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How to make homemade fish sauce with traditional fermentation - avoid all those preservatives in the store-bought stuff (and it tastes better too!)

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In the wide, wonderful world of fermentation, homemade fish sauce was one of those foods I just couldn't fathom making at home.

Sauerkraut? Absolutely.

Ketchup? No problem.

Homemade fish sauce? No, thank you.

But for some reason, curiosity got the better of me after I saw a recipe for it in Nourishing Traditions and I started hunting down local sources of herring and smelt to secretly toss in a jar and hope my kids wouldn't ask why there was an eyeball looking at them from across the room.

What's worse is that I never really liked the store-bought stuff anyway. It lacked the umami it purportedly brought to any dish and just didn't satisfy, no matter how much I tried to like it. Despite my deep love of Thai cuisine and growing awareness of delicious Vietnamese soups, anytime I bought a bottle, it sat largely unused in the refrigerator until it was well past its expiration date and I didn't feel so guilty about throwing it out.

So when I set out to make my own homemade fish sauce, I considered myself a little crazy (let alone what my husband or anyone else thought!)

But fast forward a few weeks to when I opened that first jar of homemade fish sauce and took a brave little taste – and it was GOOD. Its flavor was complex but by no means overwhelming, it was barely fishy, and it was bursting with umami. I dare say, *ahem* it was good enough to lick the spoon.

So, today I offer my take on the classic homemade fish sauce. It's a recipe that will expand your culinary boundaries if you are a born-and-bred North American who is accustomed to European and American cuisine like I am AND it promises great nutritional bounty. Adventure and better health simultaneously! What are you waiting for? Your own homemade fish sauce and your favorite recipes await….

This recipe appears in my e-book, Restocking the Pantry. It does not appear in my paperback, The DIY Pantry, for those of you who have asked.

UPDATE – June 3, 2014: Want more traditional fish sauce deliciousness? Today The Kitchn posted an absolutely FABULOUS article showing how traditional fish sauce is currently made in Vietnam. Absolutely take a few minutes to read it – it's informative, intriguing, and full of beautiful photos.
Homemade Fish Sauce
makes approximately 1 3/4 cups
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Ingredients
  1. 6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
  2. zest from 1 small lemon (optional)
  3. 3 tablespoons finely ground sea salt
  4. 6 bay leaves
  5. 2-3 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
  6. 1 1/2 pounds small whole fish (smelt, herring, etc)
  7. 1-2 cups non-chlorinated water, as needed
  8. 2 tablespoons sauerkraut brine OR fresh whey OR 1 teaspoon additional sea salt
Instructions
  1. Muddle the garlic and the lemon zest together with the sea salt.
  2. Rinse the fish, then cut them into 1/2-inch pieces. (If they're too big, you'll end up with lovely pickled fish, but not much sauce.)
  3. Toss the fish pieces (including the heads and tails) in the muddled salt mixture to completely coat the fish. Add in the peppercorns and bay leaves, then lightly pack the mixture into a clean 1-quart mason jar, pressing down on the pieces as you go to release the juices.
  4. Pour the sauerkraut brine or whey into the jar, then pour in as much water as needed to completely submerge the fish, but be sure to leave at least 1-inch of headspace at the top of the jar, as the mixture will expand as it ferments.
  5. Cover tightly and leave at room temperature for 2-3 days, then move to the refrigerator and let sit for 4-6 weeks.
  6. Double strain the mixture through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and discard the solids. Store in glass bottles in the refrigerator for 4-6 months.
Nourishing Joy https://nourishingjoy.com/

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61 thoughts on “Homemade Fish Sauce

  1. Teri B says:

    Please don’t laugh but I need a little clarification. First, the fish is raw, right? and Second, do you have a link or easy description of how to make whey? Is the alternate sauerkraut brine have to be homemade, is the can juice okay?
    Thanks
    Teri

    • Kresha says:

      Teri, no worries! πŸ™‚

      Yes, the fish is raw. I know it feels weird and counter-intuitive to leave uncooked fish out at room temperature for 2-3 days, but with the salt and the brine/whey, any pathogenic bacteria present won’t take over in that period of time.

      As for the sauerkraut brine, it doesn’t need to be homemade, but it does need to be from lacto-fermented sauerkraut, so the canned variety won’t work. However, if you have a brand of sauerkraut in your supermarket in the refrigerated section that’s labeled as “raw,” “traditional,” “probiotic,” or “fermented” (one brand available in the US and Canada is Bubbies), then that brine will have the bacteria needed to preserve the fish. In one natural food store near me, they even sell bottles of sauerkraut brine, specifically for this purpose. (I’ve only seen it there, so it will just depend on what local brands near you produce.)

      And as for whey, the easiest way to get whey is to put plain yogurt in a cheesecloth and let it sit over a bowl for 20-30 minutes (overnight if you want every drop of whey possible πŸ™‚ ). The liquid that drains out is whey! Here are two posts that might help: Wellness Mama and Kitchen Stewardship.

      Personally, I prefer sauerkraut brine for pretty much every fermentation project rather than whey, but that’s merely personal preference. Both will work well.

      I hope that helps!

      • InsightSatellite says:

        I can only find packaged fish of the types you recommend. None of the stores in my area stock fresh/frozen small fish. Would it be a problem to use packaged fish instead of raw? Might the fermentation not take place?

        • Kresha Faber says:

          Well, they might ferment, but not in the right way. It does need to be raw fish that’s used.

          Perhaps other readers have ideas to add?

      • Saurav says:

        Hi Kresha

        One question, the fish that I should use should have the intestines and gut inside it or should we clean the stomach and gut and then use for fermentation ? Also in India , Hyderabad I will have to look for the fishes you have mentioned(Herring,mackareletc). Can I use any small fish for this?I really love your recipe …can’t wait to make my own sauce and have it! Thanks for the recipe…Also the total time taken to extract the fish sauce will be 6 weeks ( in fridge) and 3 days in room temperature . Is the correct. Once extracted the fish sauce can be used right immediately?

        • Kresha Faber says:

          If you’d got really small fish (say, only 1-2 inches long), I wouldn’t worry about gutting them. It’s not worth the effort. And if you’ve got fish that are say 4-6 inches long, like herring or smelt, I would gut them as you go – meaning, chop the fish into pieces without gutting them, but if you notice any guts or roe or other items you don’t want to include, just scrape them out then. It’s quicker! πŸ™‚

          And yes, you are correct in regards to both of your questions. You leave the fish at room temperature for 3 days, then move it to the refrigerator for six weeks. (Traditionalists will insist that it never goes in the refrigerator, but I prefer the taste when it ferments more slowly. It’s a smoother flavor.) And after that, yes, you can use it immediately. And the longer it sits, the better and more mellow the flavor.

  2. Michelle says:

    Wow! While I don’t think that I’m going to ever part with my tried and true Three Crabs brand of fish sauce (nor would my husband ever forgive me if I tried!), this is really intriguing. It kind of reminds me of what I’ve read about garum, the Roman fish sauce and predecessor t o Worcestershire πŸ™‚ I’m curious what you use your homemade fish sauce in?

    • Kresha says:

      Surprisingly, since I really like it, I use it in anything that needs more umami – everything from Thai dishes to just a small splash in butternut squash soup. A few times I’ve even made a faux clam chowder using dulse flakes and this fish sauce and it makes a surprisingly decent replica of chowder when I don’t have clams on hand.

      By the way, did you know that Worcestershire is still made with anchovies, so they’re not that different in some ways. πŸ˜‰

      • Michelle says:

        Love all those uses you’ve found for the sauce. I didn’t know that about Worcestershire but totally makes sense. πŸ™‚ That fermented fish + salt combination is so umami-tastic. πŸ™‚

  3. Stephanie Blue says:

    This is fascinating. I love Vietnamese food but the fish sauce has always skeeved me out a bit because I know it’s filled with crap. I think I’m going to try this. The fish head is a little freaky but I think I can do it. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. TJ says:

    Here’s a dumb question. πŸ™‚ Does it have to be herring or smelt? I mean… I live in Montana, which is trout country. I have a young boy who catches a lot of them, and there are quite a few yet in my freezer. Can you use freshwater trout to make this??

    • Kresha says:

      I can’t think of any reason why you couldn’t use freshwater fish for this recipe. And since trout is classified as an “oily fish” like herring, smelt, anchovies, sardines, etc, I can’t imagine that that would cause an issue here. Absolutely go for it. πŸ™‚

  5. Robin says:

    Curious if you have any idea how long this would last after being opened (and refrigerated). I’m curious to try. Thanks for posting.

    • Kresha says:

      Well, Sally Fallon doesn’t give an estimated storage time in her recipe in Nourishing Traditions, so my safe estimate would be six months. The bottle that’s currently in my fridge and that I use regularly is nine months old and still smells and looks fine, but I would hesitate to give that as a definitive answer, as results certainly may vary. πŸ™‚

      • Lark says:

        Traditionally made fish sauce AKA Nuoc mam, Garum etc, which is made from fresh, never frozen fish and salt only (no whey, acids, water or other ingredients) and fermented for months or years in much warmer conditions than the typical North American kitchen does not spoil, in fact gets better with age. Also, you wouldn’t want to keep traditionally made fish sauce in the refrigerator as the cold will cause the salt to precipitate. Keep in mind the traditional stuff was invented thousands of years before refrigeration specifically to preserve fish or as a byproduct of salting fish for preservation.

        • Kresha Faber says:

          You’re exactly right and actually, the above recipe is very much like you describe – fresh fish packed in salt to preserve it. All the other ingredients are merely for flavor. (And they’re delicious.) And the refrigeration doesn’t actually cause the salt to come out of suspension – I’ve seen bottles of this last for upwards of two years in the refrigerator with nary a crystalization. Even in traditional settings without refrigeration, fermented products were kept in the coolest areas possible (which in tropical areas typically was a warm room temperature, yes) and out of sunlight.

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  7. chloee konsam says:

    can you make the sauce out of already fermented fish? coz we eat fermented fish and i have no idea how to make the sauce, or do we stick to raw fish only?

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Hmmm… That’s a great questions! I have no idea. πŸ™‚ I’ve only ever started with raw fish and fermented it myself. Is your fermented fish flavored in any way (such as pickled herring)? Otherwise, it might work, but I honestly don’t know!

      Perhaps another reader has experience with this?

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  9. Allie M says:

    I love fish sauce…so I whipped myself up a batch…most horrifying thing I’ve ever done willingly πŸ™ I really hope this stuff is yum-tastic!

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  12. Chau says:

    [Note from Kresha: I LOVE this comment! Thank you. I can almost smell the barrels of fish by your description. πŸ™‚ On the other hand, perhaps this is why I’ve tried to create a “traditional tasting” sauce that CAN be made at home. πŸ™‚ ]

    I don’t know where did you find that recipe but as an old Vietnamese (62) it’s all wrong.
    Traditionally, one layer of fish will be one layer of salt. All the way fills up the barrel, the barrel is big enough for a man to stand up in it. The fish will be rotton into a mush. The smell your nose can find 100 kilometer away. There will be maggots in it too. After 30 days, fish sauce maker will filter out the sauce. There will be brown sugar and water mix in the sauce to take down the salty tastes.
    The orignal sauce is salty enough to curl your toes.
    Depend on the mix of the brown sugar and water will give the grade of fish sauce for dipping or cooking. Never to try to make it at home. If your house is not smell it’s not done.

    • Padma says:

      Sometimes the new version of recipes are better than the traditional (like 1000 year old eggs).

      If the original does not include a water soak, the oxygen would be causing some unpleasant bacteria.

  13. Sajeev says:

    I wanted to make this at home because my son is allergic to shellfish and other commercially available stuff. I had two questions:

    1. Can we use brewers yeast to speed up the fermentation?
    2. Can we use brown sugar with the salt to make it a bit sweet? I prefer “Jaggery” which is a big lump of pure , UN-purified cane sugar available in Indian stores.
    3. Once we extract the sauce, should we pasteurize it to kill off the bacteria to prevent further fermentation and mold formation?

    Thanks and God bless!!

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Sajeev,

      Great questions!

      1. No – you don’t want to hurry the fermentation, as it won’t develop the proper balance of bacteria for long term storage. (The flavor will be affected as well.)

      2. I love jaggery, too. πŸ™‚ But I wouldn’t add it to this, as the sugar will feed the natural yeasts too much and will throw the balance of bacteria off. Perhaps once you’ve tasted it and decided you want it sweeter, dissolve a bit of jaggery in a tiny amount of water and stir it into a portion of the fish sauce shortly before you use it.

      3. And no, I would definitely not pasteurize it, as that’s why you’ve let it sit so long – to bring the proliferation of GOOD bacteria right where you want it. If you pasteurize it, all that lovely, beneficial bacteria will be destroyed as well. To halt fermentation, just keep it refrigerated. I had one batch last for two years without a single bit of mold (we ate the others before that), so the bacteria certainly does it job.

      I hope this works well for your son!

  14. Stephanie Anderson says:

    I love fish sauce and use a Vietnamese brand, Red Boat, that is very good and has great ingredients. But I love the idea of making my own. Before I launch into this recipe, my husband wants to know if it smells at any point in the process or while it’s in the refrigerator.

    Thank you,
    Stephanie

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Great question and the answer is both yes and no. πŸ™‚

      Yes, because it is fish and it is fermenting, so like pretty much ANY ferment, you’re going to have a bit of odor for the first few days. But it’s not overly fishy (like it does when you’re filleting a salmon or cooking fish – it’s not a bad smell at all). And once it’s in the refrigerator, it’s capped, so it’s like any other fish sauce – it only smells a bit when you open it to use it. It doesn’t stink up the refrigerator. πŸ™‚

      And that’s why I say “no, it doesn’t smell,” because most people have the connotation that it would be like the large outdoors vats that are used in Vietnam for making fish sauce, where the smell is pungent. If you’re comparing it to that, the smell is pleasant and minimal. πŸ™‚

      I hope that helps!

  15. salle says:

    Just found your blog! I am on Hcg protocol and in Asia and cannot bear to not eat my Asian meals. And all manufactured fish sauce that’s marketed in my hometown has sugar.

    I use less of it in my no carbs no sugar food restriction and was inspired by your homemade version. Will definitely try it. Thanks so much!

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  17. Nikki says:

    Can’t wait to try! Do you use anything to weigh the mixture down in the jar to keep floaters from sitting above the water? I’ve only had this problem with pickles and I’d assume something in this mix would float too!

    • Kresha Faber says:

      No, I haven’t used anything to weigh them down, as really the only thing that tends to float are the peppercorns. Granted, I also pack it fairly tightly, so that helps.

      πŸ™‚

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  19. michael banger says:

    this seems to be a fairly well discussed recipe. i plan on using carp as the fish. would you recommend “grinding” the fish prior to fermentation? i plan on sacrificing one of my brew buckets to make about 4-5 gall batch. another question is, do i want airborne yeast to get in (cover with cheeseclosth) or do i put on an airlock?

    thank you
    michael

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Hi, Michael.

      Let’s see – last question first: you’ll want to use an airlock for this project.

      As for grinding, no, I definitely recommend leaving the pieces somewhat larger, as the fish will soften as they ferment, so straining it might become very frustrating when you do so at the end of the process.

      I’m curious how the carp works in the recipe. Please let us know! πŸ™‚

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  21. Atti says:

    Hi. Thanks for your helpful website. I think I’ve made a big mistake! I used table salt instead of sea salt. Is it going to ferment well?
    And if there is 4 inch of space above the stuffs, is there to be a problem?

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Atti,

      No worries! Table salt won’t ruin your ferment, so no cause for alarm. πŸ™‚

      And as long as all the fish are submerged with at least 1 inch of liquid above them (and remain that way for the entire fermentation duration), it doesn’t matter how much more of the jar is open.

      So, it sounds like all is well! I hope you love the fish sauce in a few weeks. πŸ™‚

  22. saltan says:

    i did not leave the prepared stuff at room temperature..I dumped it in the fridge for 6 weeks.when removing the cover I found that sauce has strong pungent smell.and its color dark brown.Now i do not khow whether it is done or not

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Yes, the color sounds right and depending on your definition of “strong” and “pungent,” that could be exactly right. At this point, as long as there’s no mold present, it’s just up to how you like the taste. Taste a little bit and if it’s too fishy, leave it a few more weeks – if not, strain it and it’s ready for use, and yes, it will continue to mellow as it ages, even after it’s bottled.

      I hope that helps!

  23. Fehmina Poonawalla says:

    Hi,

    Just wanted to say, I tried making this with whey. However, when I was ready to strain and pulled it out of the fridge, it had a weird cream color growth on it and smelled off. Wanted to know is it still ok, if I skim off the top or should i toss it?

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Well, the growth isn’t necessarily troublesome, but the off smell definitely is. I would recommend tossing it, unfortunately.

      However, it can be difficult to throw out food, especially after the months it takes to make fish sauce, so if you would like to try to save it, perhaps try this: gently scrape off every bit of growth you can see, then strain it. Smell it again and if it smells better, then taste a *tiny* amount to see if it’s pleasant, and if it IS, then return it to the refrigerator and continue to taste it once a week for 6 weeks, as well as looking for signs of growth on the top. If after 6 weeks it is still pleasant tasting and there are no signs of growth, then go ahead and use it, but if at any time during that 6 weeks it is neither pleasant tasting nor pleasant smelling or you see signs of growth, it will need to be tossed.

      And do taste only a small amount, especially in the first week or two – you don’t want to poison yourself if something wayward has taken hold! You could also up your intake of probiotic foods during this time, just to bolster your immune system.

      And of course, remember that I’m not a doctor, so my advice stems merely from what I would do in my own kitchen. πŸ™‚

      I hope that helps!

  24. Kim says:

    With so much bad publicity about chinese made food laced with chemica’ and filthy stuff ( I believe most fish sauce even said from Thailand is owned and made by chinese companies)
    I am so glad to find your recipe . I am trying it right now. .I made two batches, one with salmon and one with trout . Can I leave them out all 6 weeks in room temperature? Is bacteria a problem . I saw some recipe online, recommending to boil before using, is it OK to boil just before using. Thank You again

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Well, bacteria is always an issue when making fermented foods – meaning, you can most definitely safely ferment foods at room temperature, but you need to be vigilant. If at any point it looks or smells unpleasant in a sickening kind of way, then you’ll need to throw it out. Otherwise, if you’ve followed the recipe and all the directions, you should have a lovely fish sauce after a few weeks. (And yes, it is fermented at room temperature, which by definition doesn’t go much above 72F at any time. If your house is warmer, I would recommend moving it to a cool closet or even the refrigerator, although that will slow fermentation significantly.)

      Also, I would pay particular attention to your salmon batch. Because salmon is a very oily fish, the oil may turn rancid, so be sure to smell for that as well through its fermentation time.

      And as for boiling, well, yes and no. Of course, it’s *fine* to boil it – it won’t ruin the flavor in any way, but it will kill all the probiotic goodness, so if you’re wanting to keep the beneficial bacteria alive, you won’t want to heat it at any point.

      So, I hope that helps! Enjoy!!

  25. Jack says:

    I was recently in Vietnam doing some travel and food research and happened across some of the best fish sauce that I have ever tasted. Ended up spending the night on a fishing boat in the waters surrounding Nha Trang where they were netting their catch. We had a meal on the boat that featured some of the nights catch as well as one of the crew members home made fish sauce so I tried to get the recipe out of him but limited Vietnamese made it hard. In the end I was invited to his house where he showed me the barrels used for making the fish sauce which turns out to be basically made from any variety of small fish they net, guts in, mixed with just salt then left to age for 3 months to a year. The ratio turned out to be about 25% salt and there was a small tap in the base of the barrel for pouring the sauce when it was done. The smell from the barrels was incredibly strong but the sauce itself was quite light in colour but amazingly complex. I havnt personally tried this method but it would totally be worth a go if you were to have the appropriate fish on hand. I think the key to these ferments is having extremely fresh fish so having a friend with a boat and some nets would be ideal.

    • Kresha Faber says:

      What a great story! Thank you so much for sharing!

      And you’re so right about the fresh fish – having access to catches right off the boat is AMAZING when you can.

  26. Lai says:

    Hello Kresha !

    I realize this blog post is several years old and you may not be able to answer but I was wondering if I would be able to use a larger fish for this recipe as long as all the fish parts are present ?

    My mother is allergic to saltwater fish and fishsauce has always been a staple in her cooking so I wanted to see if I could make fish sauce from carp but I’ve never seen a carp sold at the supermarket that was smaller than my hand before.

    Thank you and I hope you’re having a wonderful day.

    • Kresha Faber says:

      Oh, yes, absolutely! In fact, just cut up the fish (using the least oily parts possible, since carp is rather an oily fish), place as much in the jar as will fit, then just cook up the rest or make a second batch or whatever – no problem!

      I hope it’s a wonderful sauce for your mother! πŸ™‚

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