What is Tamari Sauce? How it Differs From Soy Sauce, Plus 11 Recipes to Try

Kiki Powers

by | Read time: 6 minutes

If you appreciate Asian cuisine, you are certainly familiar with soy sauce, a popular cooking ingredient globally. In fact, many Westerners regard this ubiquitous condiment as the primary seasoning for their favorite Asian meals, often without considering other options. In doing so, however, they would miss out on one of the most subtly delicious flavors in the world, tamari sauce.

Shallow Dish with Black Sauce, Soybeans in Wooden Box and Leaves on Gray Surface to Represent Concept What is Tamari Sauce

What is tamari sauce?

So, what exactly is tamari sauce? Dating back to eighth-century Japan, tamari is a gluten-free condiment created by pressing the liquid from miso, a probiotic-rich, fermented paste made from soybeans, water, salt and cultured rice (koji). Several weeks into the fermentation process, a rich liquid begins to collect naturally around the miso; this is tamari. Over time, due to its ideal climate, high-grade soybeans and fine water, central Japan has become a global tamari center.

Tamari vs soy sauce: what’s the difference?

This is a question worth asking for seasoned palates everywhere. To start, tamari could be described as having a richer, more distinctive flavor than soy sauce. Tamari also tends to be less salty tasting, due in part to the lengthy fermentation process which enables the soy and salt to become thoroughly integrated for a smoother taste and deeper, more delicately rounded “umami” flavor.

Umami is classified as one of the Five Basic Tastes which evolved in humans to operate as a signal for nutrients as well as harmful substances in foods. Umami was first identified by the Japanese scientist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda in 1907, who linked the umami designation with the amino acid glutamate, a dietary protein building block. In the late 1900s, umami was internationally recognized as the fifth basic taste, after sweet, salty, sour and bitter, based on psychophysical, electrophysiological and biochemical studies.

By contrast with tamari, soy sauce is a salty condiment traditionally produced by fermenting soybeans and wheat. This popular seasoning is thought to have originated from a Chinese product called “chiang over 3,000 years ago. The word “soy” comes from the Japanese word for soy sauce, “shoyu,” and the soybean itself takes its name from soy sauce. Soy sauce tends to have a sharper flavor and more pronounced bite than tamari, especially when chemically mass-produced.

Chemical production, using a method known as acid hydrolysis, is a much faster and cheaper way to make soy sauce, producing large batches in a few days instead of many months. In this process, soybeans are heated to 176°F (80°C) and mixed with hydrochloric acid, which breaks down the proteins in the soy and wheat.

While this process save time and money for soy sauce manufacturers, the resulting product may fall short in terms of flavor and aroma when compared with traditionally fermented versions. For this reason, extra color, flavor and salt are typically added to the cheaper product, and that’s not all. Unlike the traditional process of making naturally fermented soy sauce, the cheaper production method can also introduce worrisome compounds into the mix, including potential carcinogens, such as the preservative sodium benzoate. While this additive is relatively benign if it remains inert, sodium benzoate can rather easily convert to benzene, a known carcinogen.

What are the nutritional benefits of tamari?

As it happens, at a mere 15 calories and 0g fat per tablespoon, tamari fits beautifully into a healthy, balanced menu plan. And because it is naturally gluten-free, tamari is suitable for those with a sensitivity or intolerance to this major allergen. Additionally, tamari contains nearly double the amount of protein in mass-market soy sauce, with two grams per tablespoon. That’s worth noting when you recall that along with building muscle and keeping your skin, joints and bones healthy, protein foods are also essential to tissue repair, enzyme and hormone production and even weight control.

Tamari is also rich in manganese, with 4 percent of the daily recommended value in a single tablespoon. Manganese is an important mineral for many reasons, including its antioxidant action within the body. Research suggests that antioxidants like manganese in tamari may help reduce our risk of various health imbalances.

When should you choose tamari over soy sauce, and vice versa?

Is tamari a soy sauce substitute? On the contrary, soy sauce might be considered as a substitute for tamari, but that doesn’t necessarily work both ways. In other words, though the two sauces have many similarities, it does not take a highly discerning palate to notice the rich viscosity and savory flavor finished with a subtle sweetness tamari brings to the table, as opposed to commercial soy sauce.

Again, while you can certainly use tamari and soy sauce interchangeably, tamari tends to impart a richer, fuller flavor making it preferable for certain uses. For example, both tamari and soy sauce can be used in dressings and dipping sauces for spring rolls, sushi, dumplings, and other dishes, but some culinary professionals may reserve soy sauce for large-batch marinades, preferring tamari for specific entrée and sauce recipes where one is more likely to notice the variations in taste and quality.

Is tamari the best choice for people with gluten sensitivities? The obvious answer is yes since mass-market soy sauce contains gluten unless it is specifically labeled gluten-free. Unlike soy sauce, however, tamari is naturally gluten-free, which is valuable in the case of widely used condiments. Indeed, concerns about gluten on the menu are more relevant now than ever, given that the number of Americans seeking gluten-free solutions has tripled since 2009. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that a food labeled gluten-free must contain fewer than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, a microscopic amount that is unlikely to affect even the most severely gluten-intolerant people.

What types of tamari are there?

There are many brands and within them, variations in production style. One option is USDA organic tamari sauce, which is also Non-GMO Project-certified. Another is this naturally brewed domestic tamari. Once you become hip to tamari’s distinctive umami flavor, you will notice it in prepared foods as well, such as these tasty, protein-rich Tamari Black Sesame Brown Rice Crackers. Top them with avocado, pickled ginger and these organic Tamari Pumpkin Seeds for a winning appetizer. Tamari is also the base for many delicious sauces, such as this  Szechuan glazing and dipping sauce.

Recipes using tamari sauce

As for cooking with tamari, that’s an exciting prospect that can take you well beyond the borders of conventionally Asian cuisine. In fact, the diversity of recipes featuring tamari sauce attest to its surprising culinary versatility. Consider, for example, this Vegan Mushroom Gravy with Herbs, which is amazing over pasta, mashed potatoes, roasted cauliflower, grilled tofu, flaky biscuits and more.

You might also like this Sweet Potato Maple “Bacon”, this fun Vegan Coconut Jerky, these satisfying Tempeh Sausage Stuffing “Meatballs” or this Vegan Truffle Mac & “Cheese” with Coconut “Bacon.” Additionally, when you need a “statement dish” for entertaining, celebrating, or holiday festivities, you are sure to amaze your guests with this savory, tamari-infused Vegan Wellington with Mushroom Gravy.

Along more traditional Asian culinary lines, you can enjoy tamari’s incomparable flavor in these Crispy Mushroom-Chive Dumplings With Sesame Dipping Sauce, this light, golden Veggie Tempura, some crowd-pleasing Tamari Almonds, these Crispy Orange Sesame Cauliflower Bites or this Pan-Fried Teriyaki Glazed Tofu with Rice

As you can see, after factoring in the subtle but important differences in quality, flavor, tone and texture, you have many options when it comes to traditionally brewed tamari sauce compared with commercial soy sauce products. Enjoy in good health!

Featured Tamari Sauce Recipe:

Broccoli, Zucchini & Kimchi Noodles with Tamari Almonds

Broccoli, Zucchini & Kimchi Noodles with Tamari Almonds

Featured Products

San-J Reduced Sodium Tamari Soy Sauce
NOW Foods Tamari Almonds
San-J Gluten Free Soy Sauce Tamari Lite