What Is Teriyaki Sauce? The Real Story Behind the Sauce

The teriyaki sauce you probably know and love isn’t a traditional Japanese sauce—it’s actually an American invention. While it still maintains a lot of the traditional elements from its origins in Japan, teriyaki sauce has developed into something unique to America. So, what is teriyaki sauce and how did it become what it is today? Let’s dig in. 

What is teriyaki sauce?

The Japanese word “teriyaki” actually refers to a style of cooking. “Yaki” means grilled, while “teri” means shiny.

In Japan, teriyaki cooking usually involves some kind of seafood that is brushed with a sweet, thick, soy-based glaze, called tare. As the food cooks, the sauce reduces and takes on that signature shine that makes a teriyaki dish instantly identifiable. 

Teriyaki became a hit in America in the 1960s as Japanese cuisine started to become popular, and people started to use it for more than just seafood, lacquering chicken, beef, and pork with it. Today, any dish that is made with teriyaki sauce falls under the label of teriyaki, regardless of the method used for cooking. There are a lot of grocery store brands of bottled teriyaki sauces, but you can also find more traditional Japanese imports in specialty grocery stores.

What is teriyaki sauce made of?

Traditionally in Japan, teriyaki sauce (or tare) is made simply with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (a kind of rice wine that has a higher sugar content than sake). To make the sauce, you mix those ingredients together then reduce it down to achieve a thick consistency. This process carmelizes the sugar, which accounts for the teriyaki sauce’s sweetness and shiny glaze. 

Bottled American teriyaki sauces are a bit more complex. They often include some form of vinegar, as well as other spices like ginger, onion powder, or garlic powder. Sometimes, the sugar traditionally used will be replaced with honey, or it will be enhanced with pineapple juice or some kind of citrus. And, as with most processed foods, you’re going to find preservatives or weird things like cornstarch that create a thick sauce without any boiling. 

Does teriyaki sauce have gluten? 

Wheat is a sneaky little ingredient in a lot of soy products, and since teriyaki sauce is primarily soy sauce, it is not gluten-free. However, there are gluten-free teriyaki sauces in the market. These sauces get around the gluten by using tamari, a type of soy sauce that has a negligible amount of wheat added. Or, they may use something like coconut aminos.

Is teriyaki sauce vegan?

Most teriyaki sauces are vegan friendly, but always make sure to check the label. A brand’s recipe may use honey instead of sugar, which would disqualify it for vegan diners. Also, some cane sugars, especially ones processed in North America, can be considered not vegan-friendly. Incredibly, sugar is sometimes processed with something called bone char, which is used to decolorize raw cane sugar. This sounds wild—I didn’t believe it until some thorough research—but it’s true. So, if this is something that rubs you the wrong way, look for labels that use high fructose corn syrup as a replacement for sugar.

Does teriyaki sauce go bad?

As the saying goes, “nothing gold can stay.” And while that applies to teriyaki sauce, it is going to last significantly longer than other condiments. If refrigerated, teriyaki sauce can be used well after its best-by date, almost up to a year. However, it’s always best to give a sniff first, since it’s not immune to spoilage. You’d hate to dig deep into the back of your fridge for that forgotten bottle of teriyaki sauce, only to pour it over your chicken and find it filled with mold.

best teriyaki sauce

Best Teriyaki Sauce You Can Buy

Now that you know all about the history of teriyaki sauce, find out about the best teriyaki sauce you can buy at the grocery store.

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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