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 surfacePin

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.

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

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

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.
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One-pot chicken broccoli stir fry with aromatic sauce
This chicken broccoli stir fry is a tasty and simple weeknight dinner ready in less than 30 minutes. Customize it with your favorite vegetables and protein. Serve it with steamed Jasmine rice.
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5-minute spicy garlic cucumber salad
This refreshing garlic cucumber salad is an ideal side dish to balance a heavy main course thanks to its crisp texture and addictive spicy sauce. You'll love it with the original Chinese sauce or the variation sauce if you can't source the exotic ingredients.
Get the Recipe

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.

I use the Lee Kum Kee brand of dark soy sauce. Sometimes, I buy 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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Easy peasy fried rice with eggs and tofu
This fried rice combines eggs and vegetables to deliver a weeknight dinner ready in 15 minutes. Serve it with sliced green onions, and you'll love how packed with flavor it is.
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5-Minute Rice Noodle Rolls with Green Onion
This easy vegan recipe using rice noodle rolls is a quick-to-make appetizer. You'll love the silky texture. Enjoy it as a snack or add vegetables and protein to make it into a full meal.
Get the Recipe

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?

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".

5 thoughts on “Dark vs. Light Soy Sauce: What’s The Difference?”

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  2. Is dark soy sauce what’s used in hot pepper chicken? What I’ve had has a caramel like taste with a nice zest and spiciness that is of a thicker consistency. Usually with pepper flakes in the mix. I had it at a local Chinese restaurant that closed and I haven’t had anything similar since at other restaurants.

    • Hi Don,
      Based on the description of your sauce, I would guess that it’s not only dark soy sauce but it’s likely a sauce with multiple ingredients in it. From the caramel taste, spice, and thickness, I would guess it’s a combination of dark soy sauce with rice vinegar (or maybe orange juice or lemon juice) and chili mixed with cornstarch or a similar thickener.

      If you’re looking for something similar, I recommend checking on the sauce with the cornstarch slurry in my Chicken and Broccoli Stir Fry recipe.

      Add 1 tablespoon of orange juice or rice vinegar and 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes if you want the zesty spiciness. Instead of sugar, you can add honey (add however much you want to meet your desired sweetness, e.g. 1 teaspoon or 2 tablespoons or even ¼ cup if you’re expecting something really sweet).

  3. I have the Kikkoman sauce. What did you mean when you said they play by their own rules – is it considered dark, light or in between?

    • Hi Tag,

      I meant that Kikkoman doesn’t differentiate light vs. dark. Here’s an explanation from its UK website:
      “Chinese soy sauces are available in both light and dark versions. Some are chemically produced and others are partially brewed. Dark soy sauces may contain caramel colouring (E150) and light Chinese soy sauces are often very salty.

      Kikkoman produces just one soy sauce in Europe because it is suitable for all dishes, even recipes that specify light or dark sauces. The clarity of Kikkoman means it will not discolour clear broths or stocks, and its aromatic qualities work to enhance rather than overpower delicate flavours.”

      So, Kikkoman doesn’t have a light or dark difference. It produces a very different flavor, which I tend to associate with sushi. You can get lower sodium Kikkoman but it’s on a different spectrum altogether.


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