more. It originated in China and was introduced into Japan during the Kamakura period, however, it was during the Edo period that Japanese people started to use and produce it regularly.

How Is It Made?

Soy sauce is made by steaming soybeans and mixing it together with roasted and crushed wheat and a starter culture to create the soy sauce culture. Brine is then added to this soy sauce culture to create what is known as “moromi”. This is left to brew to ferment and mature to create the unique and wonderful aroma, colour, and flavour. The fermentation process can take a minimum of 6 months, after which the moromi mash can be pressed to obtain the actual sauce. However, it can even take up to 3 years.

drawing of making soy sauce by 広益国産考 8巻
広益国産考 8巻 国立国会図書館デジタルコレクション[3]

Types of Soy Sauce

Japanese soy sauce (shoyu) are classified into 5 types according to the agricultural standards of Japan (JAS). These 5 types are: (reference; different types[4])

  • Koikuchi shoyu: The most standard soy sauce that is most often referred to when talking about Japanese shoyu sauce. About 84% of Shoyu produced in Japan are koikuchi. This type has the signature saltiness of soy sauce and subtle sweetness with an umami richness to create an integrated flavour profile. This is an all-rounder seasoning. It can be used to make things like ginger pork[5] and buri-daikon.
  • Usukuchi shoyu: This is a lighter coloured soy sauce but has a higher salt content (about 10% more than koikuchi). Amazake (fermented rice) is added to create this sauce in order to soften the taste. It’s ideal for cooking and simmering to bring out the flavour of other ingredients without adding too much colour. It can be used for Japanese clear soup[6] and chawanmushi[7].
  • Tamari shoyu: This type of shoyu is recognised by its thicker consistency, rich umami, and unique aroma. Because of its thick texture and deep flavour, a little goes a long way to create a delicious taste. Tamari is usually made without wheat so it can be gluten-free, however, you have to check each bottle as some brands add a bit of wheat. It can be used as a dipping sauce for sashimi, to coat yaki onigiri[8], and also in cooking to create a glossy glazed finish.
  • Saishikomi shoyu: To create this type, koji (fermenting culture) is added to finished and ready soy sauce and left to ferment again. Just like Tamari, a little does a lot and adds a subtle hidden flavour to dishes. It is used as a dipping sauce for sashimi and egg on rice.
  • Shiro shoyu: “Shiro” means white in Japanese which is why this type was given its name because of its much lighter, amber colour. The ageing time is shorter so it has a lighter taste and sweet flavour. It is used for simmered dishes and tamagoyaki[9].
Kikkoman koikuchi shoyu bottle on the left and sauce in a small bowl
Kikkoman Koikuchi Shoyu

Difference Between Japanese Shoyu and Chinese Soy Sauce

Soy sauce can vary from region to region but the two most commonly found are either Japanese or Chinese. So what’s the difference? One key difference is that Japanese sauce is brewed with roasted and crushed wheat whereas the Chinese version is made with wheat flour nowadays which creates a difference in flavour. Another difference is that Japanese soy sauce has less sodium and a sweeter flavour palette despite the fact that it doesn’t contain any sugar, unlike the Chinese version which sometimes contains added sweeteners. Chinese dark sauce has a thick texture and is less commonly used than the light sauce which is thin and light in colour and more similar to Japanese dark shoyu sauce.

Where To Get This Ancient Condiment?

Nowadays, soy sauce is basically found everywhere. Nearly every supermarket will stock Japanese shoyu sauce (usually the Kikkoman brand) or you can go to your local Japanese supermarket to find other varieties. Or you can find it online too.

What Can It Be Substituted With?

If you are substituting shoyu sauce due to a gluten intolerance, you may be able to find gluten free options nowadays. Otherwise other options are:
Coconut Aminos: this is a popular shoyu sauce substitute made from fermented coconut palm sap.
Liquid Aminos: this substitute is made from soybeans but is not fermented. Note that this is not gluten free.
Alternatively, you can make a homemade substitute. The recipe is in the Japaneses food substitution[10] post.

A coconut aminos bottle

5 Reasons Soy Sauce is Used in Japanese cooking?

  1. The components that make up the aroma and colour of soy sauce work to neutralise and eliminate the substances that cause an odour in other ingredients, such as fish, when cooking. For example, a Japanese cooking technique called “shoyu arai” (soy sauce wash) involves sprinkling the sauce over the top of ingredients before cooking (such as when making spinach goma ae[11]) to take advantage of this effect.
  2. Maillard reaction: when soy sauce is heated, the sugar in the amino acids contained in shoyu sauce causes what’s known as the Maillard reaction, which is when a pigment substance is produced called melanoidin, which produces aroma and glaze when cooking.
  3. Contrast and suppression effect: soy sauce has a contrasting effect that enhances the sweetness. For example, adding a small amount of soy sauce at the end of cooking sweetened black beans [12](kuromame), enhances the sweetness. Additionally, organic acids found in shoyu sauce have a suppressive effect to soften the salty taste. For example, drops of the sauce over salted salmon[13] subdues the salty flavour.
  4. Synergy: when the glutamic acid in soy sauce and acids contained in various types of dashi [14](such as dried sardine dashi[15], bonito flake dashi[16], and shiitake mushroom dashi[17]) mix together, it deepens the flavour.
  5. Bacteriostatic effect: shoyu sauce has the effect of suppressing the growth of e.coli so it can be used for pickling.
Higashimaru Usukuchi Shoyu bottle on the left and the sauce in a small bowl on the right
Higashimaru Usukuchi Shoyu

How To Store Soy Sauce?

Once opened, soy sauce should be stored in a cool, dark place or in the fridge in order to preserve the flavour and colour. If it is exposed directly to air, sunlight or heat, it will turn brown and its flavour will deteriorate.

5 bottles of different soy sauces


Q: Does soy sauce go bad/expire?

A: The use by date written on the bottle of soy sauce bottles is in regards to the sauce being unopened and in correct storage conditions. The Expiration date of soy sauce differs on the type of sauce and storage container. Dark shoyu sauce (koikuchi) and Tamari soy sauce last around 1.5 years in a plastic bottle and 2 years in a glass bottle. LIght shoyu sauce (usukuchi) last 1 year in a plastic bottle and 1.5 years in a glass bottle. Shiro shoyu lasts 8 months in a glass bottle.

Q: Does shoyu sauce contain gluten?

A: Yes, it contains gluten from the wheat that is used to make it. However, nowadays brands like kikkoman do make gluten free options.


  1. ^ sushi (
  2. ^ ramen (
  3. ^ 広益国産考 8巻 国立国会図書館デジタルコレクション (
  4. ^ different types (
  5. ^ ginger pork (
  6. ^ Japanese clear soup (
  7. ^ chawanmushi (
  8. ^ yaki onigiri (
  9. ^ tamagoyaki (
  10. ^ the Japaneses food substitution (
  11. ^ spinach goma ae (
  12. ^ sweetened black beans (
  13. ^ salted salmon (
  14. ^ various types of dashi (
  15. ^ dried sardine dashi (
  16. ^ bonito flake dashi (
  17. ^ shiitake mushroom dashi (

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