Eel sauce, or unagi sauce, is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking. And it’s also the go-to sauce for some sushi. But is eel sauce gluten free?
I’ve eaten my fair share of eel rolls at sushi restaurants, and it almost always comes with eel sauce alongside. But what exactly is in it? And is it compatible with a gluten-free diet?
Most kinds of eel sauce include soy sauce. And since one of the main ingredients in soy sauce is wheat, eel sauce is not considered gluten free.
In this post, I’ll cover how eel sauce is used, what some gluten-free alternatives are, and how to make your own gluten-free eel sauce.
What is eel sauce?
Eel sauce is a thick, savory sauce that’s a key ingredient in Japanese cuisine, especially unagi donburi, or unadon, a grilled eel rice bowl. Plus, it’s a popular condiment or dipping sauce for eel rolls and other sushi rolls.
But it can also be used to add richer flavors to everything from cooked noodles and chicken wings to fried tofu and burgers — or as a marinade for steaks and other meats.
Originally derived from nitsume, a Japanese sauce made from reduced eel broth, now most recipes don’t include any eel. In terms of taste, it’s both salty and sweet with rich umami flavor, thanks in large part to the soy sauce that’s used to make it.
What is in eel sauce?
The most common ingredients in traditional eel sauce include a combination of soy sauce, sake, sugar, and mirin (a Japanese rice wine). It’s made by combining all the ingredients and reducing them down to a thick sauce.
Some recipes omit the sake and others use rice vinegar instead of rice wine. Water is also sometimes added to homemade eel sauce to help thin it out if it becomes too thick. Conversely, cornstarch can also be mixed in to act as a thickening agent.
Is eel sauce gluten-free?
Since most eel sauce contains soy sauce, it is not considered gluten free. Soy sauce is made with wheat, and wheat is a gluten-containing grain. So, if you have Celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or gluten sensitivities, eel sauce may be unsafe for you to consume.
Fortunately, there are many gluten-free alternatives available.
Gluten-free eel sauce alternatives
If you’re unable to have gluten, there are several gluten-free unagi sauce options to choose from. Here are a few ideas:
Gluten-free soy sauce
Eel sauce gets much of its umami flavor from regular soy sauce. And while it doesn’t have the same thick consistency as eel sauce, soy sauce can still be a good option. Some popular gluten-free choices include:
- Lee Kum Kee Gluten Free Soy Sauce
- Kikkoman Gluten Free Soy Sauce
- La Choy Gluten Free Soy Sauce
These products omit the wheat and use gluten-free ingredients like rice, corn, or corn starch instead.
Tamari sauce is similar to soy sauce, but it’s made with soybeans, water, salt, and sometimes koji, or fermented rice. It does not include any wheat products, so it’s considered gluten-free. Here are some widely-available options:
- Kikkoman Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce
- San-J Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce
- Ohsawa Organic Tamari
Made from the sap or nectar of palm trees, coconut aminos is like a lighter, thinner, less-salty type of sauce that is gluten free. It’s also a bit sweeter. But it has noticeable umami flavors and is a common substitute for traditional soy sauce. It can also make a great eel sauce alternative on its own. Or it can be used in place of soy sauce if you’re making homemade unagi sauce.
When looking for a gluten-free eel sauce, it’s important to check the product label to see if it’s labeled gluten-free or certified gluten-free. And check the ingredients list to ensure it doesn’t have any gluten-containing ingredients.
Making gluten free homemade eel sauce
While you can buy several brands of eel sauce at grocery stores and specialty Asian markets, it’s very easy to make in the comfort of your home. Here are the basic ingredients:
- 1/3 gluten-free soy sauce, tamari, or coconut aminos
- 1/3 cup mirin
- 3 tablespoons gtanulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons sake
To make it, simply combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. Then lower the heat to a simmer and reduce the mixture until it has the consistency of thin honey. Next, let it cool, where it will thicken a bit more. Then use as desired.
If the sauce thickens too much while cooking, you can add some water to thin it out. You can also adjust the amount of sugar if it’s too sweet.
The best way to store homemade eel sauce is in the fridge. Simply place the sauce in an airtight container first. The salt and sugar in the sauce will help it keep for up to three weeks in the refrigerator. Store-bought eel sauce should also be kept in the fridge, where it should keep for up to three months. The expiration date on the package label will display when it should be consumed by for peak freshness.
Yes, eel sauce freezes very well. If you’ve made your own, let it cool completely, then place it in a freezer-safe airtight container. It should stay good for up to 6 months in the freezer. To thaw it, just reheat it in a saucepan over low heat.
Is it gluten free?
Find out whether some other popular foods are gluten free. Check out the posts below.