Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian cuisines, adding a savory umami flavor to dishes like pho, pad thai, and stir-fries.
But with so many options available at your local Asian market, how do you know which bottle to choose?
In this article, we’ll explore the key factors to consider when grading fish sauce, from the color and smell to the ingredients list and protein content.
Whether you’re a seasoned home cook or a curious foodie, these tips will help you pick the perfect bottle of fish sauce for your next culinary adventure.
So let’s dive in!
How To Grade Fish Sauce?
When it comes to grading fish sauce, there are several factors to consider. Here are some key things to look for:
The Basics Of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is a fermented condiment made from fish and salt. It is an essential ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking, particularly in Vietnamese cuisine. The sauce adds an umami kick to dishes, making them more flavorful and delicious.
When choosing fish sauce, it is important to look at the ingredient list. The best fish sauces contain no more than four ingredients: anchovies, water (which may not be listed), salt, and sugar. If the ingredient list contains anything else, it is not a good sign. Some brands may list anchovy extract instead of anchovies, but this does not mean they are using artificial extracts. It simply means that there are no actual fish in the bottle, only the liquid that has been extracted from the fish.
Another factor to consider when grading fish sauce is the color of the sauce in the bottle. High-quality fish sauce has a reddish cast to it. Additionally, it is recommended to choose fish sauce in a glass bottle over plastic, as this is another indicator of quality.
At its purest form, fish sauce consists of fish and salt. Anchovies are the most commonly used fish, but sauces made from mackerel, sardine, and salmon are also available, each with its own distinct taste. The making process involves stacking freshly caught fish in wooden barrels at a ratio of three parts fish to one part salt. After 12 to 15 months, the proteins break down to produce an umami-rich liquid, which is siphoned off from the vessel and filtered to remove sediments. This first extraction of liquid is known as first press fish sauce and is considered the top-quality tier of the condiment.
After the first extraction, more salt and water are added into the barrels so that fermentation can continue for first-grade fish sauce. Each subsequent cycle of addition yields a lower grade of fish sauce that lacks the nuanced savory-sweet balance found in earlier extractions.
In Vietnam’s Phú Quốc Island located in the Gulf of Thailand, local fishermen make some of the highest-quality fish sauces using traditional techniques that have been passed down for over 200 years. The resulting sauce has a crisp saltiness and sweet aftertaste that makes it highly sought after by food enthusiasts.
Factors To Consider When Grading Fish Sauce
1. Grade: Different grades of fish sauce are available in the market, and it is essential to choose the right one based on your needs. Thai fish sauce, for example, has four grades, ranging from the highest quality to the lowest. The higher the grade, the better the quality of fish sauce.
2. Protein Content: The protein content of fish sauce is represented by degrees (°N) on the label. The higher the value, the higher the protein content and umami flavor, which also drives up the price. High-value fish sauces deliver a ton of umami flavor and work best when they play a starring role in dipping sauces.
3. Color: Good quality fish sauce should have a reddish-brown color. If the sauce is very dark or murky, it may be a low grade or not pure.
4. Transparency: High-grade fish sauce should be somewhat transparent rather than murky. Good nuoc mam, for example, should be so clear that it’s transparent.
5. Smell: Fish sauce should smell like the sea but not overwhelm you with a fish smell or taste. It will still have a pungent smell that diminishes in cooking.
6. Packaging: Choose fish sauce in a glass bottle over plastic, as it is an indicator of quality.
7. Production Method: The method of production can also affect the quality of fish sauce. For example, in Phu Quoc, Vietnam, fish sauce is made in wooden barrels in a prized way, and manufacturers pride themselves on making fish sauce in the same way as Italians take pride in their olive oil.
Color And Smell: What To Look For
The color and smell of fish sauce can tell you a lot about its quality. Traditional fish sauce has a clear amber hue, and as you shake it lightly, you should see air bubbles emerge. This indicates that the sauce has a high protein content and umami flavor. Quality fish sauce is also thicker and will stick to your fingers.
Additionally, the color of the sauce in the bottle is also important. Premium Vietnamese fish sauce has a reddish cast to it, indicating that it was made with high-quality ingredients and traditional methods. Cloudy sauce isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can indicate a higher protein content.
When it comes to smell, good fish sauce should have a distinct fishy aroma without being overly stinky. Handmade sauces tend to be smellier than those with additives, but darker sauces that have been left in the sun longer will have a less fishy taste and smell.
Ingredients List: Understanding The Components Of Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is made from a mixture of fish and salt that has been allowed to ferment for up to two years. The basic ingredients of a good fish sauce are fish, water, and salt. Traditionally, oily fish such as anchovies are used, although some fish sauces are also made from shrimp, krill, or mackerel. The fish are caught and rinsed while still very fresh, then packed in layers in large clay jars with sea salt. The jars are covered with a bamboo mat with a weight on it and left to sit in a sunny spot for 9 to 12 months to ferment. During this time, the salt draws out the liquids from the fish as they decompose. The liquid is then removed either by siphoning or through spigots at the bottoms of the jars.
Some fish sauces may contain additional ingredients such as sugars like caramel or molasses, or roasted rice, but these are not necessary for a good quality fish sauce. It is important to note that high mercury concentration can be found in larger fish, especially in predator fish like scabbard fish, so it is recommended to use smaller fish when making fish sauce.
When measuring the nitrogen level of fish sauces (N), most fish sauce on the market falls within the mid 20N range. Anything over 30N is considered high-grade, and 40N is optimal. “First press” fish sauce, meaning the sauce is bottled from the first time the fermenting barrels are drained, indicates quality.
Vietnamese fish sauces are made with anchovies, mackerel, scabbard fish, and salt. They do not have any additives like sugar, hydrolyzed protein, or preservatives. Vietnamese prefer sauces without a strong smell and transparent with a deep golden amber color.
Thai Fish Sauce is generally made from very small fish such as anchovies and has four grades of quality. All grades will be a reddish-brown sauce; better quality ones will be somewhat transparent rather than murky. Good quality Thai Fish Sauce should be reddish brown with a pungent smell that diminishes in cooking. If the fish sauce is very dark or murky, it’s a low grade or not pure one and may contain ingredients like hydrolysed wheat protein and fructose.
Understanding the components of fish sauce is important when grading it for quality. Look for high nitrogen levels and “first press” bottling for optimal quality, and avoid fish sauces with additives or murky appearances.
Protein Content: Why It Matters
Protein content is an important factor to consider when grading fish sauce. The protein content of fish sauce is measured by the amount of nitrogen per liter, with higher protein content indicating a better quality product. However, it is important to note that protein content can only go up to 43 degrees before it becomes an indicator of a bigger fish or a mechanical process. Fish sauce made from bigger fishes tends to have a heavy fishy stench due to the fermentation of their guts. On the other hand, anchovies, which only eat plankton, produce a fish sauce with a much smaller stomach and a milder taste.
It is also worth noting that some brands may add protein to their fish sauce, but this may not necessarily increase the overall protein content per serving. Moreover, other additives such as hydrolyzed wheat protein may be used as flavor enhancers, similar to MSG.
When choosing a fish sauce, it is recommended to select one with at least 2 grams of protein per tablespoon. The degrees of Vietnamese fish sauce vary from 20°N to 60°N, with lower degrees being more suitable for cooking and higher degrees demonstrating the full potential of dipping sauces.
Tasting And Comparing Fish Sauces
One of the best ways to grade fish sauce is by tasting and comparing different brands. This can help you identify the nuances in flavor, texture, and aroma that make each sauce unique.
To conduct a taste test, start by choosing two or three different brands of fish sauce that you want to compare. Look for labels that list only a few ingredients, such as anchovies, water, salt, and sugar. Avoid brands that contain a long list of additives or preservatives.
Once you have your sauces, pour a small amount of each into separate bowls. Take note of the color, texture, and aroma of each sauce. Is one sauce lighter or darker than the others? Is one more viscous or watery? Does one have a stronger or weaker smell?
Next, taste each sauce on its own. Swirl a small amount around in your mouth and take note of the flavors that come through. Is one sauce saltier than the others? Does one have a more pronounced umami flavor? Is one sweeter or more bitter than the others?
After tasting each sauce on its own, try mixing them together to see how they complement each other. Some sauces may work better as a base for marinades or dipping sauces, while others may be better suited for adding depth of flavor to soups or stews.
Ultimately, the best way to grade fish sauce is by personal preference. Everyone’s palate is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. By tasting and comparing different brands, you can find the fish sauce that best suits your taste buds and culinary needs.