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Undoubtedly, the most common ingredient used in a typical Korean households’ kitchen is soy sauce. Yes, many recipes use condiments such as gochujang and doenjang, but soy sauce is added into almost everything–From braised dishes and pickled foods to soups and stews, soy sauce is an integral part of building the Korean flavor profile.
For Korean cooking beginners, picking out the correct soy sauce for particular recipes can be a daunting task. This guide is meant to help you navigate purchasing and using Korean soy sauce.
Here, We Will Discuss:
- The difference between ganjang and guk ganjang
- The difference in type and quality of Korean soy sauces; And
- Recommendations for further articles about soy sauce
A Guide to Korean Soy Sauce:
What Is the Difference Between Ganjang and Guk Ganjang?
Ganjang (간장) means ‘soy sauce’ in the Korean language. This style of soy sauce is darker and milder than ‘guk ganjang.’
When shopping in grocery stores, you will typically find Japanese styles of dark soy sauce in the United States and other western countries. This is also true in South Korea. Dark soy sauce was first introduced to South Korea through Japanese influences in the years before and during WWII. In Korea, people started to use this style of soy sauce because it is cheaper to make and buy than the traditional ‘guk ganjang’ variation.
Typically, people in Korea buy this soy sauce to make anything other than soups, broths, and namul.
Guk ganjang (국간장) refers to a type of Korean soy sauce used primarily in soups, broths, namul (a seasoned vegetable dish), and stews. This style of soy sauce is the most traditional type made in South Korea! ‘Guk’ (국) means ‘soup,’ while ‘ganjang’ (간장) means soy sauce. This variety of soy sauce is lighter in color and saltier than other East Asian varieties.
Traditionally, guk ganjang is purely made from soybeans, water, and salt. To make guk ganjang, you ferment soybeans and brine together. The process produces both doenjang, Korean soybean paste, and guk ganjang. Nowadays, because many guk ganjang brands are mass-produced, you will see non-traditional variations containing other ingredients such as wheat.
Now that we know the difference between ‘ganjang’ and ‘guk ganjang,’ let’s learn about the levels of soy sauce quality in South Korea!
Types and Quality of Korean Soy Sauce:
Typically, ‘guk ganjang’ is naturally brewed–meaning there are no additives. While ‘guk ganjang’ is naturally brewed, the quality of ‘ganjang’ can be all over the place. Thankfully, in South Korea, there are labeling laws that help you pick good-quality soy sauce!
In South Korea, the law requires that all Korean made soy sauce is categorized into 4 different categories:
- Yangjo Ganjang (양조간장): In Korea, yangjo ganjang refers to naturally brewed soy sauce. In other words, you make this style of soy sauce by brewing a mixture of soybeans, wheat, rice, and/or yeast together for a few months.
- Jin Ganjang (진간장): Jin ganjang refers to blended soy sauce in South Korea. You can have different qualities of jin ganjang based on the brand you buy. So, sometimes I will recommend jun ganjang, while other times I would tell you to pass based on the brand.
- Honhap Ganjang (혼합간장): In Korea, honhap refers to a blended mixture of naturally brewed soy sauce and acid hydrolyzed soy sauce. Unlike naturally brewed soy sauce that takes approximately 6 months to brew, acid hydrolyzed soy sauce only takes a few days. In this process, you heat soybeans to 176°F and mix them with hydrochloric acid which breaks down the protein in soybeans and wheat. In other words, it contains additives that are unhealthy.
- Acid Hydrolyzed Soy Sauce (산분해간장): As we stated above, you make this style of soy sauce by mixing soybeans with hydrochloric acid to break down the protein in soybeans and wheat. Often, this type of soy sauce also has added flavoring and colorings to make it tastier (and less healthy). This is the cheapest version available on the market. I do not recommend buying this version. Typically, you will find this type of soy sauce at fast food or cheap restaurants.
How Do We Measure the Quality of Ganjang?
Now, how do you know what type of soy sauce you are buying? In South Korea, the T.N. (total nitrogen) number is the Korean industrial standard for soy sauce quality. By chemically profiling the soy sauce, you can know the quality. The T.N. number qualities are as follows:
- 1% T.N. means lower quality soy sauce
- 1.3% T.N. means it is on the higher-end quality of soy sauce
- 1.5-1.8% T.N. means premium quality soy sauce.
In other words, the lower the T.N. number, the lower the quality of soy sauce. But, what exactly does this number mean? The T.N. number is a measurement of how much protein is in the soy sauce after the brewing process is complete. The reason that the acid hydrolyzed soy sauce has such low T.N. is that the hydrochloric acid breaks down the proteins in the soybean and wheat.
Try finding Korean soy sauces with premium T.N. numbers!
Note: Unfortunately, now that many Korean soy sauce brands are printing English labels when they import to the United States, they often leave off the T.N. number. After all, the U.S. government does not require food companies to display the T.N. number. Frustrating, right?!
Note: For further information, I recommend checking out JinJoo’s post on her blog Kimchimari. I learned a lot about soy sauce from her!
We Hope You Enjoyed Learning About Soy Sauce!
Now that we know about the difference between guk ganjang and ganjang, as well as how to pick out a bottle of Korean soy sauce, we can start cooking with these different ingredients. As we cook together, I will give recommendations on the type and quality of soy sauce you will need to use! I hope this helps!
In the end, we hope you enjoyed learning about this Korean soy sauce. If so, let us know in the comment section below. Also, we would love to hear any questions you may have!
If you would like to read more about soy sauce, you can find further articles on the subject listed below. Also, we listed some of our favorite Carving A Journey Korean recipes as well! For reference, many recipes are influenced by our blended Korean and Southern heritage.
Soy Sauce Articles:
Carving A Journey Korean Recipes:
- Korean Braised Lotus Roots
- Tteokkochi (Korean Rice Cake Skewers)
- Jumeokbap (Handmade Korean Rice Balls)
- Bibimmyeon (Korean Spicy Cold Noodles); And
- Korean Banana Flavored Milk
If you have any questions or comments, you can also email us at email@example.com.
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