The mechanical properties of extracellular matrices can control the function of cells. Studies of cellular responses to biomimetic soft materials have been largely restricted to hydrogels and elastomers that have stiffness values independent of time and extent of deformation, so the substrate stiffness can be unambiguously related to its effect on cells. Real tissues, however, often have loss moduli that are 10 to 20% of their elastic moduli and behave as viscoelastic solids. The response of cells to a time-dependent viscous loss is largely uncharacterized because appropriate viscoelastic materials are lacking for quantitative studies. Here we report the synthesis of soft viscoelastic solids in which the elastic and viscous moduli can be independently tuned to produce gels with viscoelastic properties that closely resemble those of soft tissues. Systematic alteration of the hydrogel viscosity demonstrates the time dependence of cellular mechanosensing and the influence of viscous dissipation on cell phenotype.