Soy Sauce Vs Tamari: Exploring the Differences

Tamari vs Soy Sauce

By Lisa Lin & Diann Leo-Omine. Photos by Lisa Lin.

If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between soy sauce and tamari, you’re not alone. While they may look and taste quite similar, there are some distinct variations that set them apart. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the nuances of soy sauce and tamari, shedding light on their unique characteristics.

What is Tamari?

Tamari, also known as tamari shoyu, is a type of Japanese soy sauce that is derived from miso, a fermented soybean paste. As miso ferments, a liquid naturally forms around it, which is then harvested and called tamari (which translates to “pool” or “collection” in Japanese). Commercial tamari is usually brewed without wheat or with only trace amounts of wheat, making it a popular alternative for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. However, it’s essential to double-check the ingredients if you follow a gluten-free diet.

Bottle of San-J Tamari

What is Soy Sauce?

Soy sauce, on the other hand, is a liquid made traditionally by fermenting a combination of soybeans and roasted wheat. It is a staple condiment in Chinese cuisine and is well-known for its umami flavor, which adds a distinct savory and sweet taste to dishes. Chinese-style soy sauce comes in two primary varieties: light soy sauce and dark soy sauce. Light soy sauce is commonly used in everyday cooking, such as stir-fries, marinades, and dipping sauces, while dark soy sauce is thicker, more fermented, and has a stronger malty flavor, making it ideal for marinades and braises.

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In Japanese cuisine, soy sauces, known as shoyu, have their own unique characteristics. Koikuchi shoyu, the most commonly used variety, is a dark soy sauce, while usukuchi shoyu is lighter and saltier. Japanese soy sauces have subtle differences in taste and aroma compared to Chinese soy sauces.

What’s the Difference Between Tamari and Soy Sauce?

While tamari and soy sauce share similarities, they also have distinctive qualities that set them apart. One of the primary differences lies in their brewing methods. Tamari is typically brewed without wheat or with trace levels of wheat, while soy sauce contains soybeans and wheat. As a result, tamari often has a higher protein content and a darker, thicker consistency. When used in cooking, tamari can darken the appearance of dishes and offers a deeper, richer flavor compared to soy sauce.

It’s worth noting that tamari doesn’t have light or dark varieties like soy sauce, but you can find low-sodium versions. Tamari also tends to have more protein and fewer preservatives than soy sauce, although it can be slightly more expensive.

Can You Substitute Soy Sauce with Tamari?

In most cases, yes! The choice between soy sauce and tamari ultimately comes down to personal preference. If you’re more accustomed to the flavors of Chinese cooking, you may prefer soy sauce. On the other hand, if you’re following a gluten-free diet or developing gluten-free recipes, tamari is an excellent substitute. However, it’s crucial to carefully read the labels as not all tamari brands are gluten-free.

Tamari & Soy Sauce Buying Guide


When it comes to choosing tamari, we recommend getting a bottle of San-J tamari. They offer standard, organic, and low-sodium versions, which are widely available in the Asian sections of your local grocery store or online.

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Chinese-Style Soy Sauce

For Chinese-style light soy sauce (生抽), we tend to use Lee Kum Kee Premium Soy Sauce or Pearl River Bridge. Both brands can be found in the Asian section of most grocery stores or online. As for dark soy sauce (老抽), Lee Kum Kee and Pearl River Bridge are also reliable options, although you might need to visit an Asian supermarket or shop online.

Japanese-Style Soy Sauce

When it comes to Japanese-style soy sauce, Kikkoman is a popular choice. You can find their products in the Asian sections of grocery stores, Asian supermarkets, or online. For Japanese dark soy sauce (koikuchi shoyu), Kikkoman is readily available. If you’re looking for Japanese light soy sauce (usukuchi shoyu), you may need to visit a Japanese supermarket or explore online options such as Amazon. Additionally, you can discover other brands of Japanese-style soy sauces by visiting specialized Japanese supermarkets.

Recipes Using Tamari and Soy Sauce

  • 6-Ingredient Soy and Vinegar Dumpling Sauce
  • Egg Fried Rice
  • Cha Siu (Char Siu, Cantonese BBQ Pork)
  • Kung Pao Brussels Sprouts
  • Mixed Mushroom Cheung Fun (雜菌腸粉)
  • Gluten-Free Crystal Dumplings with Vegan Filling
  • Easy Creamy Peanut Sauce Recipe (6 Ingredients!)

We hope this guide has answered some of your questions about the differences between tamari and soy sauce. The next time you reach for the perfect umami-filled condiment, you’ll be equipped with a deeper understanding of these flavorful alternatives.

For more delicious recipes and culinary inspiration, visit Family Cuisine. Bon appétit!

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