Do you feel confused when you see dark soy sauce in a recipe or a bottle of light soy sauce at the Asian grocery store? Let’s break down the differences to help you figure out which soy sauce to use.
Despite my 3 decades of experience pouring soy sauce, I recently got called out for using the wrong type of soy sauce. In writing the recipe for Kari’s Shiitake Mushroom Meat Sauce, it dawned on me that the difference between the dark vs. light soy sauce is unclear to most people who didn’t grow up eating Chinese food.
Let’s dispel the mystery and help you figure out whether to use dark or light soy sauce or both.
Difference between light and dark soy sauce
Light soy sauce is saltier, thinner, and more “refreshing” than dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is typically used for Cantonese-style stir fries and dipping sauce, such as sauce for sushi and fried tofu.
Dark soy sauce is sweeter, thicker, and full-bodied compared to light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is typically used for adding color to a dish rather than for flavor. You are likely eating dark soy sauce in Northern Chinese stir fries or in Shanghai cooking with braised “red-cooked” meats.
NOTE: If a recipe calls for “soy sauce” without specifying which type, it is most likely to be light soy sauce.
What is light soy sauce?
Light soy sauce is also easier to find in non-Asian grocery stores. (Though, Japanese soy sauce — like Kikkoman — plays by different rules. I’m covering Chinese soy sauce in this comparison.)
- Light soy sauce is lighter brown in color and thinner than dark soy sauce
- Light soy sauce doesn’t have a rich caramel flavor
- It is more likely used in Cantonese cooking where heavy, rich flavors are de-emphasized in favor of fresh vegetables and seasonal ingredients
- It is ideal for seasoning stir fries, porridge, eggs, silken tofu, and other dishes where you want to add salt and some umami flavor without masking other subtler flavor
Ingredients in my Kimlan Light Soy Sauce: water, salt, soybeans, wheat, sugar.
Recipes that use light soy sauce
What is dark soy sauce?
- Dark soy sauce is deep brown in color and thicker than light soy sauce
- It is less salty than light soy sauce with a sweet molasses-like flavor (it usually has sugar added but it is not sweet, just less salty than light soy sauce)
- Dark soy sauce is designed for braising, stewing (e.g. pork belly), heavy stir fries (such as the Northern Chinese-style stir fries that are heavy in meats and spices or designed to look dark golden in color)
- Dark soy sauce offers a full-bodied, bold taste; if light soy sauce is like a pinot grigio, then dark soy sauce is like a cabernet sauvignon.
Ingredients in my Lee Kum Kee Dark Soy Sauce: water, salt, caramel color, sugar, soybeans, wheat.
Recipes that use dark soy sauce
When do you use both dark and light soy sauce?
The Kari’s Shiitake Mushroom Meat Sauce recipe calls for both dark and light soy sauce. In marinades, roasts, and braises, it can be common to see both dark and light soy sauce in the recipe.
I like to use both dark and light soy sauce when I want the richness and caramelization of dark soy sauce to give the dish a full-bodied punch. It is a similar effect to when you add red wine to stews and braises.
But I’m also looking for the crisp, salty umami that light soy sauce brings. If you have too much dark soy sauce, you end up with a heavy sauce that feels overwhelming after just 3-4 bites.
These soy sauce rules of thumb are made to be broken. Alex loves adding dark soy sauce to his stir fries because he loves salty and rich flavors.
What should you do if you have one type of soy sauce?
If you only have access to one type of soy sauce, then use whatever is available to you.
When you’ve only got light soy sauce
If a dish calls for dark soy sauce, you can add light soy sauce and a pinch of sugar. Be sure to reduce the dish and caramelize any meat to make up for the lack of dark soy sauce with deep browning. You’ll sacrifice some flavor and color, but you can still make the dish.
When you’ve only got dark soy sauce
If you have dark soy sauce when it calls for light soy sauce, add the dark soy sauce and a pinch of salt to make up for the saltiness. You can also add a tiny bit of water to dilute the dark soy sauce and thin it out.
Next time you’re wondering which soy sauce to use, experiment with adding one and later adding both. Notice how the light and dark soy sauces change the flavor of your dish.
How to make light soy sauce from dark
There’s no great way to convert dark soy sauce into light soy sauce. I would follow the same instructions for diluting the dark soy sauce listed above where you add extra salt and a tiny bit of water to thin it and make up for the saltiness. Alternatively, you could forgo soy sauce and use a light soy sauce substitute.
Light soy sauce substitutes
There are many reasons why someone doesn’t want to or cannot eat light soy sauce (it may not be gluten free, soy allergy, etc.). Here are my favorite substitutes for light soy sauce that work for most recipes:
- Worcestershire sauce
- Tamari sauce: A gluten-free alternative to soy sauce
- Hoisin sauce: You may have to thin it out with some water. It’s quite sweet, which makes it more like dark soy sauce than light.
- Teriyaki sauce: Teriyaki sauce is another option that offers a sweet and savory flavor. It often has soy sauce in it.
- Oyster sauce: Thin it with a bit of water. It’s not vegetarian.
- Fish sauce: A good replacement for the umami of soy sauce if you like the pungent flavor of fish sauce.
TIP: Ultimately, if you need to replace light soy sauce, you’re looking for ingredients that add salt and umami. This means you could get creative by substituting ingredients that don’t resemble soy sauce at all, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Marmite.
What about low-sodium soy sauce?
Low-sodium soy sauce has less salt added during the process to make soy sauce. Dark and light soy sauce can be lower in sodium than their regular counterparts. So don’t get fooled when the bottle reads “light”.
WARNING: Because “light” is a vague term, you might be looking at a bottle of light or dark soy sauce with less salt. Double check the ingredients to determine whether the “light low-sodium” soy sauce is actually a dark soy sauce that is lower in salt (compare it to the ingredients typical in dark soy sauce).
If you’re worried you’re buying the wrong soy sauce, just buy the regular version and add a tiny bit of water to dilute it if you want less sodium.
PSA: Beware of the mushroom dark soy sauce
We accidentally purchased a mushroom dark soy sauce once because the regular premium dark soy sauce from Lee Kum Kee was sold out. Alex ended up tossing the bottle once he discovered it tasted bitter and “like chemicals”.
Be careful when you see “mushroom dark soy sauce” or “seafood dark soy sauce”. Unless you know for certain you are looking for mushroom dark soy sauce, stick to the regular version.
Which soy sauce is your favorite? Are you a dark soy sauce lover (like Alex is)? Or do you prefer light soy sauce?
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