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Dark Soy Sauce vs. Soy Sauce: When and How To Use Them

Dark Soy Sauce vs. Soy Sauce: When and How To Use Them

Dark Soy Sauce vs. Soy Sauce: When and How To Use Them

There’s nothing more frustrating than buying soy sauce, only to realize your recipe calls for dark soy sauce instead of light or all-purpose soy sauce. What exactly is the difference? 

Today, we’re breaking down all things soy sauce. Here you’ll discover the facts, the differences between dark and light soy sauce, and some great substitutions when you need it the most.

All regions of Asian cuisine utilize soy sauce differently. You can expect that Chinese soy sauce will vary from Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, and Thai varieties. However, soy sauces will fall into two primary categories: light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. 


What Is Soy Sauce?

Let’s start with the basics: defining soy sauce. Soy sauce is a condiment that was created over 2,000 years ago in China. In the seventh century, the condiment made its way to Japan. 

Soy sauce came to Korea and Southeast Asia shortly after. Regardless of the origin, it is made by pressing fermented soybeans. Soy sauce is thin with a salt-forward flavor profile and a strong umami finish. This would be considered a light soy sauce or regular soy sauce. 

Soy sauce isn’t always naturally gluten-free. Many varieties use a portion of wheat in their sauce to create a thicker mouthfeel and a little more flavor. If gluten-free soy sauce is something you’re looking for, just make sure to seek out those options. The bottle generally tells you right on the front, but you can check the nutrition facts if you’re uncertain. 

Traditional soy sauce is heavy on salty notes and provides a lot of that oomph of flavor in how it’s used. If the lighter varieties are overwhelming for you, there are low sodium options on the market that will mute some of the salty flavors. 


What Is Dark Soy Sauce?

Dark soy sauce is considered a thick soy sauce due to the higher viscosity. Regular soy sauce is made from pressing fermented soybeans, and the flavors from dark soy sauce come from pushing the residuals from the fermented soybeans. These residual products are fermented with a heavier brine, leading to a modification in the flavor profile. 

Dark soy sauce will have a milder salty backbone, and the sweet undertones will be more prominent. Some varieties also utilize palm sugar or brown sugar to further amp up these sweet notes. These are considered sweet soy sauce varieties but are most closely associated with dark soy sauce.  


What Are the Differences Between Dark Soy Sauce vs. Soy Sauce?

Light soy sauce is often used for seasoning, while dark soy is used to add color to dishes. However, there are other critical differences between dark soy sauce and regular soy sauce.



As soy sauces are made from pressing fermented soybeans, they are ground up and mashed with seasonings. While this ferments, the sauce expelled is regular soy sauce. These residual pieces are what are fermented for longer, producing the sweeter and thicker dark soy sauce.   



Both soy sauces have an umami flavor, but regular soy sauce will be heavier and influenced by a more intense saltiness. Dark soy sauce is sweeter due to the fermentation process. The initial sauce taken from the mash takes a lot of the salt, so there isn’t as much left for the darker varieties. 



Dark soy sauce is considerably thicker than regular soy sauce. Common varieties are generally used in dishes like stir-fries and added to other sauces as a salty component. Dark soy sauce is used more commonly as a dipping sauce for dumplings and glaze for meats. 


Cooking Methods

Soy sauce helps make foods saltier when that aspect is initially missing from other ingredients. Because dark soy sauce has a sweeter backbone, you’ll want to get your salty depth. Both of these sauces will add umami to your dish, but regular soy sauce works better in Cantonese or Chinese cooking, in which sauces are absorbed into the ingredients.

Due to the thinner qualities of the sauce, they’ll all but disappear into your vegetables and meats to impart flavor without having to build a thick sauce. For example, soy sauce adds saltiness to a dish like fried rice, but you may not actually see sauce because the thin consistency absorbs the rice. 

On the other hand, dark soy sauce will work for rich heartiness in areas that need thickening, like stews that crave heavy flavors. It will also work well to braise meat, soak into the protein, give it a crispy caramelization, and keep the meat soft and tender. 

Both can be used in a marinade, so you’ll want to decide if your marinade lacks salt or sweet notes before determining which soy sauce to grab. 


When To Use Which Soy Sauce

In recipes, you’ll want to pay close attention to the way they refer to soy sauce on the ingredients list. If it just says “soy sauce,” they’re usually referring to regular soy sauce. 

Similarly, a low-sodium soy sauce is also a light soy sauce. If you are preparing a thicker and sweeter dipping sauce, you’ll want to grab a bottle of dark soy sauce. 

Generally, a recipe that calls for dark soy sauce may refer to it as “premium dark soy sauce.” However, different types of soy sauce will typically label different flavorings that have been added, so be careful and read the label.



Shoyu is the general term used to describe varieties of Japanese soy sauce. San J Shoyu Organic Sauce will add rich umami flavors to your dish and wonderful aromatics. What’s better? It is organic and is made free of artificial preservatives. 



Tamari is a soy sauce, so you don’t have to consider alternative flavors with this condiment. However, it is a variety of soy sauces made from only 100% soybeans, naturally gluten-free. 

We recommend trying this Momofuku Tamari!


What Are Popular Soy Sauce Substitutes?

Soy sauce isn’t the only condiment we want to keep in the house. Check out some of these popular soy sauce alternatives. 


Chin Kiang vinegar

Chin Kiang vinegar is a rice vinegar condiment made from glutinous rice. It is a thicker, dark brown color and has a hearty balance of salty-sweet notes. This Chinese-style sauce will work well with dishes like crispy fried noodles. 


Fish Sauce

Fish sauce will have the salty notes and consistency of a regular soy sauce but with an added salty tang from the anchovy (or try this Vegan fish sauce). Squid fish sauce is a popular Thai fish sauce with a robust flavor profile.

For something with a lighter tang, try Lee Kum Kee’s Oyster Sauce. It will have that saltiness from the oysters, but only the juices are used, so that aspect is considerably lighter than fish sauce. 





While hoisin sauce is technically considered an Asian BBQ sauce, it will have a lot of the sweet tang of a dark soy sauce. Lee Kum Kee Hoisin Sauce is ideal as a sub-in for dark soy sauce when you need the perfect dipping sauce. 



We are so confident that you are officially a soy sauce expert. You’ve got all the facts, flavor profiles, and substitutions out there. You are so ready to start adding those salty, sweet, and umami flavor layers to all of your dishes from here on out. 

If you need to make a grocery run to pick up soy sauce or any other Asian condiment, don’t grab the keys yet! Umamicart delivers high-quality Asian groceries right to your door. 


What is Gluten? | Celiac Disease Foundation 

Fermented Soy Products: Beneficial Potential in Neurodegenerative Diseases | PMC 

Thicken a Sauce With Cornstarch | The Spruce Eats