What Is Fish Sauce? (Plus, Why This Magical Ingredient Deserves a Spot in Your Pantry)

If you ask a chef what ingredients they always have on hand, there’s a good chance that fish sauce will make the list. So, what is fish sauce exactly? This popular Asian condiment, made from fermented fish, works as a powerful flavor enhancer that can be used to give a bold umami boost to a variety of dishes. In other words, if you have fish sauce around you can be sure that your cooking will never come out bland. Now that we have your attention, here’s everything you need to know about this magical ingredient.

What is fish sauce?

As previously mentioned, fish sauce is a condiment and cooking ingredient made from fermented fish. According to the experts at Red Boat (aka makers of the famous fish sauce), fish sauce begins with fresh anchovies that are then covered in copious amounts of salt and left to ferment in vats for at least 12 months. Over the fermentation period, the fish breaks down completely and what remains is a very salty and pungent liquid that is filtered and bottled as—you guessed it—fish sauce.

What does fish sauce taste like?

If you’re not accustomed to cooking with the stuff, you may be taken aback by the strong aroma of fish sauce. Much like soy sauce, the high concentration of glutamate in fish sauce accounts for its potent, savory flavor profile. However, fish sauce has a richer, deeper flavor compared to soy sauce. Plus, thanks to its anchovy base, fish sauce also boasts a briny and tangy taste that sets it apart. The takeaway? With just a couple drops of this stuff, you can add complexity and bold umami flavor to everything from stir-fry to soup.

What’s a good substitute for fish sauce?

We strongly suggest you drop everything and go buy a bottle of fish sauce, but for some—vegans, vegetarians and folks who couldn’t make it to the store, for example—that isn’t an option. If that’s the case, you’ll be relieved to know that there are several acceptable fish sauce substitutes.

If you have the time and inclination, try this recipe for homemade vegan fish sauce from Feasting at Home, which relies on dried mushrooms to achieve a similarly concentrated umami flavor and can be used as a 1:1 substitute for the real thing. For those in need of a simpler swap, The Food Substitutions Bible by David Joachim says that either fermented tofu or good old soy sauce can be used as 1:1 substitutes for the stuff. Finally, for those who are not in need of a vegan or vegetarian alternative, chef Nigella Lawson notes that a few drops of Worcestershire sauce will do the trick: This popular condiment actually contains anchovies and boasts a very similar flavor profile to fish sauce—just don’t overdo it, as Worcestershire sauce is also quite potent.

How to store fish sauce

The folks over at Red Boat recommend refrigerating opened bottles and using the contents within a year for optimal freshness. That said, they mention that opened and unopened bottles alike will fare just fine at room temperature, so fish sauce that has been stored in a dark pantry is still safe to use. Our suggestion: Buy two bottles of fish sauce (aka flavor sauce) the next time you go to the store—put the opened one in the fridge and let your back-up bottle hang out in the kitchen cupboard.

Where to buy fish sauce

Now that you’re dying to try fish sauce out in your own kitchen, you are probably wondering where you can buy the stuff. Good news: Fish sauce is widely available in the condiment aisle or Asian foods section at grocery stores. Of course, you can also have a bottle of chef-preferred Red Boat delivered directly to your door—and the same goes for Squid Brand fish sauce, a reliable option with a lower price tag.

How to use fish sauce

Although its pungent smell might lead you to believe otherwise, the savory, umami taste of fish sauce actually blends quite well with a variety of different foods. Of course, this condiment is a go-to flavor booster for Asian-inspired dishes of all sorts, but it can also be used in pasta dishes (think: roasted tomato bucatini) or as a marinade for meat, as seen in this recipe for lemongrass pork chops with carb-free yakisoba.

How to Substitute for Fish Sauce 5 Easy Swaps

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...