Dark vs. Light Soy Sauce: What’s The Difference

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.

Side-by-side comparison of a bottle of dark soy sauce and light soy sauce on a wood surface

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.

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.

Side-by-side comparison of dark soy sauce and light soy sauce in small white bowls

What is light soy sauce?

TIP: If a recipe calls for “soy sauce” without specifying which type, it is most likely to be 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

I like the Kimlan brand of light soy sauce. I also use the Lee Kum Kee and Pearl River Bridge brands of soy sauce.

Ingredients in my Kimlan Light Soy Sauce: water, salt, soybeans, wheat, sugar.

Recipes that use light soy sauce

Pan-Fried Egg Tofu With Chopped Cilantro
Rich and fragrant egg tofu slices are pan fried until golden brown. Double the recipe to serve 4 to 6 people. You'll want to finish it within 10 minutes of pan frying because it won't be crispy as leftovers the day after.
Get the Recipe
A close-up view of the pan-fried egg tofu with cilantro recipe
Tofu, Red Cabbage, Carrot, and Mushrooms Stir Fry
This recipe uses block tofu and red cabbage. You can substitute other types of tofu and vegetables, including green cabbage, zucchini, or broccoli. Enjoy the stir fry with cilantro as a garnish.
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Red cabbage, carrot, mushroom, and tofu stir fry in a white bowl
Tofu Noodle Salad with Carrot and Cucumber
This tofu noodle salad hits the spot by providing a low-carb alternative to pasta. You'll love the garlic and apple cider vinegar dressing. Coupled with Lao Gan ma chili sauce, this refreshing salad is addictive!
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How to Make Tofu Noodle Salad with Carrot and Cucumber (Season 1, Episode 5) Cover Photo

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)
  • 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.

I use the Lee Kum Kee brand of dark soy sauce. Sometimes, I may use the Pearl River Bridge brand if Lee Kum Kee is sold out.

Ingredients in my Lee Kum Kee Dark Soy Sauce: water, salt, caramel color, sugar, soybeans, wheat.

Recipes that use dark soy sauce

Kari’s Shiitake Mushroom Meat Sauce
This comfort food envelopes you in warm, fuzzy feelings. This recipe can be doubled or tripled for batch cooking to leave extras for freezing. It's versatile — substitute any ground meat and serve with vegetables, noodles, toast, or soup.
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Kari's shiitake mushroom meat sauce with tofu on a bed of salad greens
Stir Fry Tofu, Cabbage, and Shiitake Mushrooms
The five-spice tofu fries beautifully in this recipe to provide a crispy, golden crust that contrasts with the soft mushrooms and sweet cabbage. Make extra for leftovers because this dish reheats easily.
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Cabbage and tofu stir fry served on a white plate

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.

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”. Be careful to double check the ingredients to determine whether the “light low-sodium” soy sauce is actually a dark soy sauce that is lower in salt or whether it is a light soy sauce with less salt.

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”. So 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?

READ NEXT: Extra Umami Beef Broth In Instant Pot

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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