Tamari vs. Soy Sauce: What’s the Difference?

Both are great on your Kung Pao Chicken, but one has some added health benefits.

If you’re shopping in the Asian foods aisle, you’ll probably see two similar bottles on the shelf. One’s soy sauce; the other, tamari.

Say “soy sauce” and most people will make an instant connection. They’ll know it’s widely used in Asian cooking and as a flavor-packet lining at the bottom of Chinese delivery bags. Say “tamari,” though, and you might get a lot of blank stares.

Both are savory brown liquids used in Asian cuisine, but what’s the difference, and when should we use them? We’re here to set the record straight.

What is soy sauce?

Soy sauce, or shoyu, is made from a fermented combination of soybeans and roasted wheat. Believe it or not, soy sauce has been around for millennia, and hasn’t changed much over those 2,000 years. The ancient product would have been very similar to the one we still sprinkle on our Kung Pao Chicken today.

Most commercial soy sauce tends to be on the salty side, and is a bit thin. (But if you’ve watched the “Salt” episode of Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat docu-series, you know there are some pretty incredible artisan soy sauces out there.) Soy sauce can also be packed with preservatives. However, organic and reduced-sodium versions are readily available if you’d like a more pure product. You can also create your own natural soy sauce substitute, with all the flavor and a fraction of the salt.

What is tamari?

A Japanese form of soy sauce, tamari (aka tamari shoyu) is a byproduct from making miso paste. When made classically, only soybeans, water and salt are used, giving tamari a robust, savory umami flavor. Taste it for yourself in this pork stir-fry recipe.

Health experts generally opt for tamari over soy sauce. It has fewer additives and preservatives than mass-market soy sauce, plus tamari has a surprisingly high protein count (about 2g per tablespoon). Another big bonus for gluten-sensitive folks: gluten-free tamari is widely available.

So which sauce should I use?

Honestly, it’s purely a matter of taste, because you can use soy sauce and tamari interchangeably in recipes. If you don’t mind paying a little more, we suggest using tamari for its rich taste and shorter ingredient list. But don’t let all those little takeout soy sauce packets go to waste! Put them to good use with these Chinese restaurant copycats you can make at home.

Next up: Find more Asian sauces you need to keep in your pantry.

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Colleen DuVall
Colleen is a writer/editor/podcaster who has made it a lifelong hobby to collect and try out new recipes. After another October has come and gone, she starts counting down the days until next Halloween.