One of the most prized characteristics of Japanese food is the rich depth of flavor Japanese chefs achieve. Japanese cuisine, from sushi dipping sauces to hearty broths, are full of these potent savory flavors and one ingredient that appears on recipe lists over and over again is tamari.
Whether you’re a miso maestro or a broth beginner, you’ll be encountering tamari whenever you’re cooking Japanese food. We’ll take a closer look at what this special sauce consists of, and how you can substitute it whilst preserving those quintessential umami flavors.
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What Exactly Is Tamari?
Tamari is a specialist kind of Japanese soy sauce and consists of fermented soy beans. However, it differs from soy sauce in some important ways. Whilst soy sauce is produced by adding wheat to soybeans, starting a fermentation process, tamari contains no wheat. Tamari is produced as a byproduct in the production of miso paste. Spores of the fungus Aspergillus tamarii, either added or found naturally in the production environment, are used to enable the fermentation process. The final product, tamari sauce, has no wheat and a higher soy content, as well as a rich and complex savory flavor with sweet caramel hints balancing the saltiness.
In Japanese cuisine, tamari sauce is turned to produce this complex flavor profile. Western audiences have become familiar with the complex savory flavors of Japanese cuisine in recent years, and we’ve willingly incorporated the word umami into the English language to describe these flavors. Umami – which is a Japanese word meaning a “pleasant savory flavor” – has become closely associated with hearty broths and cooked meats, and tamari is one of the primary sources of umami in Japanese cuisine.
The Benefits Of Tamari
Tamari’s profound umami flavor profile makes it a popular ingredient in all things savory but there are some notable health benefits of cooking with tamari too. Because the fermentation process takes place without the addition of wheat, tamari is available in gluten-free forms (although some brands still contain added wheat). This means anyone exploring wheat-free diets might employ tamari in their dishes. Tamari’s flavor is richer and more subtle than soy sauce, whose savory flavor relies largely on its salt content. Tamari contains around 230mg of sodium per teaspoon which compares favorably with approximately 900mg of sodium in a teaspoon of soy sauce – when you’re exploring substitutes for tamari it’s important to bear these benefits in mind if you’re cooking for those who are conscious of salt and gluten content.
Further, the flavor profile of tamari being exceptionally savory, it can be used to elevate vegan and vegetarian cooking with a complex depth of flavor usually found in meaty dishes. When it comes to substituting tamari, it will be important to reflect on the other ingredients in your dish to discover which unique flavors you’re relying on tamari to provide.
The main ingredient in tamari is soy, so if you or your dinner guests suffer from an allergy you’ll be looking for an alternative. And although Tamari is an increasingly popular ingredient as Japanese cooking invades Western kitchens, this is still not something everyone has to hand. If you’re feeling like spontaneous sushi and you don’t have tamari in your cupboard, don’t despair. Here are the best substitutes for tamari.
The Best Substitutes For Tamari
Because tamari is primarily used in recipes for its mouth-watering umami flavor, we’re going to explore some of the best taste-based substitutes for tamari here. It’s important to remember the benefits of tamari – low salt, vegan and often gluten free, when it comes to swapping out tamari.
Tamari holds a strong similarity with soy sauce although the production process differs somewhat. If you’ve got even a casual interest in Asian cuisine it’s likely that you’ll have some soy sauce on the shelf that you can reach for in a pinch.
Whilst tamari is a byproduct of the miso paste, soy sauce is produced by fermenting soybeans through the addition of wheat. The end result of this product is a dark and sticky substance with a hearty and salty flavor profile – characteristics it shares with tamari. If you have a variety of soy sauces to choose from, the darker variants will closely match tamari’s umami flavors, but any kind of soy sauce will strengthen the delicious savory factor in your meal.
When you’re swapping out tamari for soy sauce you can usually use equal ratios of these products. Remember, soy sauce is made with wheat and so, unlike tamari, it’s unsuitable for anyone pursuing a gluten free diet.
Fish sauce is a staple of the Far East’s larder but it isn’t only this association with all things oriental that makes it a great substitute for tamari. This is a super savory sauce with an intense saltiness and it is used to add a rich depth of flavor to pad thais as well as broths, marinades and dipping sauces.
Fish sauce is another product of the fermentation process. To produce fish sauce, soybeans are switched out for fish such as anchovies. The anchovies are packed away with salt and water and left to ferment for up to several years, producing an extremely potent product that packs a savory punch! However, the flavor profile of fish sauce can be complex and appealing and often there are subtle sweeter notes that ape the caramel side of tamari.
Switching up tamari for fish sauce if that’s what you’ve got in your cupboard and you won’t be disappointed. Start out with a 1 to 1 ratio in your recipes but don’t be afraid to add a splash more of this savory sauce to deepen the flavor of your creations. Unlike tamari, however, fish sauce isn’t suitable for vegetarians and vegans and although it’s usually gluten free, some western recipes add wheat to facilitate the fermentation. Take care if you’re cooking for those with specific requirements.
Tamari is a byproduct of the process which gives miso paste, so it’s no surprise that the similarities shared by this salty staple make it a great substitute for tamari. Miso paste is produced by inoculating soybeans with a culture called koji, creating a thick paste with the umami characteristic we associate with tamari, soy sauce and other soy-based products.
If your recipe calls for tamari you’ll preserve that hearty umami feel by substituting miso paste. Miso paste is usually a good bit thicker than tamari’s gloopy consistency, so you’ll most likely want to dilute the miso paste – create your miso mixture with one part paste to two parts water, and then substitute this for tamari in all your recipes.
The Western larder might not be stocked with miso paste or fish sauce. These Asian ingredients are the home of umami, but although the Japanese gave us the name for this taste category, there are a number of ways we can create it with Western ingredients.
Worcestershire sauce, a fermented liquid source from the English town of Worcester, was created in the 19th century by two titans of the condiment world, John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins. It’s rich list of ingredients includes vinegar, molasses, onions, anchovies as well as numerous flavorings to create a sauce with incredible depth of flavor, a sticky umami balanced with undercurrents of caramel sweetness.
Although you won’t recreate the exact flavor of tamari, replacing it with this English equivalent can create bold, mouthwatering dishes where that deep umami savoriness is preserved.
Coconut aminos is a seasoning sauce that’s rapidly growing in popularity due to a number of health benefits. Like tamari, it’s produced through a process of fermentation, using the sap of coconut palm as a base with added salt. The outcome is a savory and salty sauce that you can use in dishes and dipping sauces where the recipe calls for tamari.
Due to the high sugar content of coconut sap, coconut aminos are lighter and sweeter than tamari, and there’s a lower salt content. You can compensate for this by adding a pinch of salt to your dishes where you’re replacing tamari with coconut aminos.
Coconut aminos is a great substitute for tamari if you’re avoiding soy due to allergies or trying to lower the sodium content of your diet on doctor’s orders. When you’re swapping tamari out for coconut aminos, taste your dish to see if it needs a dash of something extra to balance the sweetness that coconut aminos bring to the table.
Tamari possesses a complex flavor profile, characteristically umami but with sweetness and a rich depth of flavor. It’s primary characteristic, however, is salty savoriness. Salt should be in everyone’s kitchen and this ubiquitous seasoning can be used as a fall back in times of cooking crisis. If your cupboards are bare, a healthy sprinkling of salt will give your culinary creations a savory kick. The sacrifice is the depth of flavor brought by tamari, but salt can be your saviour in a pinch.
Tamari’s unique flavor combining mouthwatering umami with subtly caramel tones brings something special to a dish. However, this specialist ingredient is not always easy to find. Don’t be put off exploring Japanese cuisine if you lack this ingredient as experimenting with other sources of sauciness can bring delicious Eastern flavors into your kitchen.