Showdown: Soy sauce or tamari? Important differences

Feb 22, 2018 | 3 comments

As a member of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, I’m privileged to have as colleagues some of the most accomplished Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) in the world! 





Ranelle Kirchner



Our guest columnist this week is Ranelle Kirchner, a practicing Registered Dietitian and Le Cordon Blue culinary graduate based in Minnesota. Ranelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition Dietetics from the University of Minnesota, and a Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from Rush Medical College of Rush University Medical Center. Ranelle wears two hats — as a clinical dietitian specializing in diabetes, Ranelle collaborates with endocrinologists and other healthcare team members to address, engage, and manage patients. Her private practice, ChefRD, LLC, reflects her passion for health plus all things food, including cooking/nutrition classes, recipe development, grocery store tours, meal planning, and personalized nutrition counseling with a focus on diabetes and weight concerns. Visit her website to read more articles and learn more about her services, and follow along at @KirchnerRanelle on Twitter.

By Ranelle Kirchner

Yes, there are differences between soy sauce and tamari: While both are derived from soy through fermentation, they surprisingly have different taste profiles largely due to the presence of wheat.

Soy sauce always contains wheat (beware, you gluten-free folks) and tamari typically contains little-to-no wheat. Be sure to check the label to see if the manufacturer indicates if it is gluten-free or wheat-free.

The next key distinction is the country of origin:

Soy Sauce: A Chinese byproduct of soy products now made throughout Asia.

Tamari: A Japanese byproduct of miso paste, typically less salty (read your labels), and thicker.

Production of soy sauce vs. tamari

Soy sauce is made through fermentation or by hydrolysis (chemically engineered), with different methods and duration of fermentation and water, salt content, soy, and other non-specific added ingredients. Therefore, there are remarkable differences in flavor between soy sauce brands. You’ll have to test them all, or whatever you can find, and choose the one that makes your personal taste buds scream for more.

Traditionally speaking, soy sauces take months to make. For simplicity’s sake, the sauce is made by mixing roasted/cracked grains with cooked soybeans, mold cultures, and yeasts in brine.

More production details:

Soak and cook: soybeans in water, separate from wheat, which is roasted and crushed
Koji culturing: 50/50 grain to soy ratio mixed with spores
Brewing: proceed to mix in salt brine and ferment until mold develops (length of mold time varies)
Pressing: separate solid from liquid
Pasteurization: raw soy sauce is treated
Storage: aged until desired taste is achieved

Commercially, acid-hydrolyzed soy protein is used (instead of traditionally brewed), which cuts production time from months to just a few days (ah, the magic of science!)

Tamari, the “original” Japanese soy sauce

Tamari, on the other hand, is the liquid run-off from a mixture of miso paste, fermented soybeans with salt, and koji — a fungus called Aspergillus oryzae — plus rice, or barley, or other ingredients.

The ratio of wheat and other grains to soy is typically much smaller than soy sauce and often contains NO wheat. Homemade tamari (containing no wheat or barley)can provide people with celiac disease, wheat sensitivities or an intolerance to wheat with a tasty alternative to soy sauce. But remember, if you have to absolutely avoid gluten and you’re buying a commercial tamari, read the label to be sure it specifically says ‘gluten-free.’

Now, the steps of producing tamari:

Soak and cook: soybeans in water
Koji culturing: grain blend mixed with Aspergillus oryzae
Brewing: fermentation time ranges from 5 days to several years
Extraction: liquid is extracted from the paste (aka miso)
Pasteurization: raw tamari is treated
Storage: aged until desired taste is achieved

Battle of the sauces

Time to experiment! Divide the following recipe in half, then make the recipe using soy sauce and make the recipe again using tamari. Compare each recipe after your taste test with friends, family, or just yourself. Do you notice anything different between the two? Which has more depth? Is one noticeably saltier than the other?

Asian Grain Bowl (vegan)

Serves 2

8 oz. tofu, cubed
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
5 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1” piece grated ginger
1 cup short grain brown rice, rinsed and drained
8 baby bok choy, sliced in half
1/2 cup lotus, bite-sized pieces
1/2 cup assorted vegetables (such as carrot and red cabbage)
1 cup assorted pickled vegetables*(optional)


In a pot, add 1 ¾ cup water with rice and 1 tablespoon tamari. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, toss the tofu and lotus in the following marinade ingredients: sesame, rice wine vinegar, and grated ginger. Allow to sit until you begin assembling the bowls.

Ten minutes before the rice is finished, assemble your steamer and begin heating the water, about ½ “ high in the pan holding the steamer. When ready to steam, place bok choy in a steamer and cook for 3-5 minutes.

Assemble each bowl, dividing each of the ingredients equally: rice, bok choy, tofu, lotus, carrot, red cabbage, pickled vegetables, and drizzle some of the leftover tofu marinade on top (green onions and sesame seeds make for great garnishes if you want to be showy). You can choose any kind of pickled vegetables, including carrot, asparagus, beets, green beans,

watermelon, cucumbers (quick pickles), or radish variety.


Keep both sauces stocked in your kitchen to experiment with your recipes. Swapping out one for another will certainly change the flavor, but it won’t affect the overall dish flavor.

Looking for more recipes to experiment with using soy sauce/tamari? No worries, I’ve got you covered!  Visit my blog for a bunch of easy and delicious recipes.


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