Worcestershire sauce is a mystery for many reasons. First, how do you pronounce that first word? And then when you find out it’s “wist-ə-shur,” you naturally want to know why it’s only three syllables when it looks like there are at least five. And when that’s sorted, what is it named after? Is there a Lord Worcestershire out there? Or did someone else create it? Five questions in and we haven’t even gotten to the flavor yet. So let’s go there now! What’s in it that creates the salty, umami taste that is a perfect accompaniment to steak, adds zing to salad dressing, and gives a depth of flavor to a Bloody Mary? And also, what else is it good for? Let’s talk about all of these things, starting with the name.
What is Worcestershire?
Worcestershire is a rural county in the West of England and it is there, in the largest city of Worster, that Worcestershire sauce was invented.
I’m sure you notice that the suffix “-shire” is added onto Worcester to create the county name. That’s, in general, a British thing to do, but this “shire” has special significance to the creator of another “Shire.”
Yep, J.R.R. Tolkien has a particular love for Worcestershire, so much so that he claimed that county as home and based the region of Middle-Earth known as the Shire on it. His Aunt Jane’s farm is allegedly the inspiration for Bilbo Baggins’ house.
Worcestershire – famous for sauce and an epic novel. Not too shabby. Though I’m still not so clear on why it’s only three syllables.
Who named this sauce something so impossible?
Okay, so now that we know more about Worcestershire itself, it feels a little less crazy, but still, why didn’t the creators name it after themselves?
Well, they did. Kind of. The most famous brand of Worcestershire sauce, and the original, is Lea & Perrins. John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins were pharmacists (or chemists, as the Brits would say) in Worcester in the 19th century. Back then, pharmacists around the world were known for creating all sorts of tonics, among them Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, but in England they were looking for something more savory.
In the 1830s, Lea and Perrins claim to have come upon a recipe for what would later become Worcestershire sauce, thanks to Lord Marcus Sandys, ex-governor of Bengal, India. Except there are no records supporting the existence of such a person. Numerous guesses have been made about its actual origin—everything from a member of the House of Lords, to a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, to the Chief Justice of India who had brought it back with him as a substitute for curry powder—but no one knows for sure.
Regardless of its origin, Lea and Perrins made a batch of it shortly after getting the recipe. They thought it tasted awful and set the barrel they had mixed it in aside. Then, a couple years later while doing some spring cleaning, they rediscovered the barrel. The sauce had aged well and had the savory, piquant flavor we’re familiar with today.
The sauce was a hit, so Lea and Perrins began manufacturing and selling the sauce in 1838 and nearly 200 years later, their factory is still going strong.
Back to the beginning: Why did they name it Worcestershire sauce? Maybe they loved their county as much as J.R.R. Tolkien and wanted it to be world-renowned. Unfortunately for them, Worcestershire is not a trademarkable name, so other companies, such as Heinz, can use it on their bottles. But the Lea & Perrins brand is still the original.
What is Worcestershire sauce made of?
Here’s the fun part. And by fun, I mean potentially disturbing. Remember when I said that the first barrel of Worcestershire sauce was aged for years? Well, beyond a couple different types of vinegar (barley malt and spirit), molasses, sugar, and salt, the most prominent ingredient is…anchovies.
Yes, Worcestershire sauce is in large part aged, fermented fish paste. But that’s why it has that lovely umami bite. If that fact freaks you out, there are several vegan and vegetarian options on the market (like Annie’s vegan Worcestershire sauce) that, while not Lea & Perrins, come pretty close.
Beyond those ingredients, Worcestershire sauce contains tamarind, a fruit that has a sweet and sour tang underscored by an earthiness, plus garlic, onion, and “spice and flavorings.”
For over a century, no one knew what the “spice and flavorings” were, but then in 2009, a company accountant came across a diary from the 1800s that had been discarded in a dumpster. In that diary were the contents of the secretly guarded spices and flavorings: cloves, soy, essence of lemons, peppers, and pickles.
Add these together in the proper proportions, let them sit for 18 months, and when you’re done, you’ll have a sauce that starts out sweet and acidic, but finishes with a peppery bite and mouth-watering, umami sensation.
How can you use Worcestershire sauce?
Worcestershire sauce is incredibly versatile. You can use a sprinkle to brighten up a soup or stew and not risk making it too sweet (like you might if you used apple cider vinegar) or too fruity (like if you used lemon juice). It’s also a great way to top a steak if you’d like to add a little something extra. From classic to creative, here are a few ways to use Worcestershire sauce.
And speaking of Caesar, the eponymous salad dressing contains a hint of Lea & Perrins too, not that you should be surprised considering it, too, contains anchovies. Get our Caesar Salad Dressing recipe.
This dish brings Worcestershire sauce back to England and adds a brightness and spice to what could otherwise be a somewhat muddled amalgam of meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Get our Shepherd’s Pie recipe.
Worcestershire sauce can travel, especially to a cuisine like Japan’s, that claims fermented ingredients (miso, anyone?) and fish as staples. Get our Japanese Chicken Curry recipe.
Worcestershire sauce—a.k.a. fish juice—in a cake?! Don’t worry. It’s actually a super-savory Thanksgiving feast disguised as a cake. Cranberries, stuffing, and Worcestershire sauce-infused turkey “cakes” iced in mashed potatoes, both white and sweet? Sign me up! Get our Thanksgiving Turkey Cake recipe.
Beef and Worcestershire sauce. It’s a classic for a reason and this Henry Bain Sauce is chock-full of Lea & Perrins’ special stuff. One mouthful of tender beef smothered in a sweet and spicy glaze and you’ll feel like you’ve created a five-star meal. Get our Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Henry Bain Sauce recipe.
Header image courtesy of Jen Wheeler.