A splash of soy sauce magically transforms a bland dish into a rich-tasting full-flavoured delicacy. But what types are out there and which one is best?
A splash of soy sauce almost magically transforms a bland, zestless dish into a rich-tasting, full-flavoured delicacy. It does so by adding the fifth taste (umami), which combines the four flavours—salty, sweet, sour, and bitter—with a special scrumptiousness.
Umami, a Japanese word meaning savoury, satisfies the taste buds because of the presence of glutamic acid, a natural amino acid occurring in protein-rich foods such as meat, fish, dairy, and legumes. Soy sauce, produced from soybeans, is the king of umami.
The origins of shoyu (Japanese for soy sauce), one of the world’s oldest condiments, can be traced back to ancient China, from where it is said to have been brought to Japan by a Zen master. Over centuries the Japanese have improved and perfected the art of making shoyu.
Traditional shoyu is brewed by cooking crushed soybeans and roasted wheat kernels, then combining the mixture with water and salt, and allowing it to ferment in natural cedar vats for up to three years. Special strains of mold, Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus soyae, as well as lactic acid bacteria and yeasts are added to aid the fermentation process.
Finally, the soy sauce is pressed from the mass and filtered before being pasteurized and bottled. This time-honoured production method results in the delicately balanced flavour and aroma for which traditional shoyu is known.
Many soy sauces found in natural health stores today are still brewed in the traditional manner. Their superior quality and flavour are well worth their premium price.
Some commercial brands, however, are produced by chemical hydrolyzation, in which soybeans are boiled in hydrochloric acid for several hours to separate the amino acids. The liquid in which the amino acids are dissolved is then neutralized with sodium carbonate and pressed through a filter, resulting in a product known as hydrolyzed vegetable protein.
Soy sauce produced by hydrolyzation, has a harsher flavour and aroma than traditionally brewed shoyu. Hydrolyzed soy sauce also contains additives such as sodium benzoate to inhibit microbial growth and corn syrup, salt, and caramel to add culinary and visual appeal.
Semi-brewed: a compromise
Another production method, in which hydrolyzed soy protein is partially fermented with a wheat mixture, combines the speed and convenience of hydrolyzation, with the benefits of traditional brewing, resulting in a higher-quality product than is possible with straight hydrolyzation.
Make no mistake, tamari is still shoyu, but it’s made with little or no wheat—a boon to those with wheat allergies. Tamari is made with more soybeans than regular soy sauce, resulting in a richer, smoother, more savoury flavour. If you are concerned about wheat content, check the label carefully to ensure the product is completely wheat free.
Organic and GMO-free
Commercial soybeans are among the principal GMO crops, which in a recent European study were linked to possible health risks, including reproductive problems. Err on the side of safety and buy only organic soy sauce.
Less salt—same great taste
Also look for reduced-sodium varieties with approximately 25 percent less salt than regular shoyu or tamari. Although reduced-sodium soy sauces are nevertheless high in salt, soy sauce is meant to be used only as a condiment to enhance flavour—a little goes a long way!
|1 tsp (5 mL) soy sauce
|Sodium (% of daily value)
|341 mg (14%)
|335 mg (14%)
|296 mg (12%)
|175 mg (7%)