Tamari is a great gluten-free soy sauce alternative. But what is tamari? And how does it differ from soy sauce and coconut aminos in terms of production and flavor. Is all tamari gluten-free? Let’s dive in and I’ll explain.
When I went gluten-free several years ago, I still remember being shocked at how gluten managed to sneak into so many unsuspecting foods. Soups, teas, chewing gum….and sushi? Say what?
As an avid sushi-lover, it broke my heart to learn that gluten was indeed in my soy sauce. And in fact, there’s quite a bit of it. But after a little online sleuthing I soon discovered tamari and coconut aminos – my sushi saviors and “go-to’s” for Asian-inspired meals.
But as these food products were new to me (and they may be for you), let’s break down how they’re different, starting with the one you’re likely most familiar with.
What is Soy Sauce?
Soy sauce is a condiment frequently used in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It’s dark brown color is punctuated with a salty, savory, umami flavor and most folks know it from eating sushi, though it’s used in numerous Asian sauces and marinades as well.
The flavor of soy sauce comes from fermented soybeans, along with roasted grains (wheat), salt, water and a mold or yeast culture.
Interestingly enough, there isn’t just one type of soy sauce. In fact, there are hundreds of variations of this basic condiment. In the US, we most frequently find a light soy sauce (the most common type), a dark soy sauce (with added caramel color or molasses to thicken and sweeten it) and a low-sodium soy sauce (which uses less salt in the production process).
What is Tamari?
So now that you know what soy sauce is, let’s chat about tamari. In the most basic sense, tamari is soy sauce made without the roasted grains (wheat). Unfortunately, nothing is ever quite that easy.
While most tamari products in the US from major brands such as San-J and Eden Organic are 100% gluten-free, you do need to watch labels as some tamari sauce brands could use just “less wheat” – which would still be enormously problematic if you’re celiac like I am. As always, read your ingredient labels.
Because tamari is made from more soybeans (and I like to think, less “filler”) I find that it has a bolder, stronger flavor than soy sauce. But it’s a flavor that I’ve come to love.
What are Coconut Aminos?
Coconut aminos are a soy-free alternative to soy sauce. Made from just two ingredients – coconut tree sap and salt – coconut aminos are popular in the paleo community and for those who are avoiding soy for health reasons.
Coconut aminos are still dark in color and have that salty, umami flavor, though contain far less sodium and have a more mild, slightly sweeter and perhaps more diluted flavor.
They’re definitely not as strong in flavor as tamari, but are a great soy sauce alternative.
Which is Better – Soy Sauce, Tamari or Coconut Aminos?
Of course, the answer to this is highly individual and nuanced. As a celiac, I simply can’t eat soy sauce anymore, so that’s off the table for me. But if you don’t have a problem with gluten and you’d like to enjoy soy sauce, I’d recommend always purchasing organic soy sauce. Soybeans are one of the top GMO and pesticide-laden crops, so it’s worth spending the extra money on organic.
I enjoy both organic tamari and coconut aminos and switch things up based on what I’m eating. Because I avoid soy in almost all other capacities (and ensure it’s not an added ingredient in purchased food products), I’m fine splurging on organic tamari when enjoying sushi once or twice a month. I personally love the stronger flavor.
But coconut aminos are nothing to brush under the rug either and I use them frequently in sauces, marinades or other recipes that may already include savory ingredients and salt. Additionally, if you’re paleo or following an AIP or Whole30 diet or avoiding soy for a variety of reasons, coconut aminos will be your preferred choice.
A Few More Gluten-Free Tamari Tips
- Always read ingredient labels to ensure your bottle of tamari is 100% gluten-free
- Remember that it’s extremely difficult to distinguish between soy sauce, tamari and coconut aminos based on looks alone. Poured into a glass jar, they all look the same.
- If eating out, remember to not only request to see the bottle of gluten-free tamari, but also verify that soy sauce or other sauces (such as ponzu, which is also made from soy sauce) were not used as a marinade for any ingredients in your meal.
- If eating sushi, remember to always verify that the rice is gluten-free. Many sushi restaurants will use malt vinegar when cooking the rice, which is not gluten-free.
- This is the brand of tamari and coconut aminos that I personally buy.
Enjoy these Tamari Recipes
If you’d like some recipe inspiration, I’ve got you covered. I adore Asian food and these are a few of my favorite recipes that use tamari. But remember, you can always substitute coconut aminos in any of these recipes.
Post originally published January 2018, but updated to include new information.