All About Worcestershire Sauce, the 200-Year-Old Pantry Staple That Originated in England
Chances are good that if you open your refrigerator, you'll find a paper-wrapped bottle sitting among the other condiments on the shelf in the door. Maybe it's tucked behind the ketchup and mustard, or maybe you've completely forgotten when you first bought it and what you used it for. While it may be underused and under-appreciated right now, we firmly believe that if you move that bottle of Worcestershire sauce off the shelf and put it front and center in your fridge, you'll start using it more frequently. That's a very good thing. Why? Because you'll unlock a world of flavor in the process.
Worcestershire sauce has been a pantry staple for nearly 200 years (though your bottle is surely much younger than that). It's one of those kitchen items that most of us can recognize—the distinctive Lea & Perrins paper packaging gives it away—but few can accurately describe. What is it, exactly, and what can you do with it other than shake a few drops into a Bloody Mary? As it turns out, there's a lot you can do with a bottle of Worcestershire. This ubiquitous condiment packs such a punch that it's been called an umami bomb, and just a teaspoon or two can pump up the flavor of countless savory dishes.
But first, where does Worcestershire sauce come from, and who are "Lea & Perrins" anyway?
The Interesting History of Worcestershire Sauce
True to its name, the sauce was developed in Worcestershire, a county in England, by chemists John Lea and William Perrins, in the early 19th century. The story goes that the two were hired by a nobleman, Lord Sandys, who was keen to recreate a Bengali recipe he had discovered on a trip overseas. The chemists set out to replicate the taste, but were unhappy with their result. They set the concoction aside and forgot all about it, only to come upon it a good while later. The chemists tasted the now fermented sauce and were delighted with the result. And the rest, as they say, is condiment history. Lea and Perrins's creation has been bottled and sold all over the world ever since. Early on, the bottles were wrapped in paper to protect them from breakage in shipping. These days, the paper isn't necessary, but the company considers it a symbol of its authenticity, heritage, and distinction.
The recipe for Lea & Perrins is a closely guarded secret, but ingredients include vinegar, molasses, sugar, onions, anchovies, salt, garlic, tamarind, and a mix of spices including cloves and chile pepper. It's the slightly sour tamarind that delivers the East Asian flavor that Lord Sandys was after.
How to Use Worcestershire Sauce
Sarah Carey, our editorial director of food, shares a nostalgia for Worcestershire sauce with many of us: "As a child, we never had steak sauce, but we always had Worcestershire in the fridge. My dad used to douse steaks with it as soon as he took them out from under the broiler, and it was delicious. A little bit added to dressing, marinades, and stews adds umami and serious depth of flavor."
For unknown reasons, Worcestershire sauce is not used as widely in recipes today as it once was, which is a shame. In many ways, it delivers similar tasting notes as fish sauce, which has gained in popularity as Worcestershire's fame has faded. The two definitely share a fermented, funky, hard to define flavor profile. Try substituting one for the other in recipes, and note the difference. If you feel like taking on a project, make your own Worcestershire sauce. If you're vegan or vegetarian, make one without anchovies.
How to Store Worcestershire Sauce
Once opened, Worcestershire sauce should be stored in the refrigerator (on a shelf where you can see it). Though it seems like it might keep forever, it won't. If your bottle is past the sell by date on the paper wrapper and by all means, put it to delicious use!