Beyond the Wok: Everything You Can Do With a Bottle of Soy Sauce

By | October 22, 2016

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

No one knew that I drizzled soy sauce into the gravy this year at Thanksgiving. Well, nobody except my sister, who looked at me, confused, when I asked her where I could find a bottle of the stuff in her mother-in-law’s kitchen. When dinner was over, the gravy boat sat completely empty, and I asked if anyone could guess what my secret ingredient had been. No one had an answer. When I said that it was soy sauce, they marveled: This wasn’t an Asian-themed Thanksgiving, after all. But since starting my job at Serious Eats, I’ve learned that we drop “umami bombs” whenever possible—and soy sauce is one of those deeply savory ingredients that bring life to a wide variety of recipes. Here are some reasons why you should stock up on this not-just-for-Asian-food pantry essential.

It Makes Meat Taste Meatier

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Soy sauce is rich in glutamates, the natural flavor enhancer that’s behind that umami-packed taste. Those glutamates go a long way in making meat taste…well, meatier. That’s why you’ll find soy sauce splashed into our robust short-rib-based chili. It makes a subtle but crucial appearance in our boeuf bourguignon (Julia Child would probably dig this version) and adds rich, satisfying depth to a batch of tender and springy Swedish meatballs. The sky’s the limit—we add a little soy sauce to dishes as diverse as pan-roasted chicken breasts, red wine–braised beef shanks, and a hearty rack of smoky, spicy barbecue pork ribs.

It Amps Up Sauces

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

You’ve already heard how soy sauce can boost the flavor of your holiday gravy. But it’s great in a wide variety of other sauces as well—think chicken Marsala, beef stew, beef stroganoff, and Hungarian goulash. We even use it to add some savory intensity to our Quick and Easy Poutine.

It Brings Meatiness to Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

After keeping kosher for a year in college, I am officially over faux-meat proteins, with their endless ingredient lists and invariably disappointing flavor. But without them, is it possible to have a hearty vegetarian or vegan meal? This is where soy sauce’s glutamates come in once again. We add soy sauce to lend meatiness to meatless dishes as often as possible. It works wonders on mushrooms in particular—it’s key to our ultra-creamy Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna; this rich and hearty mushroom Bolognese; and our mushroom-packed vegan holiday roast, Vegetables Wellington. Soy sauce is also a necessary ingredient if you want to make your own vegan meat stand-ins that don’t taste like cardboard, such as Kenji’s Vegan Chorizo, or Daniel’s silky-smooth, cauliflower- and pecan-based vegetarian pâté.

It Soups Up Soup

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Soups of all stripes are prime candidates for a dash of soy. With enough soy sauce, rehydrated mushrooms, chickpeas, and potatoes, you’ll be perfectly satisfied slurping Kenji’s hearty (and vegan) Winter Vegetable Soup for dinner. Where’s the beef? Who cares! Though, of course, if you do want beef, this Guinness stew, also enhanced with soy sauce, is a great place to start. Not in the mood for cooking from scratch? A couple of teaspoons of soy sauce can help improve a can of store-bought soup, too.

It Makes Mean Marinades (and Salad Dressings)

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Soy sauce contains enzymes called proteases, which can help break down tough proteins when you’re in a pinch. This makes it an excellent addition to (even non-Asian) meat marinades. You’ll find it in our recipes for carne asada, grilled skirt steak fajitas, and even these five-minute chicken cutlets. (Just be sure to save half of the marinade to use as a flavorful sauce for the chicken once it’s finished grilling.)

Plenty of these marinades—all balanced with salty, sweet, tangy, and umami components—would also make great salad dressings. But to incorporate soy sauce into your next bowl of greens, look no further than this Soy-Balsamic Vinaigrette, or this dashi– and soy-based topping. Talk about soy sauce doing double duty.

It Brings Bottled Sauces to Life

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Sometimes life calls for bottled barbecue sauce. Not everyone has time to make an immersion-blended, apricot- and jalapeño-laden one like this at home—and that’s okay. If you find that a bottled variety is all you can get your hands on, we suggest that you add a little soy sauce to the mix. This can help balance out that super-sweet flavor in store-bought sauces, which comes from corn syrup and an overload of sugar.

It Gives Cocktails a Savory Kick

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

And what would a condiment be if it couldn’t go in a cocktail? We add soy sauce to our Fully Loaded Bloody Mary, along with other umami-bomb ingredients, like Worcestershire sauce. We can’t claim that it’ll cure your hangover or anything, but it’ll taste really good, and lift your spirits come brunch time.

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