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Fish Sauce

Published September 2015
April 2016
We recently discovered that Thai Kitchen Premium Fish Sauce has been reformulated. It now specifies that it's made with sea salt and lists water as an ingredient, but it contains the same amount of sodium per serving. After tasting the new version, we still recommend it.

How we tested

What is Fish Sauce?

To the uninitiated, fish sauce might seem like an odd concept. Like soy sauce, it’s both a condiment and an ingredient, and it’s full of glutamates that enhance flavor in food. But while soy sauce is made from comparatively mild-tasting fermented soybeans and grains, fish sauce gets its signature flavor from something far more potent: fermented anchovies. Manufacturing methods vary among producers, but the basic process is the same: Fresh, whole anchovies are layered with sea salt and left to ferment in vats for at least 12 months. Over time, the fish breaks down and the salty liquid that forms is collected and filtered before bottling. It’s strong stuff with an intense aroma. But there’s a reason that this pungent sauce is a critical component of many Asian cuisines and is becoming increasingly commonplace in American kitchens. It boasts a rich, savory taste and a brininess that brings out depth and flavor in everything from dipping sauces and soups to stir-fries and marinades.

How We Tasted Fish Sauce

When we last tasted fish sauce, we deemed all six brands in our lineup acceptable. But recently, when we developed a recipe for chicken braised in a fish sauce–spiked caramel sauce, we noticed significant variations in saltiness and quality among brands. An update was in order. We gathered five products from grocery stores and Asian markets and sampled them over white rice, mixed into a simple Thai dipping sauce, and in our Cook's Illustrated recipe for Vietnamese Caramel Chicken.

Look For Higher Protein Content

Every brand was intensely flavored, but the best of these balanced saltiness with a complex, savory taste. Less successful brands were either overwhelmingly salty or unpleasantly “fishy.” Two brands listed “anchovy extract” instead of “anchovy” on their ingredient lists, but one was near the top of our rankings and one at the bottom, so we discounted it as a significant factor. What did turn out to be key was protein content. An independent lab confirmed that our winner contained nearly double or even triple the protein of the other products in our lineup: 20.58 percent protein by weight, compared with 11.44 percent for our runner-up and 7.44 to 8.92 percent for the remaining products. Though this sauce also had the highest sodium level, its abundance of protein kept it from tasting overly salty. Moreover, the other products tended to taste saltier, even though they actually had less sodium than our winner. This sauce was also the only one that didn’t contain sugar.

The Best Fish Sauce

Our new favorite is the second most expensive option in the lineup, but we think its “rich, meaty depth” and complex flavor are worth a few more pennies per ounce.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*