People often ask me “what’s the difference between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce?” “how do you use different soy sauces?” “what is thick soy sauce?”. In fact there are many different kinds of soy sauces in the East but the three most common are light, dark and thick soy sauce. These are what most China and Taiwanese people use in the kitchen.
Other types of soy sauce include bonito flavour soy sauce(鰹魚醬油) which I love to make dip or salad dressing sauce with.
There are different brands of soy sauce, including the two most common here in the UK, Kikkoman and Amoy, but we’re not discussing brands, just types of soy sauce.
For this article I’m going to focus on introducing you to light soy sauce, dark soy sauce and thick soy sauce and I’ll also give you a brief introduction of how to use them in Chinese cooking.
1. Light soy sauce (生抽):
I use light soy sauce a lot in cooking. Light soy sauce tastes salty and it’s thin, light reddish brown in colour and opaque. Chinese and Taiwanese people usually use light soy sauce for dips, marinating ingredients, dressings and stir-fry food. When you see a Chinese recipe that asks for soy sauce, unless it very specifically states another type of soy sauce it means “light soy sauce”. In a very simple way to explain how to use light soy sauce, just think about light soy sauce is used for enhancing the flavour of your dish.
I personally like to use both light soy sauce and dark sauce to balance the colour and flavour of dishes. For example if I cook red-braised pork ( 紅燒肉), Dongpo pork (東坡肉) or Lion Head Meatballs (獅子頭) I use both. If you only use light soy sauce the flavour will be too strong and salty and the dish won’t taste as well as you’d want it to.
But if you use a little dark soy sauce then you will get a really beautiful colour and the seasoning will be correct.
2. Dark soy sauce(老抽):
Dark soy sauce is dark as it’s aged longer than light soy sauce and the colour is a lot darker than light soy sauce. The texture is thicker and it tastes less salty but sweeter than light soy sauce. Think of using dark soy sauce to “colour” your dish. Chinese and Taiwanese people usually use dark soy sauce in stew types of dishes, like red-braised pork. The dark soy sauce gives the dish a nice caramel colour and gives a small amount of sweetness. Please don’t use too much dark soy sauce in dips, dressings or stews though as it can dye your ingredients a dark brown colour which isn’t very pleasant.
I once saw a chef use dark soy sauce to marinade duck legs and once cooked they had a “black-ish brown colour” and gave the duck legs a burnt look. I don’t know about you but I don’t like my food looking burnt.
3. Thick soy sauce(醬油膏):
Thick soy sauce is very thick in texture and it’s a lot thicker than dark soy sauce. It tastes sweet and usually use in stir-fry foods, dips and Taiwanese people use it in stews and braised pork rice (滷肉飯). If you can’t find thick soy sauce in your local Chinese super market then you can use oyster sauce as substitute.
Here is a simple thick soy sauce recipe:
300ml light soy sauce
1.5 teaspoon potato starch or corn flour
2 tablespoon brown sugar
- Add soy sauce into a small saucepan along with the brown sugar and half the amount of water. Bring it to the boil then turn down the gas power to it’s lowest setting.
- Mix potato starch or corn flour with the other half amount of the water and slowly stir it into step one. The soy sauce should be getting thicker and thicker during cooking as the potato starch and the corn flour will enhance the density of the soy sauce.
- Once it has reach the right density, turn off the stove immediately and taste it to check the flavour. You can add a little bit of salt if you like it a bit stronger. After it has cooled down keep it in a clean and dry container or bottle and store it in fridge.
I hope this article helps you understand how to use different type of the soy sauce in Chinese cooking. Use the information I’ve provided and experiment with the amount of soy sauce you add to your dishes and in no time at all you’ll be a soy sauce expert.