Over six years writing for Milk Street, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world learning from home cooks and restaurant chefs from Portugal to Turkey, Barbados to Belgium and a dozen more. And I’ve interviewed literally hundreds of other chefs and cookbook authors to learn why they do what they do.
So it may come as a surprise that I’ve never considered myself a chef—but I have picked up a few secrets to making truly impressive throw-it-together meals. An all-time favorite: shoyu tare.
I picked this up from our recipe for Grilled Ginger Chicken with Shoyu Tare, which sounds more exotic than it is. Shoyu is Japanese for soy sauce, and tare means sauce (so, “soy sauce sauce”). It’s one of the Japanese mother sauces—what they baste chicken with for yakitori, those glazed grilled chicken skewers—and it’s essentially equal parts soy sauce, sake and the sweet rice wine mirin, plus some brown sugar. Now, I always keep it in my fridge.
Consider it an easy seasoning that’s completely customizable; we load ours up with ginger, garlic and dried shiitake mushrooms, which boosts the umami of basic supermarket soy sauce. The mushrooms and aromatics simmer in the liquid like you’re boiling any other veggie, then you strain them out (but don’t throw them away—more on that later). You baste the chicken as it cooks and the sauce turns to a rich, sweet-savory glaze. Give it a squeeze of lemon to brighten it up, or even better, put some red pickled onion on the side (another thing I always keep in the fridge).
Our recipe gives instructions for slashed chicken parts on the grill, but I normally make it with boneless, skinless chicken thighs in a nonstick skillet on the stove. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, baste the raw side when you put it in the pan, and then baste again when you flip it. Depending on the thickness of the chicken, I might flip and baste again so the sauce doesn’t burn. But don’t worry if it gets charred. That’s actually the kind of caramelization you want and it gives a smokiness like you made it on the grill anyway.
It’s simply a delicious way to dress up chicken on a weeknight, but the sauce is the real star. It only takes 15 minutes to prepare, and I always make way more than I need so I have plenty left over. Yes, I’ll use the leftovers at least once again to season chicken, but there are endless applications (it will keep for a couple months in the fridge thanks to the high salt content of the soy). I’ve used it to quickly marinate baked salmon filets and added a splash to a stir-fry of leftover rice with grated carrots, chopped red bell pepper and a beaten egg. I’ve even added a couple tablespoons to burger meat to add a certain, barely detectable something.
I often use it as a trick to boost the flavor of a simple side dish, like tossing a couple tablespoons with crispy roasted potatoes. Or, sautéing a bunch of chopped spinach and splashing a bit in the pan after it’s released its water. Shoyu tare is great for last minute guests because it makes it easy to throw together a dinner that will make you seem like a pro. Trust me.
About those simmered shiitakes and aromatics. Chop them up and stir them into fried rice or noodles drizzled with sesame oil and you have an entire extra meal.
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