Salty condiments, from soy sauce to fish sauce, add welcome umami punch to your cooking. Here’s how to use the different kinds.
A Facebook group that I moderate recently had a lively discussion about the, uh, pungent quality of Asian fish sauce. “Is it me or does fish sauce smell like 😱 ?” asked the original poster. “Smells like death,” some agreed. “Nastiest stuff.”
Others chimed in to sing the praises of fish sauce’s glorious umami quality, which melds beautifully with other flavors. And to the OP’s credit, she did give it a try in a couple of recipes and found the results were, indeed, delicious. Now she just refrains from taking a whiff from the bottle.
Fish sauce is just one member in a “family” of salty condiments. These are three in my cabinet, and they’re just a few of the many options to choose from based on your preference, pantry staples and dietary needs. You can use these condiments less interchangeably — mostly. But it helps to know the nuances so you know what to expect when swapping one for another.
Home cooks are well-acquainted with soy sauce. It’s made from fermented soybeans and wheat. There are many different types of soy sauce, including:
Tamari, which is a variety of soy sauce, is made from fermented soybeans and little or no wheat. It also has stronger flavor. Obviously, wheat-free tamari is a boon for anyone who needs to keep things gluten free. If that’s the case, always double-check the label to ensure it’s right for you.
Other gluten-free salty condiments include Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (also made from soybeans) or coconut aminos (made from the sap of the coconut palm trees, so milder and sweeter than soy sauce).
Maggi’s Liquid Seasoning is enormously popular around the world, and the Swiss company has several varieties developed for different parts of the world. Formulations vary, including which additives are in them, so check labels if you have any allergies.
Asian fish sauce, made from anchovies and salt fermented in a barrel for a year, is the most pungent of this group. Check labels, though, because some fish sauce, like Red Boat, contains just anchovies and salt. Other brands also contain sugar or other sweeteners. Asian fish sauce is a gluten-free, soy-free option that’s becoming a supermarket standby.
But fish sauce isn’t unique to Asian cuisine. Fermented fish has been used as a flavor enhancer around the world for millennia. The ancient Romans loved their salty condiments, too, and had a version called garum that food historians think was pretty similar to modern-day colatura di alici, an anchovy-based Italian condiment that’s aged even longer than its Asian cousin. I’ve haven’t used it yet, but I’m guessing it has an even bigger umami punch.
Another popular type of fish sauce most of us know really well: Worcestershire. This anchovy-based, quintessentially British condiment turns up in all manner of marinades and sauces (it’s a key ingredient in classic Caesar dressing). It’s also the lowest in sodium of this bunch. In addition to anchovies, it’s got vinegar, tamarind, garlic, onions, molasses and sugar, so it’s more of a salty-sweet-sour flavor profile. And it’s gluten free.
You’ll also find vegan “fysh” and Worcestershire sauces. Some may contain soy and/or wheat, so check labels if those are ingredients you want to avoid.