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Dark soy sauce vs. light soy sauce

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Could someone tell me the difference between the two soy sauces (the Chinese dark & light), as opposed to "light soy sauce" that is the low sodium variety.

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  1. I quote from Shizuo Tsuji's "Japanese Cooking"--the best brief explanation I've found:
    "Light soy sauce is amber in color, is cleaer and thinner...but it is also saltier.... Dark soy sauce has a deeper color and more body. It is less salty and used in relatively greater quantities."
    He goes on to explain that "If you do your shopping at a Japanese store, you will have no problem obtaining both types. All Kikkoman light soy sauce is imported from Japan. It is generally used in smaller quantities than the dark type...." The primary purpose of the light sauce, he says, is esthetic. He also says that the ONLY kind of shoyu Kikkoman makes in the USA is dark. Finally, and most significantly, he asks the question many of us would pose: "If you can obtain only dark soy sauce, how should you proceed if a recipe calls for light soy sauce? Sacrifice aesthetics and use only the dark. If a recipe calls for a combination of light and dark, and you have only the dark on hand, total the amounts and use that quantity of dark soy sauce."
    If it works for Tsuji, it works for me--and has.
    Good luck,
    Gypsy Boy

    1. As Gypsy Boy stated for Japanese soy which is a little sweeter than Chinese soy. The same hold true for Chinese soy. The dark soy is less salty than the lighter one. I was told that the dark soy lends color a favor(not salty favor), where as the light soy for dishes where you want saltyness but not the dark color. Light and dark has nothing to do with the amount of salt in the soy.

      1. In Chinese cookery, "dark" soy sauce has an amount of molasses or caramel added to give the sauce a darker color, a sweeter flavor (it does not have a noticably sweet flavor--the sugar balances the salt, however, which gives it a less salty flavor)and a bit more body than "light" or "thin" soy sauce. If you swirl a partially full bottle of dark soy sauce the way one swirls wine in a glass to view the body of it, you will see that the sauce forms "legs" against the glass--visible thick drips-- the same way a fullbodied red wine does.

        Thin soy sauce does not do the same.

        I have heard authors say that they should be referred to as "thick" and "thin" rather than "dark" and "light." Some brands, in fact, term thier "light" soy sauce, as "thin" soy sauce, adding a bit more murkiness to the issue.

        However, just to completely muddy the issue beyond redemption, there is a condiment that is called "thick" soy sauce which has a large amount of molasses added--it is sold in jars instead of bottles, and is very, very thick, very dark and noticeably sweeter than any other variety of soy sauces. This is what is used in Chinese restaurants to darken fried rice to the typical brown color that we are used to seeing. So, if you ever made fried rice at home and followed a recipe that called for dark or light soy sauce and wondered why your rice was pale--that is because you weren't using the same product they use in restaurants. (Homestyle fried rices are always pale in color--but that is something that most Americans do not know.)

        The uses of dark soy sauce are to provide color and flavor to sauces--in restaurants if you get a dish that has a "brown sauce," chances are dark soy are in it. Thin soy sauce adds flavor, but very little color--pale sauced Cantonese dishes use thin soy exclusively.

        In fact, Cantonese cuisine probably makes stronger use of thin soy sauce than any other regional cuisine of China.

        1. Thanks, everyone. This information clarifies my confusion between the two. It is certainly nice to have a place, like this, to come, when you have a question & find it answered so quickly & thoroughly.

          1. Excellent answers, but still a little confusing. Light soy sauce is not the same as the low sodium variety; although this low sodium variety is a light (thin) soy sauce. Light can refer to thinness as well as to low sodium although the latter use of the term is a new advertising gimmick as opposed to the traditional Asian use of light and dark.

            3 Replies
            1. re: Karl

              Dark and light are English name for these two soy sauces. Mean dark in color and lighter in color. Nothing with the terms we think of when we now use the term light meaning less of something. They do not match the Chinese names at all. Like BarbaraF stated light (the old English terms) is mostly use in Cantonese cooking the saltyness not so much for the color.

              1. re: Karl

                Here's a link giving more precise definitions. My wife, being Shanghainese, goes through the "lao chou" (dark) about five times faster than the "sheng" (light) soy sauce.

                1. re: Gary Soup

                  Hi - you forgot to post the link!

              2. Saw this on the free chownews Jim Leff posted on the LA page.

                IN any case, my two cents: the difference between the two, esp. Pearl River Brand light and dark.

                The dark/old sauce is thicker. It's used for braising, slow cooking, red-cooking dishes (Huaiyang/Shanghai specialty), like Lion's head meat balls. Anytime a recipe calls for cooking a dish where the soy sauce is added early in the recipe, be it marinating, rubbing on the meat (like duck) or cooking in a clay pot, use this kind.

                The young/fresh/light (sheng) soy sauce: added for light flavor. So, when soy is added (with or without vinegar, or a cornstarch slurry) at the end of cooking, such as at the end of a chao/stir-fried dish, or when soy is used as or in a dipping sauce at table, use this one.

                THis explains why the Cantonese kitchen uses for of the young sauce since the sauces are usually of less imortance in this kitchen, with the emphasis on freshness and the variety of game and fish, and the emphasis on stir-frying. And why the other kitchens, with more braising, would tend toward the dark/old soy sauce.

                1. So can we talk nitty gritty. I've been hunting for dark soy sauce for a while. None of the big supermarkets in NYC carry dark, and even Kalustyans had only regular. Kikkoman and the other big Chinese brands only sell regular. If you send me to Chinatown, give an address and name of store.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: meinNYC

                    Here are three with good selections:

                    Kam Man (or maybe New Kam Man), 200 Canal St. @ Mulberry.
                    Sunrise Mart, 4 Stuyvesant St.
                    New York Supermarket, 75 E. B'way (under the Manhattan Bridge)

                    1. re: meinNYC

                      You also might try Malaysian groceries as it is used in many southeast asian recipes
                      if all else fails

                      1. re: celeryroot

                        Malaysian stores might also have an Indonesian sweet soy sauce, which is about half palm sugar molasses (Kecap Manis).

                      2. re: meinNYC

                        There is another term I haven't seen here. Black Soy Sauce. From my research it is just another name for dark. Anyone know better?

                        I also would not 100% exclude dark/black soy sauces from Cantonese cooking.

                        1. re: meinNYC

                          "None of the big supermarkets in NYC carry dark"

                          You mean regular supermarket, right? You just have to go to an Asian supermarket. I would be very surpise if an Asian store does not carry dark soy sauce. Kikkoman is a Japanese brand, they don't have dark soy sauce. It is very much a Chinese thing.

                        2. I'm going to offer some general information I've learned through experience, but it may not answer all of your questions. First off, the biggest problem you're facing is that you (probably) live in the U.S. where EVERYTHING is in a state of fusion and confusion! Chinese and Japanese (shoyu) soy sauces are not the same. In traditional Chinese cooking, light and dark soy sauces are used for different recipes/purposes. Which is not to say there aren't a lot of different types of Japanese shoyu, including light, dark, and other, but a Japanese and Chinese "light" soy sauce will not taste the same or produce the same finished dish. And then, adding to the fusion confusion, there is now "light" low sodium soy sauce which tastes more like standard dark soy sauce except less salty. I have about six different kinds of soy/shoyu sauces in my refrigerator, and frankly, I think I was happier forty plus years ago when I just used Kikkoman for everything and they only exported one kind to the U.S. Kikkoman now makes a gazillion different kinds, and it's like chasing rainbows! '-) Good luck.!