Quick Fish Sauce Recipe
Ever make fish sauce at home? Of course you haven’t. That’s because traditional fish sauce takes months to make, and it stinks the whole time.
I invented a way to make real fish sauce in just a few hours — all while using the same fermentation methods as traditional fish sauce. The result is a sauce that tastes like fish but isn’t fishy. It’s kind of a dream come true.
Traditional fish sauce recipes
The fish sauce you can buy at a store is made through a process called enzymatic fermentation. Fish are placed in a vessel with tons of salt for preservation and are left to rot over many months. Over that time, the enzymes in the fish’s intestines eat away at the fish, leaving a precious and intense liquid that we call fish sauce.
Fish sauce is packed with umami because of this fermentation process. You see, one type of enzyme in the fish’s intestines is protease, which breaks down the protein molecules in the fish into glutamate — the source of umami. That’s why fish sauce is perfect in everything from Vietnamese rice noodles to American chili.
But this umami bomb comes at a price: fish sauce takes forever! And it’s smelly. And fishy. Tasting fish sauce reminds of you of the smell of old fish, not of the taste of a fresh fish fillet. What if you didn’t have to hide the taste of fish sauce behind other ingredients?
Introducing my fish sauce
I sought to create an umami-rich fish sauce that tastes like fish but isn’t fishy. One that allows you to use whichever fish species you’d like and actually tastes like that specific species of fish. Most importantly, I wanted to use the same enzymatic fermentation as traditional fish sauce but do it in 1/1000th of the time.
The secret to my recipe is, believe or not, pork pancreas. The enzymes in pork pancreas are much stronger than the enzymes in fish intestines, so they get the job done much faster and impart no discernible taste. Since the recipe uses pork enzymes rather than using the enzymes in the fish (which are heat-sensitive), you can sear or grill the fish before adding the enzymes — enabling you to capture beautiful flavors into your sauce. Ditching the fish guts also helps achieve a purer flavor.
Even better, powdered, freeze-dried pork pancreas is sold as a dietary supplement, so it is easy to acquire and inexpensive.
Using freeze-dried pork pancreas supplements, you can make real fish sauce in just 3 hours. If you want to clarify the sauce (which I highly recommend), it takes a couple more days.
If you plan to use the fish sauce over the next few days, you can add very low amounts of salt, or you can add a bunch of salt and preserve this over the long-term. The result is a sauce that’s so unique — and yet still definitively fish sauce — you’ve gotta wonder when fish sauce producers will catch on. Let’s get to the recipe.
What you need
You can scale this recipe for any amount of sauce.
1. Pork pancreas supplements. I use these, but you’re welcome to try other options too. One bottle contains enough protease to make many, many gallons of fish sauce. See my post here on a deep-dive.
2. Fish. Any fish variety will do. For a traditional tasting sauce, choose an oily fish (like sardines or mackerel). In the recipe below, I used 800g of mackerel fillets (which was the fillets from 3 medium-sized mackerel) to produce 650g of sauce.
3. Sous vide device: In this recipe, you need to cook the fish at a very specific temperature for three hours. Sous vide devices (i.e. immersion circulators) are great at keeping food at specific temperatures for a long period of time.
4. Kitchen scales: You need one scale that measures to the gram and one that measures to the 100th of a gram.
You also need salt, a blender, and a fine mesh strainer.
Take the filet of your fish of choice and either sear it or grill it all over. This isn’t necessary, but it add flavors from the maillard reaction to make the sauce taste more like the fish you’d eat for dinner.
Note that with this recipe, you want to avoid fats. So do not sear in oil. Dry nonstick pans or grills will make this easier.
Since fish skin contains a lot of fat, sear or grill until most of this fat has seeped out of the skin. If you’re not confident in this part, just remove the skin before cooking.
After you’ve seared the fish, weigh it to the gram. In my case, the seared mackerel was 800g.
Add the fish to a blender, then add an equal weight of water to the blender, too (so in my case, 800g of water). Blend.
Remove freeze-dried pancreas powder from the pill capsules by pulling them apart. Add 1% of the fish’s weight in powder to the blender. Blend briefly, then transfer the sludgy result to a freezer ziploc bag.
Cook the sludge at 140ºF for about 3 hours, agitating it periodically to ensure it is well-mixed.
You’ll notice that much of the sludge becomes completely liquified by the enzymes within 30 minutes. You should continue to cook it longer for food safety reasons.
Feel free to cook for much longer than 3 hours! You could do this overnight, or you could even do it for a month if you really wanted to deepen the flavors!
Strain and reserve the liquid.
Blending the seared fish with the pancreas powder
Cooking the resulting sludge sous vide
The end result of this process will be a very cloudy liquid. If you want to achieve a sauce that looks more like a traditional fish sauce, you’ll need to clarify it. To do so:
Freeze the fish sauce until totally solid. I freeze mine in ice cube trays.
Transfer the frozen fish sauce to a fine strainer placed over a container in the fridge. As the fish sauce defrosts, clear liquid will strain into the container while leaving the impurities in the strainer above.
After straining but before clarifying
After clarifying with the freezer method
PRESERVING YOUR Fish Sauce
Unlike a traditional fish sauce, this sauce isn’t preserved yet. There are many methods for preserving your fish sauce, but the most obvious method is to add salt. You should do this step after clarifying.
It’s difficult to recommend the exact salt level necessary to preserve a fish sauce without measuring its water activity, so I recommend the following conservative options:
Add 11% salt to store your sauce in the fridge.
Add 20% salt to store your sauce at room temperature.
You can add much less salt (e.g. salt to taste) if you plan to refrigerate then use your garum in just a few days.
More to explore
If you liked this recipe, there’s a whole world of fish sauces to explore that don’t use fish at all. It’s a category of sauce called garum, and this method works for garum too. Learn more.