Soy Sauce

Hey folks, this is Stephen, Heide’s Chief Recipe Taster, Gentle Editor, Occasional Bottle-Washer, Brewing Nerd, and Loving Husband.  She left her keyboard unguarded allowed me to write a guest post, and so I wanted to discuss one of my favorite topics: soy sauce.

At one point, it got a little bit weird to me. Not at first, mind you. For much of my life, soy sauce has been the ummiest-yummiest seasoning on the planet.  Even before I knew what umami (the “fifth basic taste”) was, I was enjoying the heck out of it with soy sauce. In fact, I’ve been accused — many times, by many people — of using rice for the sole purpose of providing safe transport for soy sauce drops from the bowl to my mouth.

And who hasn’t, right?

Granted, it’s a little out of balance nutritionally. The bottle I have in front of me says that one tablespoon contains 1160 mg, or 48% of my recommended daily allowance, of sodium. Which would be fine if it also contained 48% of my RDA of other stuff, but it doesn’t. Still, to that I say: sodium schmodium.

“What if you were on a low-sodium diet?” some have asked.

“I’d switch to low-sodium soy sauce,” I’ve offered in response, only to be met with rolling eyes and exasperated sighs.

Hey, I love me some sodium-rich, umami-filled, soy sauce. That is, I did, anyway, until we had to stop eating it. Technically, that is, Heide had to stop eating it, but in defense of her dietary restrictions I was led to banish it from the house.

No, really. I remember the conversation we had. “It contains gluten,” the waitress had said.

I gave one of my typical erudite, science-filled answers: “Nuh uh.”

“Read the ingredients for yourself,” she urged, and when I did, I found wheat on the list.

Wait, whut? Soy sauce is soy. That’s a bean. Why add wheat?  That was the question that plagued me.

No, really. I’m a culinary nerd, and proud of it. I spent quite some time wondering why soy sauce manufacturers would add wheat to what is essentially a fermentation and distillation of soybean paste. It’s a head-scratcher, till you get into the underlying chemistry.

Now, don’t start getting nervous. I promise there won’t be any Greek symbols or stoichiometry involved in the discussion. In fact, if you don’t even know what stoichiometry is — well, count yourself among the lucky ones, I say.

And that said, to understand what happens in the brewing process, and thereby to answer the question that I needed answered, you have to delve a little into chemistry. Just a skosh, mind you. Specifically, it’s all about the enzymes, which is the technical term for a chemical component, usually a protein, that serves as a catalyst. That’s a fancy way of saying that the enzyme doesn’t actually do anything itself other than making other things change. They’re kinda like politicians, only they’re actually useful sometimes.

Looking into my favorite example of the fermentation process, it’s easier to see what happens. At first, I bought this stuff called “malt” to ferment in order to create beer. “Why can’t I just use wheat?” I asked, and was met by sarcastic giggling from the experienced folks. See, we humans don’t make alcohol; yeast makes alcohol. Yeast creates alcohol by consuming sugar and converting it — hence, my oft-used descriptor of “yeast pee” for ethanol. But yeast are a little picky — hey, having only a single cell to work with, they can’t really be blamed — and won’t/can’t consume starch, at least not if we want drinkable ethanol as a result. No, they need the starch molecules, which are, chemistry-speaking, long chains of sugar molecules, to be broken down, in much the same way a baby needs those carrots to be roto-mush-ized in order to convert them into — well, what a baby creates.

What breaks the starches down? Yes, you probably guessed it: enzymes. Specifically, diastases. Which is nothing more than a group term for naturally-occuring amylases of various genuses — er, types. If it seems confusing, well, it is. But that’s why they warned me that to brew beer from wheat, itself, requires the grains to be processed (toasted, sometimes, and ground, sometimes) and then soaked in 153 degree water for at least half an hour. Yes, that’s 153 degrees, not 152 or 154, and if you get it wrong the planet will explode the “malt” won’t turn out right.

Turns out it’s not that picky, or beer as we know it wouldn’t have been brewed umpty-thousand years before the thermometer was invented. Still, these enzymes like their soaking to be in a certain degree range, and 153 is right in the middle of where the alphas and the betas like to swim (rest, is the technical-ish term), but whatever.

Anyway, the bottom line is that if wheat and barley didn’t have these enzymes readily available along with plenty of starch to convert to yeast-yummy sugar, we wouldn’t get alcohol to drink. But they do, and so we do, and *sniff* ain’t nature a wonderful place as a result?

…which brings us back to soy sauce.You’re probably wondering about the connection, because soy sauce isn’t exactly known for its alcohol content.  But fermentation is fermentation, and it’s that process that creates the yummy umami flavor that I’ve come to crave in my favorite of seasonings.

Soybeans do, it turns out, have their own type of diastase. They also contain starch to be broken down by said diastase, and then fermented. Nearly every natural bean or grain does; that’s what makes them rot. It’s just that neither is anywhere near as yeast-friendly as what you find in wheat. Wheat, because of its natural blessing of a superior diastase, ferments better and faster than soybeans do, and it’s for that reason that manufacturers have been adding wheat to the fermentation process. Well, that, and the flavor is different depending on how much wheat you add, but let’s not get too technical, okay?

It may be worth mentioning, briefly, that soy sauce fermentation doesn’t use typical yeast. Well, at least, not yeast as brewers or bakers think of it. Yeast has many forms, including baker’s yeast, which is used to create the gas that causes leavening, as well as all of the wonderful varieties (champagne yeast, lager yeast, ale yeast, and so on) that brewers make happy in order to get them to pee ethanol. The simple fact is that “yeast” refers to a very large group of fungi that cause — well, rotting. Sometimes — often — rotting is bad, but when controlled in the right environment it can result in something good.

Like, in this case, umami.

And speaking of umami: for those who crave it yet are gluten intolerant, no need to fear! All that I’ve laid out so far is merely to prove that it is, in fact, possible to make soy sauce without adding wheat. (yay!) It’s a little more difficult, and takes longer, is all. Tamari soy sauce, technically called “miso-tamari” (translated, loosely, as “that which runs off of the miso”), is the original soy sauce, and it’s still made in certain parts of Japan. So go, find a store that carries Tamari (more stores carry it than I originally thought) or click my link, and enjoy your umami entirely without the gluten.  (Link to San-J Tamari regular sodium, organic soy sauce on Amazon)

At the same time, there are non-tamari options, even if you don’t have an Asian store nearby. La Choy’s soy sauce gets panned sometimes for having a non-soy-sauce flavor, but that’s primarily because it’s not made with wheat. Another GF substitute we’ve used is Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, which is basically soy sauce without the fermentation.

Finally, for those of you with soy sensitivity, there’s a coconut-based option. I, personally, despise coconut in all its various flavors, shapes, and forms, but Heide loves the stuff. Still, this is soy free, gluten free, non-GMO, vegan, 100% organic, and contains zero MSG. It also has “65% less sodium” than soy sauce, though the variety of soy sauce they used to compare is up to question. Sounds way too healthy for me, but if it trips your trigger, follow the link to Amazon’s page.

As always, please remember while you’re shopping that there’s nothing saying tamari soy sauce can’t contain wheat. It usually doesn’t, but it can. There’s also nothing saying that manufacturers can’t change their recipes. It’s still important to read the label of the bottle before you purchase it.

Hope this helps! Enjoy!TOSK7


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