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Fish sauce is aptly named; it is the resulting liquid that is produced after oily fish (usually anchovies) is fermented. It may not sound like the most appealing thing, but this salty, tangy sauce is bursting with umami, and can play so many roles in your cooking.
Of course you can use it in Pad Thai, Asian curries and other southeast-Asian dishes. But fish sauce can do so much more. You can use it as a base for marinades, sauces, soups, or dressings—or you can add some when you’re trying to balance a dish. If you’ve made a dressing, for example, and it needs something, and you’ve exhausted the salt-sweet-acid additions but still come up short, try a splash of fish sauce. You’ll be amazed at the depth, the richness, the complexity even just a half-teaspoon of this magic sauce can bring. I’ve even used it in things like deviled eggs, chili and barbecue sauce.
My favorite brand is Red Boat. Some brands add sugar or preservatives, but Red Boat is made with just anchovies and salt, using the traditional process from founder Cuong Pham’s native Vietnam. The result is a pure, briny, pungent, slightly funky aroma and flavor that just works. I always have a bottle in my fridge and you should too.