Soy sauce has been used in Chinese cooking for at least 2,000 years. It is also a common ingredient in Japanese, Thai and Indonesian cooking. The sauce is a thin liquid traditionally made from fermented soybeans. Modern soy sauce may or may not be fermented. All soy sauces have a somewhat salty taste. The two main kinds of soy sauce available in the United States are light and dark.
Part of the process for making soy sauce involves aging. Manufacturers of dark soy sauce let it age longer than light soy sauce. This additional aging time causes the soy sauce to become darker and thicker. It also intensifies the flavor. Some cooks find dark soy sauce to have such a strong flavor that it overwhelms a dish. Light soy sauce is not aged as long, which gives it a lighter color and flavor. However, light soy sauce generally has a much saltier flavor but with less of a fermented taste.
According to the Kikoman Soy Sauce Museum website, Chinese dark soy sauce sometimes has additives such as caramel coloring to enhance its deep brown color. Molasses added to dark soy sauce has a similar effect. Dark soy sauce may also contain monosodium glutamate. Light soy sauce from China, on the other hand, may contain additives that help to temper its strong salty flavor. It may also contain monosodium glutamate.
The Kikoman site states that many Chinese soy sauce producers do not allow their product to ferment for very long and that the use of additives can mimic some of the effects of traditional fermentation.
Light soy sauce is sometimes called fresh soy sauce because it is aged less. Because it is saltier and tends to color dishes less dramatically, it is more commonly used in seasoning than dark soy sauce. Seasoning takes place just before serving a dish rather than during the cooking process. Light soy sauce is also commonly used in dipping sauces.
Cooking with dark soy sauce tends to deepen and develop its flavor. Chinese cooks use dark soy sauce more often than light when needing soy sauce during the cooking process.
Just as olive oil comes in several grades, so does Chinese soy sauce. The first pressing of a batch of soybeans creates a premium light soy sauce called tóuchou. It is more expensive than sauces made from subsequent pressings of the same batch of soybeans. Another grade of light soy sauce is shuanghuáng, which has the distinction of being fermented twice. This gives it a complex flavor and makes it suitable for use in dipping sauces.
A standard grade of dark soy sauce is laochou, but jiàngyóugao is a variety made with the addition of starch and sugar. Cooks use this sweetened dark soy sauce to pour over food before serving. They do not often use it during the cooking process.
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How to Make Sweet Soy Sauce
Brown sugar imparts to soy sauce a molasses-tasting sweetness, while Chinese five-spice powder adds warming and cooling notes.
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