Know your Korean Soy Sauce and more. Here’s what you need to know about Korean Soy Sauce and what to buy, how to cook with it and which kinds to avoid.
Do you know your Korean Soy Sauce? How to buy and use good Korean soy sauce?
This post will answer all of that and is way long overdue..I had meant to write this last year right after the friend’s visit but life just got in the way…so first, my apologies to my new friend who feels like an old friend. 🙂
Ever since I started my blog in 2010, I have had one special blog follower (Judith) who felt more like a friend than just a blog follower. Her name was American but her questions about Korean foods caught me by surprise sometimes. Who is this person? Is she Korean in disguise? Or does she actually, I mean, really, cook Korean food all the time like she talks about? She must have some Korean ties somehow..
Well, it turns out, she has absolutely no Korean ties except she got interested in Korean dramas (Boys over Flowers 꽃보다 남자 – actually one of my favorite too) and then it got her more curious about Korean food and then into Kpop of course. Which is a wonderful series of happenings – especially for me.
Anyway, I was always appreciative for the time she took to write the most thoughtful comments and asked the most interesting questions. She also kept me on my toes because she points out any errors I make on my posts – especially grammar or spelling!! Yikes! Being the director of the Digital Game Museum in Santa Clara and of course, being a native, her English is leaps and bounds better than mine. I was thinking the other day..that God has a mysterious way of sending me the most wonderful friends and helpers just when I need it. I’m truly blessed in that way.
In 2015, when I returned to California from Korea, I invited Judith to my home (after finding out that she actually lives just 15 minutes away) to thank her for all her support through the years and also discuss future ideas about my blog. When she visited, she came bearing wonderful gifts – 3 herb plants : lemon verbena, French thyme and tarragon.
She knew that I love gardening almost as much as cooking. We talked for hours about Korean cooking, gardening, other Korean food blogs and even little bit about music. We joked at the end that she must have been a Korean in her previous life and I must have been an American in my previous life!!!! You just never know what friends you will make along your life’s journey… 😉
So, long story short, we decided that in the New Year, we should go shopping together to all the Korean grocery stores so she could ask me all the questions that she had about Korean groceries. How to buy and what to buy at Korean grocery stores. The resulting write up became too long so the full list will come in the form of an eBook (or something like that) very soon so stay tuned for that!! I will just offer a shortened post how you should Know your Korean Soy Sauce which will also serve as a Buying guide. I will also add as a sub menu page under my Korean Ingredients so you can refer back whenever you need it.
The first couple questions asked by Judith was the following:
Which Korean Soy sauce (간장) should I buy? What is the difference between Korean Guk Ganjang and Regular Korean Ganjang?
First, read my K ingredients page to learn about the difference of Guk Ganjang and regular Ganjang. But here is a quick look at the visual difference in terms of Guk Ganjang vs regular Ganjang. Guk Ganjang is much lighter in color, is more fragrant (or smelly 🙂 ), saltier and more complex in flavor.
If you are just going to make some Korean Bulgogi or other simple dishes but not anything like stews or namul then you don’t need Guk Ganjang. But for anyone who is serious about some authentic Korean cooking that is not just BBQ and Bibimbap, Guk Ganjang is a must.
Guk Ganjang – There’s basically only one type of Guk Ganjang sold in stores since there is only one way to make it in a factory – naturally brewed (more about that later). Look for simple ingredient list that includes not much else than soybean, salt, water and possibly spirits. It’s also sometimes called Jip Ganjang (House Ganjang) because in the old days Koreans all made this ganjang at home.
Regular Ganjang is also called Whe-Ganjang (왜간장) because originally it tasted similar to soy sauce made using Japanese “Natural Brewing” method (Whe 왜 refers to Japan). There’s a LOT MORE to this and that will also be in my mini book.
When buying regular Korean Soy Sauce (Ganjang) you will see some common words like below:
- Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce = Yangjo Ganjang(양조간장): a somewhat “natural” process of making soy sauce by “brewing” a mixture of soybeans/defatted soybeans + wheat/rice + mold/yeast for 6 months in factory incubation chamber.
- Blended Soy Sauce = Honhap Ganjang(혼합간장): a blended mixture of Naturally Brewed Soy Sauce + Acid Hydrolized Soy Sauce. NOT GOOD
- Jin Ganjang (진간장): a very confusing term because in the Sempio brand it means blended soy sauce, in Chung Jung One, it is 100% Yangjo Ganjang and maybe something else in other brands.
- Acid Hydrolized Soy Sauce (산분해간장): the cheapest version of soy sauce. Hydrochloric acid is used to extract amino acids from soy protein. Lot more flavor enhancing additives are added to improve the flavor. e.g. Soy Sauce packets that you get from fast food restaurants.
- Flavored Soy Sauce = Mat Ganjang (맛간장): soy sauces flavored with various ingredients such as mushrooms, garlic, onions, apple, pear, etc. It will say it is specifically for braising (jorim 조림) or stir frying (bokkeum 볶음). If you want a flavored soy sauce, make a batch of my Apple Lemon Soy Sauce and that should work fine. These soy sauces will most likely have corn syrup and isomalto-oligosaccharides so be aware.
Tip1: Korean law requires that Korean soy sauce is categorized into one of the 4 above so always look for that at the top of the label.
Tip2: T.N.(Total Nitrogen) is a number that Korean Industrial Standards use to quantify the quality of the soy sauce and also allows consumers to distinguish Korean soy sauces that are 100% naturally brewed and blended. Blended or Acid Hydrolyzed Soy Sauces cannot have a very high T.N. number. T.N. is basically a measure of how much protein is in the sauce and number ranges from 1.0 to 1.7 and above. Higher the number, the higher quality soy sauce, because it’s usually (not always) an indication that they used more soybeans. Traditional recipe uses ONLY soybeans. Anything above 1.5 is premium.
Tip3: News Flash!! Just found out that Korean companies started to put English labels (instead of using English label stickers on top of Korean labels) on the bottles that are in the US. Which is good thing but then it is now missing the very important T.N. number!!!? I will be listing the T.N. numbers for each bottle in my book so don’t worry too much!
My recommendation for what Korean soy sauce to buy:
- For good Stews(Jjigae) or Namul => Buy Chosun Ganjang (Sempio).
- For everything else (bulgogi, stir fry, braising, sauces etc) => Buy 100% Naturally Brewed Yangjo Ganjang (6 months or more) with high T.N.
- Sempio 701, 501 are good quality with T.N. > 1.7 and > 1.5 respectively.
- Chung Jung One Jin Ganjang (명품진간장) is 100% Yangjo Ganjang with T.N. > 1.4.
- Sempio Jin Ganjang Gold (샘표 진간장 금) series are blended soy sauces with Acid Hydrolized soy sauce so it’s the cheaper but also of lesser quality.
- My personal favorite is Sempio Organic Naturally Brewed Premium Soy Sauce (유기농 자연콩간장 or 유기농 양조간장) with T.N. > 1.5 You can buy it here.
- There are certainly other brands but these are probably the most common brands in the US.
- Soy sauce does NOT need to be kept in the fridge. The usual expiration period is 2 years.
General Buying Tip for Soy Sauce
- Whether you buy Korean, Japanese, Chinese or any other kind of soy sauce, try to buy ones that says it’s “naturally brewed” over 6 months. Just don’t buy Acid Hydrolized soy sauce or a blended soy sauce. Japanese Shoyu and Tamari are good choices with little or no gluten. Avoid liquid aminos soy sauce because they are made using the Hydrolysis method.
Well, hopefully that was helpful and now I hope you Know your Soy Sauce! I will be writing more on other seasoning ingredients like gochujang and doenjang later – so check back soon.
As I have mentioned above, I have added some better quality Korean soy sauces, gochujang and doenjang to my Kimchimari store. So please check the Korean seasonings category, if you are interested!
Have a flavorful day!!