Can You Leave Fish Sauce Out of a Recipe?

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
Fish sauce in the supermarketPraneat /Depositphotos

Fish sauce can be a powerful flavor-booster. Here’s what to do when you don’t have it handy or you just want to leave it out.

Fish sauce is a staple in East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, and a favorite amount professional chefs and home cooks alike. Fish sauce is made by salting small fish or krill, then fermenting them for a few months to a few years; the longer the fermentation, the stronger the sauce.

With its high sodium and glutamate content, a tiny drizzle of fish sauce can impart a ton of salty and savory “umami” taste to any dish, adding complexity and bringing out the flavors of the other ingredients. Used well, fish sauce can enhance. Used poorly, it can overpower.

Yet fish sauce isn’t for everyone. Some simply don’t like the smell and taste of fermented fish. Others have fish allergies, and may experience mild irritation to a harsh allergic reaction when it’s used as a brine, marinade, or ingredient in their food.

Even for those who like it, fish sauce can oftentimes be hard to find. Not every supermarket carries it, and going out of your way to buy a single bottle of sauce is seldom worth it. Which begs the question… “Can fish sauce be left out of a recipe?”

You can leave fish sauce out of a recipe, but you need to substitute it with something else. The best substitutes for fish sauce are anchovy mince, Maggi Seasoning, Japanese miso paste, Korean doenjang paste, Worcestershire sauce, white soy sauce, and oyster sauce.

We give you the details—along with more specific advice for each of these four substitutions—below.

How Necessary is Fish Sauce to Most Recipes?

Used in brines and marinades, fish sauce adds a salty and savory flavor to red meat, poultry, or seafood. Fried, roasted, or cooked on the grill, the meat comes out seasoned throughout and deeply flavorful. Similar effects can be achieved with a salt-based brine or marinade instead of one based on fish sauce.

Added to broths and stocks, the sodium and the glutamate in fish sauce bring out the natural aromas and flavors from the bones, meat, and/or vegetables, and yields a more flavorsome result. When used in a broth or stock recipe, fish sauce can generally be substituted with salt, Maggi Seasoning, or Worcestershire sauce to taste.

Added to rice, pad Thai, stir-fries, and ramen bowls, fish sauce adds a fishy aroma and funky flavor that elevate these dishes to new heights. It is best substituted with soy sauce, Korean soybean paste (doenjang), Japanese miso paste, and/or Oyster sauce (Oyster sauce is sweet, so it should be used in combination with something salty).

The Best Fish Sauce Substitutes

Now that we’ve gone over the importance of having fish sauce in dishes that call for let’s get into the best fish sauce replacements you want to consider moving forward.

Minced Anchovies

Our favorite fish sauce, Red Boat Fish Sauce, is made from two ingredients, and two ingredients only: black anchovy and salt. When you don’t happen to have a bottle of it in your pantry, and you’re willing to compromise on the funk that comes from the fermentation process, you can substitute fish sauce with anchovy mince.

Take a few canned anchovy filets and, on a cutting board with your chef’s knife, mince them into a fine and uniform paste that you can add to your dish. This substitution works best for watery dishes because the anchovy mince will dissolve fully in the cooking liquid.

Substitution ratio: Substitute 1-2 minced anchovy filets for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. When in doubt, use less anchovies and work your way up; you can always add more saltiness and umami to a dish, but you can’t remove it.

Maggi Seasoning

When saltiness and savoriness are of the essence—but fishiness isn’t—consider yet another staple in our test kitchen and a well-kept secret among experienced cooks: Maggi Seasoning.

Just like fish sauce, Maggi Seasoning can be a real flavor-booster, and a few drops of it are enough to enhance any dish. It’s a particularly good substitute for fish sauce in brines and marinades; broths and stocks; and soups and stews where the funk from the fermentation process doesn’t really do all that much.

Substitution ratio: Substitute ½ tablespoon of Maggi Seasoning for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. If the rest of the ingredients in your dish don’t contain all that much salt, increase the substitution ratio to 1:1.

Japanese Miso

Miso paste is a traditional Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus called kōji. Sometimes, additional ingredients, such as rice, barley, and seaweed, are also added to the miso paste.

Miso is made from soybeans and grains, which makes it a fantastic vegan substitute for fish sauce that can nevertheless impart a salty, savory, and funky-fermented flavor to your dishes.

Substitution: Substitute 1½ tablespoons of Japanese miso paste for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

Korean Doenjang

Doenjang paste is a Korean seasoning made from meju (fermented soybeans with salt). It’s a pantry staple for cooks in Korea that’s earthier and more potent than its Japanese cousin, the miso paste.

Doenjang paste gives a salty and umami-rich boost to meat marinades, stir-fried noodles, tofu stews, and rice dishes. Do consider it when you are on the hunt for a vegan substitute for fish sauce with just as strong an aroma and flavor.

Substitution: Substitute 1 tablespoon of Japanese miso paste for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

Worcestershire Sauce

When that fishy taste is a requirement, there may not be a better replacement for fish sauce than Worcestershire sauce—a condiment incredibly popular in the United Kingdom and throughout the rest of Northern Europe.

Made of tangy vinegar, sweet molasses, salty anchovies, pungent garlic, tamarind extract, chili pepper, salt, and sugar, the end result is a very close approximation to fish sauce without the potent aroma and flavor of fermented fish upfront and center.

It is important to remember, though, that both of these sauces use fermented black anchovies, so neither of them is fit for vegans or those who are allergic to fish. You will also want to know that Worcestershire sauce has a much lower level of sodium and, in terms of consistency, is thicker and more velvety.

Substitution: Substitute 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

White Soy Sauce

White soy sauce, also known as “Japanese soy sauce” or “Thai white soy sauce,” is another traditional ingredient from Asiatic cuisine that you can use as a fish sauce substitute with a salty and, to an extent, briny flavor profile.

Obviously, this sauce is going to go really well with dishes from the same part of the world that call for fish sauce. White soy sauce has that same savory and sweet balance and, unlike some of the other products on our list, is similar in color to fish sauce.

Substitution: Substitute 1 tablespoon of white soy sauce for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce.

Oyster Sauce

Oyster sauce is the last substitute we would recommend, mainly because it has the savory profile you are looking for in a fish sauce substitution. However, it is also milder and sweeter, so it is best used in conjunction with something salty, be it salt, anchovy mince, or white soy sauce.

As for characteristics, oyster sauce is darker in color and thicker in texture. If you do not thin the oyster sauce at least a little by whisking it with water in a large bowl, your dish can get dark and sticky—and you may or may not want that.

It’s also important to read the oyster sauce label before you dump it into your dish. Many of the cheap versions disregard the traditions and craftsmanship of how this sauce is made. Instead of producing it slowly, they add extra caramel color that can alter the flavor of your dish in unanticipated ways.

Substitution: Substitute 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce for 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. Taste your dish and add a pinch of salt or 1 tablespoon of white soy sauce if you find that it still tastes bland.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.