It gives marinades a boost of umami, it makes a mean sauce for stir-fries and you can’t have sushi or dumplings without it on the side. Yep, soy sauce is one of our pantry heroes. It’s salty, tangy and savory in all the right ways, not to mention versatile. But if you have a soy or wheat allergy, the condiment is off-limits. Or maybe you’re watching your sodium intake and just trying to avoid it. Is there a worthy substitute for soy sauce? Yep, in fact, there are six.
But first, what is soy sauce?
Chinese in origin, the salty brown liquid is actually made from a fermented paste of soybeans, roasted grains, brine (aka saltwater) and a mold called kōji. (Fun fact: It dates back to the Western Han dynasty in 206 B.C. and was historically used as a way to stretch salt, a luxurious and expensive commodity.)
Traditional soy sauce takes months to make. First, soybeans are soaked and cooked, and wheat is roasted and crushed. Then the mixture is inoculated with kōji, mixed with brine and left to brew. The liquid is pressed from the solids, pasteurized and bottled, and voilà, it finally ends up on your table. Depending on the country and region of origin, soy sauce can taste different from bottle to bottle, and there are endless varieties and flavors. (Light, dark, sweet and thick are common ones.)
But if you’re avoiding soy sauce (or just plain ran out), don’t worry. You can substitute other comparable ingredients.
6 substitutes for soy sauce
1. Tamari. If you’re not dealing with a soy allergy or monitoring your sodium intake, tamari is the closest in taste to regular soy sauce. That’s because it’s also made from soybeans and brewed in a similar way, but it doesn’t contain wheat, so it’s gluten-free.
2. Worcestershire sauce. Another fermented sauce, this British condiment usually contains a blend of malt vinegar, anchovies, spices, sugar, salt, garlic, onions, tamarind extract and molasses. It has the same umami quality as soy sauce, but much less sodium and no soy or gluten. (But if you’re allergic to shellfish or seafood, you’ll want to skip it.)
3. Coconut aminos. A sauce made from fermented coconut sap, coconut aminos has an umami flavor profile that’s similar to soy sauce. It’s a little bit sweeter, but it’s also lower in sodium (about 90 milligrams per teaspoon compared to 290 milligrams in soy sauce) and gluten-free.
4. Liquid aminos. Liquid aminos (such as Bragg) is a liquid protein concentrate that’s made from soybeans but not fermented. Like coconut aminos, it’s gluten-free, but it does contain soy and has a similar sodium content. It tastes a lot like soy sauce, albeit milder and sweeter.
5. Dried mushrooms. If you need a substitute for soy sauce that’s gluten- and soy-free and low in sodium, dried shiitake mushrooms can work in a pinch. Rehydrate the mushrooms in water, then use that soaking liquid in place of the soy sauce. It’s not the closest substitute in the bunch, but it packs an umami punch.
6. Fish sauce. This funky condiment is made from fish or krill that’s fermented in salt for up to two years. It has a savory, umami quality like soy sauce, but you probably won’t want to substitute it in equal amounts. (It’s pretty fishy, after all.)
With the exception of fish sauce, these six substitutes for soy sauce can be swapped in a one-to-one ratio, but we always recommend tasting as you go for best results.
Want to make a homemade substitute for soy sauce? Here’s how.
2 tablespoons beef bouillon (regular or low-sodium)
1 teaspoon molasses
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
Pinch of ground ginger
Pinch of garlic powder
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the beef bouillon, molasses, apple cider vinegar, ground ginger and garlic powder with ¾ cup water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is reduced to your desired flavor strength, 10 to 12 minutes. Season to taste with a few cracks of freshly ground black pepper.