Fish sauce adds wow-worthy savory flavor to marinades, dipping sauces, salad dressings, soups, stir fries, noodle dishes, braised and roasted meats, and more. Discover everything you need to know about this versatile ingredient.
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Fish Sauce
Fish Sauce
| Credit: Meredith

A staple ingredient in many Asian cuisines, fish sauce can be a bit of an enigma for the American home cook, with just the presence of it in a recipe acting as a turn off. However, when the right fish sauce is used correctly, it can deliver wow-worthy savory flavor that takes a recipe from good to great. Here's everything you need to know about this versatile ingredient.

What is fish sauce?

Just as you might suspect, fish sauce is made from fish. More specifically, it's made by combining fish, usually small, oily ones like anchovies, with salt and letting them ferment for anywhere from a couple months to up to two years. During the fermentation process, the bacteria living in the fish slowly break them down, which releases a liquid that then becomes fish sauce.

What does fish sauce taste like?

While it does deliver some minor fishy flavors, fish sauce is so much more. It's tangy and a little funky as a result of the fermentation. It's salty as a result of the added salt—in many parts of Asia, people actually add a few drops of fish sauce to a dish the same way Americans sprinkle on table salt. But most of all, fish sauce provides umami, the savory fifth flavor found in broths, gravies, mushrooms and soy sauce. For that reason, it can be the exact element needed to balance out a recipe that is too sweet, salty, sour or bitter—and it's what makes recipes that utilize fish sauce so mouthwatering and delectable.

How is fish sauce used?

In short: Sparingly. Too much fish sauce can quickly overpower a dish—and yes, make it taste a bit fishy—so in most cases you don't need more than a tablespoon or two at most, or even less if you're new to the ingredient and its flavor. Fish sauce is traditionally used in recipes for marinades, dipping sauces, salad dressings, and stir fries, but you can add a bit to pastas, braised or roasted meats or soups to pump up the savory goodness. Or if you're trying to limit how much salt you use in your cooking, a few drops of fish sauce can be a great replacement. Check out some of our favorite recipes featuring fish sauce.

Nuoc Cham Sauce
Nuoc Cham Sauce
| Credit: lutzflcat

What should I look for when buying fish sauce?

If you head down the international aisle at the grocery store, you'll likely see a few different brands of fish sauce—and if you go to an Asian market, you'll see even more. Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc mam) and Thai fish sauce (nam pla) are the most widely available in the US. Authentic fish sauce should list only fish and salt under the ingredients, so skip any that contain other add-ins. The sauce itself should have a brownish, reddish color and be clear. Avoid any that look significantly darker than the others, as that likely means they've been on the shelf for longer. The consensus winning brand for taste and quality is Red Boat Fish Sauce, which you can find at most grocery stores or on Amazon, while Thai Kitchen Premium Fish Sauce will do the job as well at a slightly lower price point.

Ready to start cooking with fish sauce? Start with these Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls, which come with a fish sauce dipping sauce. Then for your main course, try Sticky Garlic Pork Chops or Spicy Thai Basil Chicken.