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I admit that I had been reluctant to get into the world of fermented meats. After all, it just seemed more hazardous. There is an increased risk of fermenting meat versus vegetables, due mainly to the variety of pathogenic organisms that feed on protein, and also to the lower acidity of most fermented meats versus veggies.
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 simple and short-time recipe in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions cookbook (yes, I am one of those kooky WAPF‘ers). Then upon further experimentation, I gradually began making a more traditional Thai or Vietnamese style sauce (fermenting up to a year).
You can use a variety of fresh, whole fish, but due to water pollution, it’s best stick with small 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:
- There should be no “fishy” odors
- Eyes should be clear (not cloudy)
- The flesh “rebounds” when pressed lightly (doesn’t leave a divot)
At a minimum, let it ferment one month. 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 styles of fish sauce ferment up to a year), be sure to adjust the salt levels to protect the sauce during the longer ferment.
- 1½ lbs. (700g) whole fresh sardines, anchovies, or mackerel
- 2 cups (450 ml) filtered water
- ¾ cup (170g) sea salt (25% brine by weight, SEE SALT CHART FOR LONGER TIMES)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) mixed or black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon (3 ml) lemon peel, grated or shaved
- (Optional) 2 Tablespoons (30 ml) whey or pickle brine
- Cut whole fish into 1" pieces and add to jar.
- Mash fish into a slurry with a potato masher or mortar.
- Smash garlic cloves by pressing under the blade of a wide knife. Add to jar.
- Grate or peel lemon and add lemon peel to jar.
- Add peppercorns, bay leaves, salt, whey/brine and enough water to jar to cover fish completely. Mix well.
- Cover tightly with lid.
- Store in a cool place (indoors or outdoors) away from direct sunlight. Let sit 1 to 3 months. For the first few weeks, "burp" the jar every few days (preferably outside!) to keep pressure from building up.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- (Optional AIRING) If you fermented the sauce 6 months or longer, you may need to air the fish sauce out for a few weeks to remove foul, off odors. Give it a whiff, and if there are deisel or body odor smells, dispense clarified sauce into a wide container like a 2 qt bowl and cover it with a breathable cloth. Place it outside in a relatively shady spot for 2 weeks. Dispense back into bottles.
- Properly fermented and stored fish sauce will keep for many months at room temperature, or even years if stored in the refrigerator.