Dark, glossy, and tantalizing in its very stink is the ingredient and condiment known as bagoong.

Thought to have been developed either as a preservation method or as a way of using up fish or shrimp that were too teensy to sell, bagoong utilizes the power of fermentation to transform two seemingly simple elements—salt and seafood (in this case, shrimp)—into a most complex-tasting, deeply pungent condiment. Though you’ll find similar variations around Southeast Asia, it plays a vital role Filipino cuisine, utilized as a condiment with raw or blanched fruits and veggies such as green mangoes, served alongside cooked viands like kare-kare, or cooked into dishes such as binagoongan. And though traditionally purchased fresh from the wet market before being sautéed to help coax out its distinctive flavor, a number of local brands have answered the call for convenience with pre-sautéed, bottled versions available at almost any supermarket. How do they compare?
Note: bottled bagoong often comes in regular, sweet, and spicy variants; we narrowed our selection down to only regular versions where applicable.

Barrio Fiesta

Dark in color, Barrio Fiesta’s gives off a deep, pungent aroma as you open the bottle. Though highly salty as most bagoong can be, it brings forward the characteristic depth of flavor of fermented shrimp underneath. A mid-level sweetness balances the savoriness out, as well as a peculiar dusky (and somewhat chocolatey) note which surprisingly melds with the rest of the flavors beautifully.

Saltiness: 4/5 | Sweetness: 3/5 | Acidity: 2/5

Dagupan

Dagupan’s sports a distinctly more reddish hue, with a higher amount of oil covering the solids within the bottle. It’s also on the very salty side with just a touch of sweetness, but it comes perked up with the distinct pop of sourness (revealed by the ingredient list to be from vinegar) which brightens up the mix without taking over. Dagupan thus performs best when paired with more neutral-tasting mediums, like fresh-cut singkamas.

Saltiness: 4/5 | Sweetness: 2.5/5 | Acidity: 3.5/5

Dizon Farms

Hailing from a local fruit and vegetable farm (as part of their line of bottled condiments), this bagoong is relatively more emulsified (i.e., the oil and the solids are better incorporated with each other) and has a distinctly softer, relatively pulpier consistency with what little to no gristly shrimp shells. It’s the least salty of all brands, but also comes the sweetest, leaning toward being of the sweet style of bagoong despite being peddled as a regular variant. It works fine as a condiment for pairing with green mangoes, but can feel too sugary for use in cooking. Also present is a certain fattiness that lingers long on the tongue; our guess is that it comes from pork or pork fat, the former being curiously listed as one of the ingredients despite there not being any discernible meat bits in the mix.

Saltiness: 2.5/5 | Sweetness: 5/5 | Acidity: 0/5

Golden Hands

Golden Hands’ version also comes buried with a relatively large amount of oil in the bottle. This is the saltiest of the lot; it just about assaults the senses from its strong scent to the potent salinity it emits on the tongue. You’ll still find the expected umami and shrimpiness of bagoong underneath, plus a whisper of bitterness toward the end that isn’t unpleasant, but take heed; a little goes a long way.

Saltiness: 5/5 | Sweetness: 1/5 | Acidity: 2/5

Lorins

Lorins’ dark, mahogany-colored take carries an especially umami-forward aroma. A touch less salty than the previous brands with just a hint of acidity, this bagoong allows the complexity of fermented shrimp to shine through more clearly, making for an especially deep flavor sensation without having us scared for our kidneys. This lends it a great versatility, working great both for dipping as well as for cooking—the latter in particular, as it allows you to control the amount of salt to your liking.

Saltiness: 3.5/5 | Sweetness: 2/5 | Acidity: 3/5

Mother’s Best

Mother’s Best’s bagoong is also of the more emulsified sort like Dizon, with the oil and the solids better melded together for for a thicker resulting feel. It also leans toward the very salty end, but carries ample sweetness (just a notch below Dizon’s) to help even it out. Especially worth noting here is the way it finishes with a mild heat; though unexpected, it’s very welcome, perking up just about anything you dip into it.

Saltiness: 3.5/5 | Sweetness: 3.5/5 | Acidity: 2/5

Mura Sarap

Mura Sarap comes with a good amount of oil and teases with a fish sauce-y aroma that starts subtle, but builds up gradually to an appetizing pungency. It’s almost at par with Golden Hands in saltiness, veering toward the overpowering end of the spectrum, that you’ll also want to use it sparingly. Still, this brand offers a much better balance of flavors—not only does it ring with ample sweetness, a mild tanginess, and a slightly spicy finish; you’ll also find a certain cocoa or tsokolate-y robustness underneath that gives it an overall 3-dimensional feel.

Saltiness: 5/5 | Sweetness: 4/5 | Acidity: 2/5

The Verdict: Lorins

Tough as it was to choose a winner (truthfully, we wouldn’t say no to any of these), three in particular stood out: the classic-tasting and ever-reliable for us Barrio Fiesta, salty but especially complex-tasting Mura Sarap, and the more balanced but nonetheless umami-potent Lorins. Ultimately, Lorins’ version takes home the trophy; as far as versatility and well-roundedness profile goes, this brand is your best bet.



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