Mushroom Soy Sauce Is The Underrated Umami Bomb You Need

Nothing feels quite as essential to Asian cuisine as soy sauce, the impenetrably dark condiment praised for bringing a tantalizing dose of salt and savory depth to any dish you make. From gluten-free tamari to the white-hued Shiro, there are many forms in which this bottle of sodium-saturated bliss can come. One type of soy sauce worth getting acquainted with is mushroom soy sauce, a kind of seasoned soy sauce that get a particularly rich umami boost from mushrooms.

Often flavored with Asian straw mushrooms or, more rarely, Chinese black or shiitake mushrooms, mushroom soy sauce is a seasoned version of the darker and sweeter versions of soy sauce. Consequently, its intense flavor and dark hue work well in recipes such as Chinese braises and dishes that include sweet red pork. Still, there's plenty to unpack with this delicious condiment, from the mushrooms it uses to the many ways you can use it.  

The secrets of mushroom soy sauce

Before the mushrooms get added, this condiment is produced the same way as all other soy sauce: as the byproduct of fermenting soybeans and wheat paste. Dark soy sauce is fermented longer and enriched with sweeteners like molasses, resulting in a brew that's slightly more syrupy than your typical soy sauce. Still, the defining characteristic of this condiment is its mushroom flavor. 

The most common fungi chosen for mushroom soy sauce is the straw mushroom, an Asian favorite, with a velvety texture and a musky yet neutral flavor. During their young growth, they appear like little eggs, with the classic mushroom shape hidden within. As they mature, the caps separate and grow away from the stem, turning light brown and looking like a traditional mushroom. This variety grows well in areas of Asia with high humidity, often out of agricultural waste like rice straw (hence the name). Sold fresh, dried, or in cans, straw mushrooms often star in dishes like Tom Kha Gai or chow mein, or as a meat substitute. Though this is the common fungus you'll find in the condiment, you can also run across shiitake-flavored soy sauce, which has a smokier flavor than those made from mild straw mushrooms.  

The unparalleled flavor of mushroom soy sauce

The flavor of mushroom soy sauce brings the best of both worlds, offering the sweet, briny richness of dark soy as well as umami and earthiness from the mushrooms. In comparison to other umami-boosting ingredients, mushroom soy sauce can hold its own against the likes of oyster sauce and fish sauce; some cooks will use mushroom soy sauce as a vegetarian or vegan substitution for the two. 

As with all other soy sauces, this mushroom-seasoned condiment needs to be added sparingly, as its sodium levels are incredibly high. In fact, regular/light soy sauce usually clocks in at about 7% to 7.2% sodium, while dark soy sauce (the traditional base of mushroom soy sauce) comes in at 9.5% sodium. However, even with this increased sodium, not that the regular soy sauce may still taste saltier as the mushroom soy sauce has an increased mushroom and fermented soybean flavor. 

Where to get your mushroom soy sauce

So where should you go to buy mushroom soy sauce, and which brand should you pledge loyalty to? You can find it at the usual suspects, at specialty Asian grocery stores and markets, as well as online. Healthy Boy, Pearl River Bridge, and Lee Kum Kee all sell a version of mushroom soy sauce, each using mushroom extract and a dark soy sauce base. The Healthy Boy Brand Mushroom Soy Sauce is set apart by using Chinese black mushrooms, while the others are vaguer about which mushroom you'll be getting. If you're specifically on the hunt for a shiitake-flavored mushroom soy sauce, try Yamagen Shiitake Konbi Dashi Shoyu. 

For those looking to take a walk on the wild side, you can try a White Soy Sauce with Truffle, Bonito, and Shiitake Mushroom Flavor, an exotic twist on the traditional recipe for mushroom soy sauce. You can try each to see which you like the most, just know that levels of sodium and consistency will vary from brand to brand. 

How to use your mushroom soy sauce

Once you have your bottle of prized mushroom soy sauce, what culinary project should you shoot for first? Chinese braises, often called red cooking or hong shao, is a great place to start as they often rely on dark soy sauce to achieve an intense sweet-salty flavor. It also brings a nice depth to other Asian sautés and stir-fries, especially ones featuring mushrooms in the ingredient list. It can even be used as an epic dipping sauce for your favorite dumplings that you think need an extra umami kick. 

But this flexible condiment doesn't need to be confined to just Asian dishes. The deep savoriness of mushroom soy sauce also makes it a natural complement to all marinades and glazes, so consider using it to marinate or coat your favorite grilled meats and vegetables. 

It also can help season your favorite pasta dish, like chicken marsala (a mushroom-rich dish to begin with) or the meaty combo of spaghetti and ragu. Basically, where ever a touch of salt and flavor is called for, mushroom soy sauce could become your super savory secret weapon.