What Is Worcestershire Sauce?
If you've cruised the condiment aisle before, you've no doubt seen it: the brown sauce with the intimidating-sounding English name. Maybe you even bought it to use in a certain recipe a while ago and it's now just sitting in your kitchen cabinet, wondering what its purpose is. Well, we're here to officially help you get a handle on all things Worcestershire. From where it's from to how to use and pronounce “Worcestershire,” read on to find out what you need to know about the flavorful sauce— and its surprising star ingredient.
Where Does Worcestershire Come From?
You're never going to believe this, but it's from the English city of Worcester, which sits in the West Midlands county of Worcestershire. That's where the condiment was first created by John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, a duo of chemists who would go on to form sauce company Lea & Perrins.
As the story goes, area nobleman Lord Sandys wanted something that tasted like a sauce he'd enjoyed while traveling through South Asia, and Lea & Perrins were put to the task. Their first attempt was initially regarded as a failure: The duo “found the taste unpalatable, and simply left the jars in their cellar to gather dust.” Several years later, however, they revisited their experiment and discovered that letting it age had wondrously transformed it into a tasty take on savory sauce.
From there, Lea & Perrins started bottling and selling their aged creation in 1837, building the brand you may know today. Two years later, America would get its first batch. Though the company tried to trademark the term, the English High Court of Justice ruled in 1876 that Worcestershire sauce is a generic phrase that can be used by anyone who wants to make their version of the sauce.
What Is Worcestershire Sauce Made Of?
While there's been quite the proliferation of various Worcestershire sauce recipes over the last 180-plus years, the original ingredients used by Lea & Perrins include barley malt and spirit vinegars, sugar, salt, molasses, fermented onions and garlic, cured anchovies, and tamarind. There's also a final ingredient that makes Lea & Perrins' sauce so magical, but it's a closely-guarded corporate secret. Guesses over the years include soy sauce, lemon, and even pungent Indian spice asafoetida, though there's never been any sort of official confirmation.
Wait a Sec— Anchovies?!
You got that right. Fermented or cured anchovies, which can sometimes sit in vinegar for up to a year and a half before being bottled, are chiefly responsible for giving Worcestershire sauce its sense of umami flavor— which is probably why soy sauce is sometimes a vegan substitute for the fish. That's also probably why Worcestershire sauce is a sort of spiritual companion to fish sauces (as well as soy sauce) that you'll find in Asian cuisine. If the thought of those little fish makes you squeamish, just know that you've probably already had them in a similar form if you've ever had a properly dressed Caesar salad.
So What Foods Work With Worcestershire And How Should You Use It?
Despite its rather unique secret weapon, Worcestershire sauce is surprisingly versatile. You can use its potent flavor as a shortcut to building broths, stocks, and braising liquids. It's a component of a Caesar salad dressing and cocktail sauce. It's great on steaks— in part because it shares common ingredients like onions, garlic, and spirit vinegar with A1 steak sauce— and in other meaty dishes like stews or chilis. Heck, you can even drink it in a Bloody Mary or Michelada. If you want a savory, umami-rich element in whatever you're eating, go wild with the Worcestershire.
Is Worcestershire Sauce Vegetarian?
Not normally, unfortunately. The use of anchovies in the sauce means you're technically eating meat, so it's neither vegan nor vegetarian. Thankfully, it's possible to both buy and make vegan Worcestershire sauce if you so desire, with soy sauce sometimes taking the place of anchovies as an ingredient.
Those attempting to keep kosher should also be careful about which Worcestershire they choose. The presence of those anchovies means the sauce can't be used on meat and remain kosher, but there are some versions of the sauce where the concentration of fish is diluted enough to fall below the 1/60th threshold.
How Do You Even Pronounce Worcestershire?
Part of what makes this sauce so intimidating is the difficulty that comes with saying its name. From “War-cester-sheer” to “Woo-shter-sure,” the unfamiliarity of the place name and the length of the phrase leaves perhaps too much room for interpretation. The good news (at least for those in New England) is that much of the sauce's name is pronounced the same way as Massachusetts' second-biggest city. So, let's say it all together now: “Woo” (like how you'd say “wood,” not the exclamation)-”stir”-“sure.”
So I suppose we should be thankful that John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins were hoarders who couldn't bear to throw away their failed experiment. Though you may or may not now be able to find Worcestershire on a map, your cooking will be greater with the county's most famous export in your arsenal.