Healthy and Tasty Soy Sauce Substitutes

Soy sauce is used in a lot of Asian recipes, and is beloved the world over. It adds a salty and umami element of flavor to any dish.

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It is commonly served with rice, noodles, or sushi and also is used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls, gyoza, and more.

It is often used as a seasoning. It is easy to store at an ambient temperature and has a long shelf life due to the natural preservative effect of salt. 

What is the history of soy sauce?

Soy sauce dates back to 206 B.C. in China. This was during the Western Han dynasty and was used as a way to bulk out the salt stocks to save money.

It is believed it originated from a substance known as ‘chiang’ or ‘jiang’. Archaeologists found written records of soy sauce on bamboo at the archeological site of Mawangdui. 

Once it began to gain popularity in China, replications popped up in Korea, Indonesia, Japan, and across Southeast Asia. 

In the 1600s, it became popular in Europe due to trading between Japan and the Netherlands. 

By 1908 the first soy sauce was being produced for the United States market. This was done in Hawaii by a company called the Hnawaiian Yamajo Soy Company. In 1933, La Choy began selling chemically produced soy sauce to American markets. 

How is soy sauce made?

Natural production

The soy sauce was originally made from a soybean paste mixed with roasted grains, brine, and kōji mold which is then fermented. 

The soybeans soak and then get cooked, during which time wheat is crushed and roasted. These are then combined with the mold and brine is added. The mixture is left to brew for months at a time, at least 5-8. 

The enzymes contained within the mold break the soy and wheat proteins down into amino acids. The starches are then converted into simple sugars. These sugars then undergo a process of fermentation, changing them into alcohol and lactic acid. 

The liquid is extracted from the solid components through a cloth strainer. This then undergoes a process of pasteurization to rid the sauce of any bacteria. It is then bottled in sterilized jars. 

Chemical production

This is a much more cost and time efficient way to produce large quantities of soy sauce. It is primarily used for commercial applications.

It utilizes a process known as acid hydrolysis and can produce soy sauce in a matter of days.

The soybeans are heated to a temperature of 176 degrees Fahrenheit and combined with hydrochloric acid. THis is used to break down the proteins much like the kōji enzymes would. 

This is not as high a quality as traditionally produced soy sauce and requires the addition of colors, flavors, and salt.

The process causes the soy sauce to have some carcinogens involved that are not traditionally found. This method of production means that the resulting product cannot be legally labeled as soy sauce in Japan. 

Some companies will mix this imitation soy sauce with traditional soy sauce to reduce costs and create a higher quality product. 

Why would someone avoid soy sauce?

Soy is one of the more common allergens among the human population. It is estimated that up to 0.4% of children have a soy allergy, although most grow out of this over time.

Some reports of soy allergies that have been triggered by soy sauce are believed to be due to a histamine reaction. 

Soy sauce naturally contains compounds known as amines - particularly histamine and tyramine. These can cause toxic reactions such as rashes, gastrointestinal upset, blood pressure changes, and headaches.

People who take MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) for medical conditions cannot have too much tyramine and should not consume soy sauce.

Soy sauce also contains gluten. There are many celiacs and people suffering from gluten intolerances who cannot consume soy sauce without becoming ill. 

Chemically produced soy sauces contain a chloropropanol known as 3-MCPD which is toxic.

Studies have shown that it can cause tumors to develop, decrease fertility, and cause damage to the kidneys. There is a limit in the US of 1 milligram per kg, in Europe this is 0.02 milligrams per kilogram. 

Soy sauce is also known to contain a lot of sodium, which is not ideal for people with high blood pressure. This is because it can lead to the development of heart disease and stomach cancers.

The daily recommended intake is between 1,500 and 2,300 milligrams of sodium. One tablespoon of soy sauce makes up 38% of this requirement. 

Substitutes

Coconut aminos

Coconut aminos is a common substitute for soy sauce. It is dark in color and similar in taste.

It is a soy and gluten-free substitute. This means that it is safe for people suffering from allergies to these substances. 

It also contains a lot less salt than soy sauce and can be useful as a replacement if you are trying to lower your salt intake.

It is made by extracting the sap from coconut plants which is then left to age and ferment. This fermentation process causes the taste to change and take on a savory element.

Coconut aminos has only 90 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, compared to the 290 milligrams found in regular soy sauce.

You should use coconut aminos as a 1:1 substitute for soy sauce. You may need to add some extra salt to your recipe to compensate for the lack of soy sauce. This should be stored in a cool, dry place when unopened and in the refrigerator once opened. 

Coconut aminos can be kept for 1 year after being opened, and 3 years when unopened. If it begins to get a vinegary aroma then it is time to dispose of it. 

Tamari

This is essentially a gluten-free version of soy sauce. It is also referred to as tamari shoyu and originates from Japan. It is thicker in texture than soy sauce and can be used as a dipping sauce. 

It is made from soybeans and undergoes a similar process during manufacturing. This is the substitute that is most similar in taste to soy sauce. Tamari comes from the liquid of drained miso paste. 

You should use an equal volume of tamari to the stated volume of soy sauce in your recipe. Tamari does not need refrigeration but should be stored in a cool and dry place.

You should ensure your container is firmly capped at all times when not in use. It contains slightly more sodium than soy sauce, at 1,000 milligrams per tablespoon.

Worcestershire sauce

This sauce originates from the UK. The earliest record of it is in 1835 when Lea and Perrins, two chemists, developed their sauce.

It is commonly used in savory dishes such as stews and as a marinade. It is also a vital ingredient in the alcoholic drink, a Bloody Mary.

It is traditionally made from a combination of malt vinegar, anchovies, sugar, salt, spices, tamarind, garlic, onions, and molasses. This gives the same umami quality as soy sauce but has no gluten or soy. It is tangy, savory, and sweet all at once.

The US version of Worcestershire sauce is made with distilled white vinegar in place of the malt vinegar.

This can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio. It is not suitable for vegetarians or vegans and may contain gluten. You can purchase versions of Worcestershire sauce adapted for celiacs, vegans, and vegetarians. 

Worcestershire sauce can be stored at room temperature when unopened, but should be refrigerated after opening. It has a shelf life of about 2 years. 

You can make your own Worcestershire sauce too, although it requires a lot of ingredients.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 big sweet onions 
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic 
  • 2 tablespoons minced ginger
  • ½ cup tamarind paste 
  • 2 jalapenos, finely diced
  • ¼ cup tomato paste 
  • 2 cloves
  • ¼ cup chopped anchovies
  • 2 tablespoons ground black pepper
  • 1 cup molasses
  • ½ cup dark corn syrup 
  • 1 cup dark beer 
  • 3 cups white vinegar 
  • 1 lime
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 cups water
  • ½ cup orange juice

Method

You should place a large saucepan over a medium heat and warm the olive oil. Add the onions and saute for 7-10 minutes.

Drop in the garlic, jalapenos, ginger, and tamarind paste. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes more.

Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Boil, before reducing the heat to allow the mixture to simmer. You will need to simmer it for 5 hours, stirring occasionally. 

You will know that the sauce is ready when it coats the back of a spoon. Strain the sauce through a sieve or cheesecloth. 

Pour the sauce into sterilized glass jars with an airtight lid. Store in the refrigerator for multiple weeks.

Dried mushrooms

Dried shiitake mushrooms are the best choice when finding a soy sauce substitute. They are soy and gluten-free, as well as being lower in sodium. 

You should rehydrate these in boiling water and leave them to soak. This soaking liquid is what you will use in place of soy sauce.

It is not quite the same, but will add a note of umami to your dish. This liquid can be used in a 1:1 ratio as a soy sauce substitution. 

Fish sauce

Fish sauce is used in a lot of Asian dishes, in particular Thai cuisine. In Thailand, it is commonly used as a seasoning the same way as the Western world use salt and pepper. 

Traditional fish sauce is made from krill, anchovies, or other oily fish that are left to ferment in salt for any time up to 2 years. This too packs an umami punch, but brings with it a strong fishy taste too. 

For this reason, we do not recommend substituting in a 1:1 ratio. It is often used in conjunction with lime juice to help balance the flavor profile.

You can purchase vegetarian and vegan fish sauces which are primarily made from seaweed to get a similar flavor. 

Fish sauce can keep for up to 4 years at room temperature. This does not change if it has been opened. 

Liquid aminos

This is similar to coconut aminos but does contain soy. These soybeans have not been fermented, meaning that the taste is milder and slightly sweeter.

The Bragg brand liquid aminos is smokier than traditional soy sauce for a different flavor element. 

This can be substituted for an equal quantity of soy sauce. Liquid aminos tends to be vegan and contains many essential amino acids. 

The shelf life of Bragg liquid aminos is 3 years, opened or unopened. It does not need refrigeration but the flavor profile will keep better if it is stored out of direct sunlight.

Liquid aminos has slightly less sodium than regular soy sauce, but is still not recommended for those following a low sodium diet.

Maggi seasoning sauce

This is a strong and concentrated seasoning that is commercially available. It has the same consistency as soy sauce, making it an easy substitute.

It originated from Switzerland in the late 1800s and has remained popular ever since. 

The sauce is made from hydrolyzed vegetable proteins and is commonly used to add flavor to meat. This is because the protein contains high levels of glutamic acid which add rich and meaty flavors. 

Depending on where in the world you are living, the sauce may or may be gluten-free. This is because the recipe varies in different nations, to suit regional taste preferences. 

This can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for soy sauce. The sauce does not need to be stored in the refrigerator as it is shelf-stable. 

Umeboshi vinegar 

Umeboshi are soured and sun-dried plums that are used in Asian cuisine. The soaking liquid is also known as ume plum vinegar. It is commonly used as a seasoning across Japan. 

The plums have salt and purple perilla leaves added and then they are weighed down. This forces them to release liquid, creating a brine in the container. The umeboshi are then removed and dried out before use. 

The vinegar is very salty and can be used in place of soy sauce. It is a much more tangy flavor and will add less umami to your dish.

A good idea is to mix a little coconut or liquid aminos into the ume plum vinegar to make a better substitution for soy sauce.

Some vegetarians and vegans will use ume plum vinegar in place of fish sauce as well as soy sauce. 

Miso paste 

Miso paste is also made from fermented soybeans inoculated with kōji mold spores. It is believed to have originated from Japan in the eighth century.

The beans can be fermented for any period of time from a few weeks to many years. 

It is a thick paste which supplements your dish with an umami flavor. You will need to dilute the miso paste with some water, liquid aminos, or vinegar. Try to thin it until the consistency is comparable to that of soy sauce. 

There are more than 1,000 types of miso paste, all with slightly different characteristics. Red miso tends to be a better substitute than yellow or white as it has a greater depth of flavor due to its longer fermentation period. 

Miso paste has a shelf life of a year at minimum. It should be stored in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Darker miso will keep for longer than lighter miso.

Do not worry if your miso changes color in the refrigerator, it will oxidise when exposed to air. This can be prevented by placing plastic wrap on the surface of the miso.

Homemade vegan soy sauce

This is a highly concentrated substance that you can make at home from things in your cupboard.

It will keep well in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks and should be diluted before use. 

Ingredients

  • 2 cubes soy-free vegetable bouillon cubes, or 2 tablespoons powder
  • 2 ½ tablespoons  blackstrap molasses
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 3 - 4 fenugreek seeds
  • Pinch ground black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • Salt

Method

Add all of the ingredients except the fenugreek seeds and salt to a saucepan. Place over a medium heat and whisk until it reaches boiling point.

When it boils, reduce the heat and add in the fenugreek seeds. Simmer the mixture until it has reduced by half. This should strongly resemble soy sauce. 

At this point, you should taste a little and decide whether to add salt or not.

Pass the liquid through a sieve or strainer to remove any lumps. Allow it to cool and then transfer it to a sterilized glass jar. 

Notes

This recipe will make ½ a cup or 125 ml of soy sauce concentrate.

You can substitute regular molasses or dark caramel for the blackstrap molasses, although this will affect the color of the replacement. 

You can substitute white vinegar or apple cider vinegar for the rice vinegar in a pinch.

If you do not have powdered ginger, finely grate ½ inch of ginger root. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you substitute Worcestershire sauce for soy sauce?

We are pleased to report that quite often Worcestershire sauce can be an excellent substitute for soy sauce. It has the same umami quality as soy sauce, but without any gluten or soy bean.

If for some reason you can’t get hold of any Worcestershire sauce, or if you wanted to make your own from scratch, we provided the recipe for you elsewhere in this article, just scroll further up to find it.

But just to give you a heads-up both the real Worcestershire sauce and our alternative handmade version are NOT suitable for vegetarians or vegans. (Yeah, I know it’s a bummer.)

You can substitute each spoon required of soy sauce for the same amount of Worcestershire sauce.

Unopened you can store it in your cupboard, but once opened you should refrigerate it. And it will last you about two years.

Can I make my own soy sauce?

Earlier in this article we provided you with a recipe for a vegan homemade soy sauce. But, here it is again, to save you from having to scroll through:

Ingredients

  • 2 cubes soy-free vegetable bouillon cubes
  • 2 ½ tablespoons  blackstrap molasses
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 3 - 4 fenugreek seeds
  • Pinch ground black pepper
  • 1 cup water
  • Salt

Method

Add all of the ingredients except the fenugreek seeds and salt to a saucepan. Place over a medium heat and whisk until it reaches boiling point.

When it boils, reduce the heat and add in the fenugreek seeds. Simmer the mixture until it has reduced by half. This should strongly resemble soy sauce. 

At this point, you should taste a little and decide whether to add salt or not.

Pass the liquid through a sieve or strainer to remove any lumps. Allow it to cool and then transfer it to a sterilized glass jar. 

To note - this recipe will make about half a cup or 125 ml of soy sauce concentrate.

Can you use vinegar instead of soy sauce?

Soy sauce has quite a unique taste to it, at once salty, tart, sweet, and meaty. But unfortunately there are very few recipe ingredients that can mimic the taste of soy sauce exactly.

There are plenty of people out there however, who have allergies to soybean and soy products but don’t want to miss out on their much loved soy sauce based recipes. And we have managed to source such a recipe for you. This recipe includes vinegar, but vinegar alone is just no substitute for soy sauce.

To find the recipe, just scroll up a little further to the question “Can I make my own soy sauce?”.

Summary

There are lots of highly effective substitutes for soy sauce, no matter the intended use or reason for avoiding soy sauce in the first place. 

The closest replication is likely to be liquid aminos or tamari. All of these substitutions will work, although they may produce a slightly different flavor in your finished dish. 

We recommend playing around with different substitutes in different dishes. You never know, you may actually prefer one of the substitutions.  If you're looking for a substitute for soy sauce, there are so many great options. Dark soy sauce and light soy sauce may be your first choice. Another soy sauce substitute would be teriyaki sauce, beef broth, balsamic vinegar, tamari sauce, oyster sauce, chili sauce, and cider vinegar.  Take your pick and have fun experimenting.  

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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community.
She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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