Despite being a quintessential ingredient in Chinese cuisine, dark soy sauce remains a mystery to many casual eaters. Like its light soy sauce counterpart, it provides layers of salty, sweet, and umami flavor to dishes and is a foundation of many sauces.
But what exactly is dark soy sauce and how is it different from regular soy sauce? This article breaks down all you need to know: how dark soy sauce is made, what makes it different, how it’s used, and popular substitutes in case you can’t find your own.
What is dark soy sauce?
Dark soy sauce (lǎo chōu or 老抽 in Mandarin) is an essential Chinese condiment made from fermented soybeans that is thicker, darker, and richer than regular soy sauce (also called light soy sauce). It is commonly added to sauces and dishes to provide darker color and added depth of flavor.
- Flavor: Dark soy sauce is an umami-rich sauce that is less salty and sweeter than regular soy sauce.
- Uses: Used to taste many dishes (such as fried rice, noodles, and stews) as well as to darken sauces. It can also be used as a dipping sauce, as a glaze or marinade for meats, and when braising meat.
- Fermentation: Dark soy sauce is the byproduct of a second fermentation of soybeans, which is often mixed with molasses or another sugar source. Dark soy sauce fermentation takes between 4-6 months at a minimum.
What is the difference between dark soy sauce and soy sauce?
Light soy sauce and dark soy sauce are both made by fermenting soybeans and have similar flavor profiles. However, they are used differently in Chinese cooking and have some distinguishing characteristics:
Dark soy sauce has a thicker consistency than regular soy sauce.
Regular soy sauce is made by pressing fermented soybeans. This first fermentation takes 3-6 months. The residuals of that process are then left for a second fermentation in a heavier brine, which often includes the addition of molasses, to make dark soy sauce.
Dark soy sauce is a sweet soy sauce with less saltiness than regular soy sauce, due to the longer fermentation process and the addition of molasses or other sugars. Both regular and dark soy sauces are umami-rich.
Light soy sauce is typically used for seasoning stir-fries, rice and noodle dishes, soups, and stews, or as a dipping sauce for cold appetizers. Dark soy sauce is primarily used to add color and a touch of sweetness to dishes, or to glaze or braise meats.
Where to buy dark soy sauce
Dark soy sauce is available in many major grocery stores and in Asian specialty stores. It can also be purchased online from Amazon and other retailers.
How to make dark soy sauce
If your recipe calls for dark soy and you don’t have any on hand, you can make a dark soy substitute from regular soy sauce. Simply mix 2 teaspoons of light soy sauce with ½ teaspoon molasses and ⅛ teaspoon sugar.
In the absence of molasses, you can make dark soy sauce by heating light soy sauce and dark brown sugar over medium-high heat until it thickens and reduces.
Best dark soy sauce substitutes
In addition to making your own dark soy sauce using the methods above, there are several ingredients popular in Asian cuisine that can be used in place of dark soy. Here are some of the best substitutes with slightly different flavorings:
- Tamari is a Japanese fermented soy sauce, or shoyu, derived as a byproduct of making miso. It is thicker and has a more complex flavor profile than light soy sauce. Plus, it’s naturally gluten-free as it doesn’t use wheat.
- Chin Kiang vinegar is a thick, brown Chinese rice vinegar made from glutinous rice. The salty-sweet flavor and high viscosity of Chin Kiang make it a great sub for dark soy.
- Hoisin sauce is another Chinese fermented soybean sauce with a very salty and sweet flavor. It has a thick texture like dark soy.
- Teriyaki sauce is another Japanese sauce generally made with soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, and mirin. It is thick and dark in color, though it has a tangier flavor than dark soy but makes a great alternative.
- Oyster sauce is made from salt, sugar, and oyster extract. It is thick and dark in color and has a slightly sweet and salty flavor.
Best dark soy sauce recipes
To make your own dark soy sauce using regular soy sauce, molasses, and sugar, check out this simple recipe from The Woks of Life. To make dark soy using regular soy sauce and brown sugar, we recommend this recipe by Vegan Punks.
Now that you’ve bought or made your dark soy sauce, give it a try in an easy soy sauce fried rice or soy sauce pan-fried noodles—both dishes are ready in 15 minutes or less and can easily be customized with your favorite veggies and meats.
If you’re feeling fancy, we love this drunken pork in brandy and dark soy sauce stew. It’s rich, elegant, and so nourishing!
Continue your exploration of Chinese cuisines with some of our top trending articles, like this piece on coconut aminos vs soy sauce, where we break down what they are, and how to use them.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1: What's the difference between dark soy sauce and light soy sauce?
A: Dark soy sauce goes through a second fermentation process with added sugars, resulting in a thicker, darker, sweeter, and less salty sauce than light or regular soy.
Q2: Is tamari the same as dark soy sauce?
A: Tamari, a Japanese version of soy sauce, is darker and thicker than light soy sauce. Tamari and Chinese dark soy sauce are very similar and are interchangeable in recipes.
Q3: Can I use normal soy sauce instead of dark soy sauce?
A: Not on its own. You can make your own dark soy by adding molasses, palm sugar, or dark brown sugar to regular soy sauce. Scroll up for details and recipes.
Q4: What is dark soy sauce called?
A: Dark soy sauce is called lǎo chōu (老抽) in Mandarin. Popular brands include Kimlan Lou Chau, Lee Kum Kee Premium Dark, and Pearl River Bridge Mushroom-Flavoured Superior Dark.
Dark Soy Sauce: A Simple Guide
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- Follow the linked instructions