Homemade Fish Sauce

I admit that I had been reluctant to get into the world of fermented meats. After all, animals are more complex, what with their locomotion, protein-based muscles and specialized organs. Not like those simple cellulose and carbohydrate plants. And more complexity means more creatures in Nature which like to feed on recycle other expired creatures. And some of those creatures (i.e. putrefying and pathogenic organisms) can make us sick.

So I decided to begin with a simple fermented fish sauce. I certainly use fish sauce quite often in cooking and when making kimchi, so I thought, “what kind of Fermenter would I be if I used store-bought fermented sauce?!” I based my first attempt on the recipe in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook (yes, I am one of those kooky WAPF‘ers).

Selecting Fish

You can use a variety of fresh, whole fish, but stick with smaller marine (oceanic) fish species that are less than 1 foot long. Sardines, anchovies, and mackerel all work well. These “forage fish” species are eaten by larger fish species. They grow quickly and are abundant and are considered very sustainable. They feed on plankton and don’t live very long (so they don’t collect toxins like mercury). When selecting fresh fish from a market, here are some tips:

  1. There should be no “fishy” odors
  2. Eyes should be clear (not cloudy)
  3. The flesh “rebounds” when pressed lightly (doesn’t leave a divot)

Basic Fermentation

At a minimum, keep it on the counter for 3-4 days in a tightly lidded mason jar. If you’re planning to ferment it longer, burp the jar every few days (preferably outside!) to keep pressure from building up. I recently made a batch of mackerel sauce that fermented a total of 3 months– two months at room temp, and one month in the fridge.

Fermentation Time and Salt

You can also vary the fermentation time widely. If you’re up for a longer fermentation time (many traditional Asian recipes ferment up to a year), be sure to adjust the salt levels to protect the sauce during the longer ferment.

Fermented Fish Sauce
Recipe type: Condiment
Prep time: 
Fermentation time: 
Yield: 2 cups
Fermented fish sauce is a strongly flavored condiment you can use in soups, stir fries, and of course, other fermented dishes like kimchi!
  • 1½ lbs. fresh sardines, anchovies, or mackerel
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 5 Tablespoons/ 70g sea salt for a one-month fermentation SEE SALT CHART FOR LONGER TIMES
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon mixed or black peppercorns
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon peel
  • 2 Tablespoons whey or pickle brine
  1. Cut whole fish into 1" pieces and add to jar.
  2. Mash fish into a slurry with a potato masher or mortar.
  3. Smash garlic cloves by pressing under the blade of a wide knife. Add to jar.
  4. Grate or peel lemon and add lemon peel to jar.
  5. Add peppercorns, bay leaves, salt, whey/brine and enough water to jar to cover fish completely. Mix well.
  6. Cover tightly with lid.
  1. Let sit on counter from 2 to 4 weeks. If keeping longer than 4 days, be sure to "burp" the jar every few days (preferably outside!) to keep pressure from building up, breaking the jar, and making a smelly mess.
  2. Transfer to refrigerator, let it sit for another 4 weeks.
  1. Strain contents through a fine mesh strainer into a glass bowl. Let sit a half hour. Discard the solids or use to make fish stock.
  2. Pour the strained cloudy brown liquid through a coffee filter set inside a funnel. You can funnel directly into one or more glass bottles. This filtering process will take several hours or even days.
  3. You should now have a clear pungent liquid that is brown or reddish-brown in color. Properly fermented fish sauce will keep for many months or years in the refrigerator.