Soy sauce is a great flavoring agent. It’s perfect, of course, for Asian inspired dishes. But it’s also great in beef dishes. Before CHF (congestive heart failure) affected my cooking approach, I always added a tablespoon or so of soy sauce to beef stew, pot roast, Swedish style meatballs, even super simple hamburger gravy. The addition of a bit of soy sauce boosted the “beefiness” of those and other dishes. It’s the umami , a basic flavor profile that is common to savory products such as meat, cheese, and mushrooms.
What’s the problem with using soy sauce? It’s as salty as all get out! Even the so-called low sodium versions are pretty high in sodium content. When it comes to “heart healthy” recipes and products, soy sauce is ever present. It’s understandable because it does add so much flavor. It makes a terrific marinade for all kinds of super lean cuts of meat. You can make tasty stir-fries with just a smidgen of meat and an overload of good-for-you veggies. But… Just because a dish is low in fat, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “heart healthy.” Anyone suffering from hypertension, CHF, and other heart-related problems knows that controlling sodium intake is important too.
A quick look at the soy sauce options readily available at most grocery stores are pretty discouraging. Kikkoman regular soy sauce has 920 mg. of sodium for just one tablespoon. Its lite or reduced sodium version has 575 mg. per tablespoon. Better but definitely not great. San-J Tamari has similar numbers: the regular is 960 mg. for one tablespoon while the reduced sodium version has 700 mg. per tablespoon.
Are there any decent alternatives out there? Well, one possibility is making your own low sodium soy sauce substitute. There are several recipes online and in cookbooks for DIY no salt/low sodium soy sauce substitutes. I tried a few of them but was not impressed. They're usually a combination of beef broth, molasses, and vinegar with a bit of ginger and garlic added for good measure. That combo didn't taste good to me and didn't work well with some Chinese dishes. Plus the homemade concoctions didn't last long in the fridge. Commercially bottled soy sauce has a much longer shelf life.
I’ve read posts on so many forums touting the low sodium content of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and its use as a soy sauce alternative. Bragg’s products are readily available in the natural foods sections of most grocery stores and at most health food stores. The problem is that most of the people hyping the low sodium properties of Bragg’s haven’t done the math correctly. The Bragg’s current website notes that 1 teaspoon is considered one serving, and that single teaspoon contains 320 mg. sodium. It takes three of those teaspoons to equal one tablespoon, the standard serving size for soy sauce. 3 x 160 mg. = 960 mg. per tablespoon of Bragg’s. I don’t see how that can be considered a truly low salt alternative. (For more information about Liquid Aminos, check out this more recent POST.)
The idea of shopping at an Asian market, if you've got one nearby, is a good one. That way you could spend hours searching the aisles and checking labels. You might discover some hitherto unknown brands of soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, etc. with very low sodium contents. It could be a lot of fun.
House of Tsang Lower Sodium Soy Sauce from Healthy Heart Market. This soy sauce has 320 mg. sodium per tablespoon. But the lowest sodium is by far China Town Soy Sauce, also from Healthy Heart Market. It has only 145 mg. per tablespoon. Now that’s super low! It doesn't have the more refined taste of saltier soy sauces, but it's a good low sodium option.
If you’re interested in creating low sodium Asian style dishes & stir fries, you’ll need some other flavoring ingredients in addition to just soy sauce. Toasted sesame oil is a must. A drizzle on top of finished dishes or in marinades adds a wonderful toasted, nutty flavor. Most grocery stores carry at least one brand in the ethnic foods aisle. Another must-have is unseasoned rice wine vinegar. Combined with other flavoring agents, it adds extra sparkle. Hot chili oil with or without red pepper flakes are also necessary. Just the slightest sprinkle enlivens bland dishes. Of course, if you like hot foods, add more.
Ginger & garlic are other requirements. Both flavors are necessary for Asian style dishes. And it doesn’t matter how you get that flavor. You can find powdered ginger or garlic powder everywhere. Most grocery stores carry jarred crushed ginger and jarred crushed garlic in their produce section. Usually the bottled garlic and ginger are prepared without salt. Many stores now carry whole peeled garlic cloves in the refrigerated section of their produce department. And some stores carry Gourmet Garden fresh herb pastes in handy tubes. These are usually found in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Watch out, though. Be sure to read the labels. Although the product is super convenient, the chili & garlic pastes are relatively high in sodium. However, the ginger and cilantro/coriander pastes are pretty good. And, in order to create a consistency useful for squeezing out of a tube, fillers have been added so the herbal flavor may not be as strong as desired. Of course, there’s always fresh ginger and fresh cloves of garlic.
Cilantro is another flavoring agent that works well in Asian style dishes. A generous sprinkling of the freshly chopped herb really boosts taste. Although fresh cilantro is best used as a finishing garnish, I have also thrown a couple of tablespoons of my own homemade frozen chopped cilantro into marinades & stir fries. Not as good as fresh, but better than no cilantro at all.
Another handy ingredient is Chinese Five Spice Powder This spice blend most commonly combines the sweet tones of star anise, fennel seeds, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon with the bite of Szechwan pepper and sometimes white pepper. It's one of the flavoring agents in Hoisin sauce, so it can be a good substitute. The sweet and pungent flavor goes well with meats and stir fries. Be forewarned, though. A little goes a long way. So you’re better off using just a ⅛ teaspoon to start with until you’re sure you like the flavor. It's also available in the ethnic foods section of most grocery stores.
The bottom Line: If you make your own lower sodium soy sauce substitute, then “the sky’s the limit.” You don’t have to worry about soy sauce sodium quantities at all. Just be sure to watch out for other Asian ingredients that are high in sodium. Things like Hoisin sauce, Oyster sauce, Thai fish sauce, garlic/chili paste, etc.
If you'd prefer using a commercially prepared lower sodium soy sauce, look for Asian inspired recipes that do not call for more than ¼ cup of soy sauce. Instead of the ¼ cup, just use 2 tablespoons of low sodium soy sauce.
And, of course, please realize that lower sodium soy sauces or soy sauce substitutes will NOT taste as good as the higher quality, authentic Chinese or Japanese sauces. But they will taste pretty good and they will definitely be lower in sodium.