Monday, February 14, 2011

Apple #507: Worcestershire Sauce

I love the Worcestershire sauce.  I add it to ground beef when I'm making chili or -- most especially deliciously -- your basic hamburgers.  It's tangy and salty and zippy and nothing else tastes quite like it.  I like it so much, in fact, that I think I don't add it to enough things.  What else is good with Worcestershire sauce?

My other main question is, I'm pretty sure it comes from India, so why the British name?  I mean, other than the fact that the Brits co-opted lots of things in their colonial days, and this is probably just one more of those things.  Maybe a better way to ask the question is, what would it be called if we called it by its Indian name?

Lea & Perrin's. "The original."
(Photo from Bon Appetit)

  • First of all, yes, the recipe originally comes from India.  Legend has it that a guy named Lord Marcus Sandys was Governor of Bengal for a while, and then in 1835, he came back to England.  Specifically he returned to the city of Worcester, where he was from.
  • He had a recipe that he brought with him from India, and he went to the local chemists and asked them to make it for him.  Back then, chemists did all kinds of stuff, from preparing medicines and powders to making ketchups and things like that.  These particular chemists were named John Lea and William Perrins.
  • So Lea & Perrins mixed up the recipe for Lord Sandys, except that when they tasted it, it was terrible.  One source says that it was so "fiery" it almost blew their heads of.  So they left it in its barrel in the basement.  They forgot about it down there until they found it again several months later, during spring cleaning.  They tasted it again and discovered it had matured to a delicious flavor.
  • They bought the recipe from Lord Sandys and began making it themselves.  By 1838 they were selling it to their customers, and thus was Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce born.
  • So goes the story that gets repeated quite often.  However, there are flaws with this tale. First of all, a Lord Marcus Sandys didn't exactly exist. There was an Arthur Marcus Cecil Sandys, but he wasn't in India and he wasn't old enough to be in India in the 1830s.
  • A perhaps more accurate version of the tale is that a novelist named Mrs. Grey was visiting the Sandys' home when Lady Sandys (which is inexplicably prounced "Sands," by the way) said she wished she could get some good curry powder.  Mrs. Grey said she had an excellent recipe at home, which she'd gotten from her Uncle Charles, who was a Chief Justice in India.  
  • Lady Sandys took the recipe to Lea & Perrins, they frowned at it and said they'd have to work to find all the ingredients to make the powder, but they'd do their best. But after they made the powder, they thought it was inedible. (Some accounts conflict about whether they actually delivered any of it to Lady Sandys or not.)  They tried it in a solution, to make a sauce, but still no good.  So they stowed it in the basement, forgot about it, then rediscovered it months later.  Upon this later tasting, voila, delicious. 

For those of you who've never tried it, this is what it looks like poured out. Think of it as a condiment, or a flavoring that you'd add to a dish to make it more tasty.
(Photo from the BBC)

So What's in It?
  • Anchovies. This ingredient is farthest down the list on the label, but it's probably the most important. The anchovies are actually fermented -- the reason why the sauce tasted good only after a few months -- and it's the fermentation that provides that magical taste of umami. The anchovies also put Worcestershire sauce in a very long line of fish sauces that come from all over Asia and which were also made as long ago as in ancient Rome. Which, furthermore, makes Worcestershire sauce a very close relative of ketchup.
  •  Tamarind. This is the next most important ingredient. Tamarind is a fruit which has the highest amount of sugar content of all fruits, but it's also got a lot of acid. So all by itself it has that eternally seductive sweet/sour thing going on.  If you've had phad thai, you've tasted tamarind.  And some phad thai recipes, anchovies, too.  Again, it's that fish sauce thing.

Tamarind are the squishy-looking dark fruits that grow inside long, bumpy seed pods.  The fruit gets smashed up, the seeds within it extracted, and the pulp gets used in the sauce. It has kind of a jelly-like consistency.
(Photo from knoxnews)

  • Vinegar and salt.  I put these two things together because this combination is what ferments the anchovies.  The salt cures the fish and keeps it immune to things that would try to make it rot, while the vinegar provides the kind of bath in with the fish eventually liquefies and gets juicy and flavorful.  In other words, it's brine.
  • Garlic and onions.  I put these together because it seems like any recipe that's worth its salt (har har) includes both.Gotta have 'em for flavor.
  • Molasses. Derived from sugar cane, it's dark and thick and sweet and gooey.  In England, they call it treacle. (By the way, if you want to read a jaw-dropper of a true story about molasses, check out the Boston Molasses Flood.)
  • Soy sauce. Some say they include this, others don't. But it does add still more salt.
  • Corn syrup. This one is particular to W. sauce made for the States. W. sauces made in other countries will use actual sugar or malt vinegar instead of white vinegar and leave out the corn syrup.
  • Chili pepper extract. It was probably this that made the original Lea & Perrins think the sauce they'd made was fiery.  I don't know how much of it the modern-day sauces use compared to the 1800s versions, but today's W. sauce doesn't taste all that spicy to me.
  • Cloves. These add a darker, aromatic flavor which, I would guess, helps to bridge all the sugary sweetness and the salty vinegarness.
  • Natural flavorings. None of the manufacturers will reveal exactly what the rest of their flavorings and spices are, so they tack on this catch-all.
  • The New York Times says you can make Worcestershire sauce yourself in about 10 minutes.  But for one thing, they don't provide the actual recipe, and two, I suspect this is like ketchup.  Whenever anybody else tries to make it, it's all "fancy" and chunky with tomatoes and it's got weird spices in it -- no thanks.  I just want the basic, regular old ketchup.  And probably by the time I assembled all the ingredients to make Worcestershire sauce myself, I'd have spent two weeks, not 10 minutes.  
  • But for you intrepid souls out there who wish to dip your culinary fingers into the make-your-own-Worcestershire, here are a couple of recipes. This one comes pretty close in terms of ingredients.  It takes 15 minutes to prep, but 3 hours to cook it.  This one from Saveur seems the most authentic.  It may take 10 minutes to cook, but you have to refrigerate it anywhere from 3 weeks to 8 months.

French's Worcestershire sauce is the kind I've been using.
(Photo from

About the Name
  • I couldn't find any site that identified what this would be called in India (though lots of sites list names of various other fish sauces from other countries).  One site that tells still another version of the origin of Worcestershire Sauce says that it was originally a chutney.
  • People from Worcester don't pronounce their town the way it's spelled (wor-ches-ter, for example).  They pronounce it in two syllables: wus-ter.  I've tried to unearth a reason for this but all I can discover is that it's maybe part of their accent? Or they just do.  Towns with similar types of names, like Gloucester or Leicester, all lose that middle syllable and become glo-ster and les-ter.
  • Once it becomes Worcestershire, that last "shire" doesn't get the kind of shiny emphasis that Americans give it. It's more like "shəh."  So, all together, the British pronounce it Wus-tə-shəh.
  • My finder seems to be broken today.  I know there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon when he has to fight some knight in a shiny suit of armor, and they guy says in a very toff voice that he is the Earl of Wusterhesterchestershire sauce. With each syllable, his enormous mustache puffs out from beneath the visor of his armored helmet. Does anyone else remember this cartoon?

Here's a label of a brand called Stretton's which was produced in the early 1900s.  This has a nice list of suggestions of uses for the sauce.
(Image from Worcester City Museums)

A blog called Nancy's Kitchen has a long list of recipes that call for Worcestershire sauce. The dishes are a bit basic and old-school, but it looks like a solid list nonetheless.

Sources, Worcestershire Sauce
Diner's Digest, Worcestershire Sauce
WordIQ, Worcestershire sauce
IndiaCurry, Did Worcestershire sauce originate in India?
Patrick Di Justo, What's Inside Worcestershire Sauce? Wired, May 24, 2010
Amanda Hesser, Worcestershire Sauce, 1876, The New York Times, October 15, 2009
Peggy Trowbridge Filippone, Worcestershire Sauce Ingredients,
WiseGeek, What is Molasses?
English Language & Usage, How should I pronounce "Worcestershire" as a rhotic English speaker?, Worcester as Wooster (pronunciation)
College of Holy Cross, How do you say 'Worcester?'



    Check at about 1:55.

  2. I love this post. Now I know how to pronounce it. I've been practicing to my dog's chagrin, but it gets his attention.

  3. THAT'S IT!!!! Thank you, Jason! I had to keep rewinding it and replaying it because by the time he got to the end of his name, I was laughing so hard I couldn't hear.

    It's also the one where he flicks his thumb like a lighter and lights it and the magician can't do it! TWO CULTURAL GEMS IN ONE!


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