You’ve most likely got a bottle of soy sauce at home right now, Whether you’re into Asian cuisine or just want a splash of extra flavor in your meals, soy sauce is pretty much mandatory.
As for what kind of soy sauce… well, you’ve got cheap and you’ve got expensive, and there’s a middleground. The quality of the food will always be closely tied to the quality of your ingredients. And this means soy sauce, too.
Now let’s discuss why soy sauce is expensive, and how you can get your hands on the best.
Why is soy sauce so expensive ?
Authentic Soy Sauce is expensive due to the process through which its natural ingredients are mixed, cultured and then fermented for anywhere from six months (for standard brands) to an extended period of up to four or five years.
The key is that certain natural ingredients must be present; the mixing and culture must follow a precise formula; no external flavoring, color or preservatives are to be added and a lengthy fermentation period is required at the end.
The aging process of artisanal soy sauce is what makes them exquisitely balanced, and expensive.
Cheap soy sauces are a dime a dozen. They can be made in a couple of days with synthetic ingredients such as water, hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (in lieu of soybeans), corn syrup or another cheap sugar, caramel coloring and artificial flavoring.
They will typically contain preservatives to maintain texture and prevent the mixture from falling apart. Though our taste buds have gotten used to these knock-offs in many cases, they are not even comparable to authentic artisanal soy sauces.
Some of the higher end soy sauce manufacturers estimate that less than 5% of what passes as “soy sauce” in the world is made through an authentic process.
It’s been said that for a mixture of low price and halfway decent authenticity, Kikkoman may be the minimally acceptable, widely-available store brand. Let’s delve a bit deeper.
What makes soy sauce authentic ?
Soy sauces are an ancient condiment. Its use was first recorded during the reign of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) in China. The recipe evolved from soy paste, which had been widely used in China from even further back.
The two main types of soy sauce vary in terms of the proportion in which their key primary ingredients are mixed. Traditional Chinese soy sauce used more natural soy. It was common to see 100% soy being used, even though some grains (principally wheat) were mixed in at times.
A later mix evolved in Japan, where wheat was mixed in more liberally. Traditional shoyu sauces made in Japan have equal mixes of soy and wheat. There are exceptions – most of the Tamari soy sauce produced today is gluten-free.
Nowadays, most of the highest quality artisanal soy sauces are manufactured in Japan.
Standard Procedures for Making Artisanal Soy Sauces
Though the mixture and culturing process may vary slightly based on how the soy sauce is meant to end up (for example, its thickness, clarity or taste), the general process for making artisanal soy sauce is as follows (we assume that wheat is added in some proportion to produce a clearer, thinner soy sauce):
- Mix in aspergillus molds with cooked soybean and roasted wheat – this creates _koji.
- Let the koji mold grow for three to four days.
- After the bacterial culture has grown adequately, add in brine (salt water) to your taste and proportio
- Transfer the mixture into large vats. Add in lactobacillus, a bacterium that breaks sugars down into lactic acid. This forms a mixture called moromi.
- Allow the moromi to ferment for a minimum of six months in specially designed vats or high-end bottles.
- Once the mix is considered ready, it must be strained and pasteurized before being bottled for sale.
There are several possible tweaks along the way. They could include:
- the type of soy and wheat (though all artisanal methods perforce use natural ingredients)
- proportions in which soy, wheat and brine are used
- the type of container used to ferment the moromi (even wooden barrels are not uncommon)
- the length of time the moromi is fermented.
Finding the best soy sauce – check the label
Look for some telltale signs that will help you distinguish authentic artisanal sauces from cheaper versions. All soy sauce brands have to state the ingredients, and how transparent they are on the label will tell you a lot.
For one, if some ingredients are missing or it just says ‘soy sauce’, you can putt hat back. Then, if you notice the soy sauce is actually watered down soy sauce, you can put that one back as well.
What to look for on the label
Things that are critical include the bacterial culturing processes used to create koji (using _aspergillus _molds) and then to create moromi from koji (using lactobacillus).
If you don’t see any mention of aspergillus in the ingredients listed on the back, you know that the manufacturer has not followed a standard artisanal process.
Also, as mentioned above, higher end artisanal soy sauce can be fermented in special containers for three to five years. Aging is one of the main keys to quality in such cases.
What shouldn’t be on the label
Premium brands will also advertise that no artificial coloring, fillers or additional preservatives have been added.
By contrast, quick and dirty methods and even some well-known brands may fortify their soy sauce mixtures with such synthetic additives.
For example, check to see if synthetic soy, caramel coloring, sugar, preservatives and artificial flavorings are listed on the bottle – you will know that this is not a premium soy sauce brand.
Quick soy sauce price comparison
To understand the differences in artisanal soy sauce vs. standard store brands vs. the cheap, synthetic knock offs, let’s consider the prices of the following brands(at the time I’m writing this 09/09/2020):
1. YAMAROKU SHOYU “TSURU BISIHO”
Pure Artisan Dark Sweet Japanese Premium Gourmet Barrel Aged 4 Year Soy Sauce
$33.33 for an 18 fl. oz bottle ($1.86 per oz), listed on Amazon
2. HAKU MIZUNARA WHISKEY BARREL AGED SHOYU SOYA SAUCE
_Pure Artisan Delicate & Sweet Soy Sauce made in Kyoto, Japan using the Mushiro Koji process and aged in Whiskey Barrels made from Mizunara oak wood_
$41.95 for a 25.36 fl. oz bottle ($1.65 per oz), listed on Amazon
3. LEE KUM KEE PREMIUM DARK SOY SAUCE
Chinese “Dark” Soy Sauce, caramel color, sugar, flavor enhancers and potassium sorbate (preservative) added
$14.88 for a 3.3 fl. oz bottle ($0.52 per oz), listed on Amazon
4. PEARL RIVER BRIDGE LIGHT SOY SAUCE
Chinese “Light” or “Thin” Soy Sauce made from first pressing of fermented soy bean
$4.08 for a 16.9 fl. oz bottle ($0.24 per oz), listed for sale at Walmart
5. KIKKOMAN SOY SAUCE
Traditionally “Dark” all-purpose Soy Sauce popular in the US
$3.49 for a 15 fl. oz bottle ($0.23 per oz), listed for sale at Target
6. LA CHOY LIGHT SOY SAUCE
Traditionally “Light” all-purpose Soy Sauce popular in the US
$3.19 for a 15 fl. oz bottle ($0.21 per oz), listed for sale at Target
The first two are among the finest artisanal soy sauces produced in Japan. Lee Kum Kee and Pearl River Bridge are well known Chinese brands.
Kikkoman is a middle of the road, but reliable, brand found in grocery stores everywhere.
La Choy is another low-end brand that is more common in US.
What is interesting to note is how the quality drops off (synthetic ingredients and aging, more flavoring, colors and preservatives added) as we go from the top two brands mentioned above to the more middle of the road Lee Kum Kee brand and finally to the low end brand.
The top brand of artisanal soy sauce is 9 times more expensive than the bottom brand of generic, quickly concocted soy sauce – and with good reason. A discerning palate will be able to clearly make out the difference.
Get the right soy sauce for your food
A wide variety of soy sauces are found in the domestic and international condiments section of the supermarket. Brands from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand are among the main ones.
US brands such as Tabasco also manufacture soy-sauce, but most authentic artisanal brands are manufactured overseas and distributed through US partners.
The main types of soy sauce include:
1. LIGHT OR THIN SOY SAUCE – Traditionally Chinese, these “thin” soy sauces are made from the first pressing of fermented soy and are the most common variety found in the US. They are higher in sodium content, so look out for Salt Reduced or Low Sodium options.
2. DARK SOY SAUCE – These sauces are made darker and sweeter through aging in artisanal brands, while caramel coloring and/or molasses are often added in cheaper varieties.
3. THICK SOY SAUCE – These are also called soy paste or soy jam. Darker and thicker than normal dark soy sauces, these sauces are made by adding sugar and more wheat during the fermentation process. Thickeners such as starch may also be used.
4. WHITE SOY SAUCE – A Japanese specialty, white soy sauces are pale golden in color and have a delicate taste. They are produced by using a higher wheat to soy ratio.
5. GLUTEN FREE SOY SAUCE – Many all-purpose brands marketed in the US offer gluten free options, where no wheat is used in the manufacturing process. Tamari soya sauce from Japan is usually gluten free as well.
6. SPECIALTY SOY SAUCES – There are multiple specialty soy sauces with commonly used flavors such as mushrooms, shrimp and tabasco. One distinctive flavored soy sauce is the Indonesian Kecap Manis – a very sweet, thick sauce ubiquitous in Indonesian cooking (it is also popular in certain Dutch dishes). Kecap Manis_punches in a whole host of sugar and spices, such as garlic, palm sugar and star anise to produce a unique taste.
If you are precise in how you want to use your soy sauce and if your palate is refined enough to taste the difference, you will not mind paying a higher price for a gourmet experience.
Eschew the ordinary, check the list of ingredients when hunting for your next bottle … you will not be disappointed by what you find. Enjoy!!