How to Choose a Soy Sauce

Staring up at row after row of soy sauce bottles at a Chinese supermarket, who wouldn’t get confused? Some of the liquids look black and syrupy, others thin and brown and some bottles even have shrimp on the label. But there’s no need to fret; in fact the differences between soy sauces are pretty simple.

Let’s start out with the basics. There are two main types of soy sauce (酱油 jiàngyóu). Master their differences and you’ll be whipping up tasty stir-fries and salads guaranteed to impress.

The first is called light soy sauce (生抽 shēngchōu). Light soy sauce is reddish-brown in color, and has a lighter taste and consistency. This makes it perfect for dipping dumplings and cold meat; mixing dressing for cold dishes like raw veggies, kelp or tofu; and cooking steamed fish and vegetable stir-fries. For a simple cucumber salad dressing, mix it with some vinegar, garlic, sugar, sesame oil and salt.

For dipping, Shanghai locals swear by one brand, Liuyuexian (六月鲜), which is fermented for six months. A nice variation of light soy sauce is shrimp soy sauce (虾子酱油 xiāzǐ jiàngyóu), which is pre-simmered with shrimp, Chinese spirits and sugar. The special flavor this creates means you wouldn’t want to waste it on basic things like meat. Many Chinese foodies recommend mixing a bit with cold noodles for a simple snack with awesome flavor. Don’t be afraid to try it in salad dressings either. Just look for the bottle decorated with shrimp!

The second is called dark soy sauce ( 老抽 lǎochōu). This kind of soy sauce is dark brown and has a much heavier flavor. While some people think it’s a bit bitter, others claim it has a sweet aftertaste. Dark soy sauce is mostly used when cooking meat in stir-fries and stews. The thick sauce adds color to the meat and gives it a mouth-watering golden hue. Be careful not to add too much or the meat will turn an unpleasant black color. In Chinese cooking, color and appearance are just as important as flavor. One popular saying used by Chinese foodies to describe a good dish is, “color, fragrance, flavor are all included!” (色香味俱全 sèxiāngwèi jùquán). Mixed with vinegar, cooking wine, sugar and salt, dark soy sauce also makes for a simple marinade perfect for enhancing pork and beef.

A variation of dark soy sauce is mushroom dark soy sauce (草菇老抽 cǎogū lǎochōu), which is seasoned with straw mushroom broth and then exposed to the sun. Incredibly, this process makes the sauce richer and more flavorful. Use this to give your meat’s color, fragrance and flavor an extra kick!

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