Ponzu sauce and soy sauce are both widely used in Japanese cooking. In recent years, they have both become familiar in the West as Japanese food has grown in popularity. Both may be used as marinades and dipping sauces and are sometimes combined to make ponzu shoyu. Even though they both add flavor to food and can complement each other, they are quite different. Let’s look at their differences and similarities in this edition of the SPICEography Showdown.
How does ponzu sauce differ from soy sauce?
Ponzu sauce and soy sauce — called shoyu in Japan — differ in their constituents. These sauces consist of very different ingredients. Ponzu sauce is a light vinaigrette-like sauce made with bonito flakes, rice wine, and kombu among other ingredients. Soy sauce is made with soybeans. It consists of fermented soybeans with wheat and salt.
The different ingredients result in different flavor profiles. Because ponzu sauce has a combination of citrus and umami flavors it offers a light, tart flavor with fruity notes. In comparison, soy sauce is primarily a combination of umami and salty elements. Darker soy sauces may have sweeter notes due to the inclusion of molasses for a deeper color.
Traditional ponzu sauce has a very different appearance when compared to soy sauce. In Japan, ponzu sauce will not contain soy sauce and will have a pale color similar to weak green tea. Japanese soy sauce is brown with a color similar to steeped black tea. Note: The condiment called ponzu shoyu consists of both ponzu sauce and soy sauce and is often labeled simply as ponzu. Because it contains soy sauce, it is typically a deep reddish-brown.
Can you use ponzu sauce in place of soy sauce and vice versa?
You can use ponzu sauce as an alternative to light soy sauce in many applications. It can work just as well as a marinade and dipping sauce as long as you are okay with the sweetness and tartness.
If you only want soy sauce’s savory saltiness, ponzu sauce might not be the right substitute. Ponzu sauce would not be a great substitute for dark soy sauce, which is usually used mainly to provide color to dishes. The pale color of plain ponzu sauce is not great for adding color to food.
Soy sauce can work as a substitute for ponzu sauce in some recipes but it won’t be ideal. On its own, it doesn’t offer the sweet and tart citrus flavors that you expect from ponzu sauce. To get a closer match, you will need to add some tart citrus juice and some rice wine. Another issue is the color. Soy sauce won’t be a good ponzu sauce substitute if color is important since it will turn pale dishes brown.
When should you use ponzu sauce and when should you use soy sauce?
Ponzu sauce is a traditional dipping sauce for tempura and gyoza but you can also serve it with soba noodles and shabu-shabu. Ponzu sauce is versatile enough to pair with Western foods as well. It makes a great marinade for meat and you can use it as the base of a salad dressing.
Soy sauce works best when you need the umami profile and salt but not the tart or fruity flavors that you would get from ponzu sauce. Light soy sauce works well in fried rice and as an all-purpose table condiment.