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We gathered five products from grocery stores and Asian markets and sampled them over white rice, mixed into a simple Thai dipping sauce, and in our recipe for Vietnamese Caramel Chicken.
Red Boat 40°N Fish Sauce
What We Learned
What is Fish Sauce?
To the uninitiated, fish sauce might seem like an odd concept. Like soy sauce, it’s both a condiment and an ingredient, and it’s full of glutamates that enhance flavor in food. But while soy sauce is made from comparatively mild-tasting fermented soybeans and grains, fish sauce gets its signature flavor from something far more potent: fermented anchovies. Manufacturing methods vary among producers, but the basic process is the same: Fresh, whole anchovies are layered with sea salt and left to ferment in vats for at least 12 months. Over time, the fish breaks down and the salty liquid that forms is collected and filtered before bottling. It’s strong stuff with an intense aroma. But there’s a reason that this pungent sauce is a critical component of many Asian cuisines and is becoming increasingly commonplace in American kitchens. It boasts a rich, savory taste and a brininess that brings out depth and flavor in everything from dipping sauces and soups to stir-fries and marinades.
How We Tasted Fish Sauce
When we last tasted fish sauce, we deemed all six brands in our lineup acceptable. But recently, when we developed a recipe for chicken braised in a fish sauce–spiked caramel sauce, we noticed significant variations in saltiness and quality among brands. An update was in order. We gathered five products from grocery stores and Asian markets and sampled them over white rice, mixed into a simple Thai dipping sauce, and in our Cook's Illustrated recipe for Vietnamese Caramel Chicken.
Look For Higher Protein Content
Every brand was intensely flavored, but the best of these balanced saltiness with a complex, savory taste. Less successful brands were either overwhelmingly salty or unpleasantly “fishy.” Two brands listed “anchovy extract” instead of “anchovy” on their ingredient lists, but one was near the top of our rankings and one at the bottom, so we discounted it as a significant factor. What did turn out to be key was protein content. An independent lab confirmed that our winner contained nearly double or even triple the protein of the other products in our lineup: 20.58 percent protein by weight, compared with 11.44 percent for our runner-up and 7.44 to 8.92 percent for the remaining products. Though this sauce also had the highest sodium level, its abundance of protein kept it from tasting overly salty. Moreover, the other products tended to taste saltier, even though they actually had less sodium than our winner. This sauce was also the only one that didn’t contain sugar.
The Best Fish Sauce
Our new favorite is the second most expensive option in the lineup, but we think its “rich, meaty depth” and complex ...
Everything We Tested
Thanks to its abundance of protein, which far outstripped the other products, this fish sauce tasted intensely rich and flavorful. Despite having the most sodium in the lineup, it never tasted overly salty. Our panel detected earthy, slightly “sweet” notes for a flavor that was “complex, not just fishy.”
This product earned solid marks in every tasting. It was slightly more mild than our winner, and many tasters thought that it provided a “good base flavor” that allowed other more subtle ingredients in the dipping sauce and chicken to shine.
With slightly less sodium than the rest of our lineup, this product tasted more strongly of fish than some other products. But it still possessed “savory depth” and made a “rich,” “bright” caramel sauce for the chicken.
This fish sauce started strong and salty and became more “fishy” on the finish. Still, it was acceptable overall, especially in dips and sauces.
Recommended with reservations
With not much protein compared with our winner, this fish sauce tasted especially salty and overwhelmed many on our panel. But it also brought out the “citrusy” flavors in the dipping sauce and the pepper in the chicken.