Fish Sauce Provides The Umami Boost Your Marinara Needs

Asian condiments may not be ingredients you'd immediately think to use when attempting to amp up an Italian classic like marinara sauce. However, a few dashes of fish sauce can be exactly what you need for a savory, umami boost.

Given the intense flavor of fish sauce, it doesn't take much to transform even the least inspiring red sauce. A good starting point is 1 tablespoon per 28-ounce can of tomatoes, which can be tweaked to taste. Add fish sauce when you incorporate the tomatoes to allow the fish sauce to integrate fully into the marinara sauce while it simmers. Red sauces can sometimes become too sweet and lack complexity without fish sauce or other umami elements. When shopping for this ingredient, keep in mind that different brands can vary somewhat widely in flavor, so it may be necessary to try a few to discover your favorite.

Home cooks should also consider their guests' dietary preferences and conditions before adding fish sauce to a group meal for several reasons. Beyond fish allergies, some people may be sensitive to other ingredients in fish sauce, like gluten. Additionally, adding fish sauce turns a typically vegan-friendly marinara into an off-limits dish for those avoiding all animal products.

Fish sauce is a do-it-all savory secret

The secret behind the umami power of fish sauce comes from its simple but time-tested production method, which traces its roots back thousands of years. Large amounts of fish like anchovies, krill, or mackerel are mixed with salt and left to ferment for months, naturally separating into liquids and solids. This liquid is then strained, reduced, and aged to create its fishy, funky, uniquely savory flavor.

This secret ingredient can also be used in other tomato-based recipes to impart an additional layer of fishiness to briny puttanesca or complement the sweetness of vodka sauce. Fish sauce can also be added to jarred, ready-to-use marinara sauces, though it may take more trial-and-error for those looking to avoid an overly fishy taste in an already finished product. Beyond Italian cuisine, fish sauce can similarly benefit tomato-based barbecue sauces and chili. 

So, while it might not be precisely how Grandma made it, marinara with a splash of fish sauce is, without a doubt, one of the best ways to wow your fellow diners, whether for a casual weeknight meal or a hearty Sunday dinner.