Though Worcestershire sauce is an ingredient typically used in small amounts, when it’s missing from a recipe, its absence is telling. Bloody Marys, Cincinnati chili, and a classic cheese ball all seem one-note without it.
But Worcestershire sauce is not so much a single ingredient as an amalgam of many ingredients. Tamarind paste, molasses, vinegar, and anchovies are fixtures, but technically not necessities–it all depends on the bottle you buy. What is for sure is that Worcestershire is salty, thin, dark brown, and extraordinary in both its richness of flavor and history.
Origins, from Worcester and Beyond
The roots of Worcestershire sauce begin not in England, but in the various fermented fish sauces found across Asia. Merchants trading with the Far East brought examples back. People trying to recreate them in England with their own ingredients led to Worcestershire precursors like walnut ketchup and pontack, a savory elderberry-based sauce. The Roman Empire had its own fermented fish sauce called garum, and the faded memory of that essential condiment may have played a role in Worcestershire’s creation.
The standard origin story goes that Sir Marcus Sandys, a native of Worcester, encountered a fish sauce while in India with the East India Company. Once back in England, Sandys requested chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins to reverse engineer the sauce. Their initial attempt looked less than promising, so Lea and Perrin ignored the brackish contents of the barrel anywhere from (depending on the telling) 18 months to three years. Revisiting the sauce, they found it had matured into a miraculous creation. They first sold it in 1837.
As it turns out, today’s bottles of Lea & Perrins are not the same in the UK and US. There’s the label, for one (the UK one has been orange from the get-go and remains so; the US label is a pale parchment tone). Their formulas are different, too: Lea & Perrins in the UK is made with malt vinegar, while its US counterpart has distilled white vinegar.
Worcestershire Sauce Substitutes
You’re out of Worcestershire? If the recipe calls for a tablespoon or so, consider using any one of these alternatives:
- Maggi sauce (keep in mind that Maggi sauce is saltier than Worcestershire)
- 2 parts soy sauce or tamari to 1 part molasses or brown sugar
- 2 parts soy sauce or tamari to 1 part ketchup
- 2 parts miso to 1 part lemon juice or vinegar
Making Your Own Worcestershire Sauce Vs. Buying
Making your own proper (as opposed to quickie improvised) Worcestershire sauce is a fun and very doable adventure. It’s a “because you want to” as opposed to a “because you have to” proposition. Our recipe calls for many ingredients, so unless you happen to have them all on hand, it is no way cheaper than buying a bottle from the shelf.
Is this homemade recipe better than storebought? I very much think so, but if spending your leisure time crafting DIY condiments to store in jars labeled with masking tape is not your thing, the old standby Lea & Perrins is available at nearly every grocery store you can think of. Of the prepared options, that’s the one I recommend. It’s a few bucks more than other bottles, but it pays off in nuance.
Is Worcestershire Sauce Vegan?
Commercial Worcestershire sauce is usually pescatarian–that is, it includes fish in the form of anchovies. So it’s neither vegan nor vegetarian. I’ve found commercial vegan Worcestershire sauce disappointing across the board, which is why I started making my own in the first place. I simply leave the anchovies out and instead add other umami-rich ingredients.
The recipe we’re sharing is vegan, making it perfect for our Vegan Cincinnati Chili recipe.
Storing Worcestershire Sauce
With all that salt, acid, and sugar, Worcestershire sauce remains in great shape stored in a cupboard at room temperature for years. No need to refrigerate. Any DIY Worcestershire sauce recipe that says you have to refrigerate it is automatically suspect!
Like nocino, a good batch of Worcestershire sauce only gets better with time. Our recipe keeps for years, so I like to make a decent-sized batch (at least a pint) and experience it aging as I age along with it. My first batch outlasted my marriage, though I still cook for my ex, sometimes using the very Worcestershire in question.
Ingredient Swaps and Subs
I have added all kinds of unusual things, from pickled blueberries to salted ume plums, to various batches of homemade Worcestershire. It’s very much in keeping with the spirit of this storied sauce. If you are a freewheeling cook, I encourage you to break away from following our recipe exactly and instead look at it as a template where you plug in ratios of ingredients with various base flavors.
- Sweet: Dark and sticky molasses is the default, but you’ll also find recipes calling for brown sugar or even maple syrup in addition to molasses. Dried fruit can enhance the sweetness and add complexity.
- Acidic: Tamarind concentrate is tart and fruity and imparts a distinct sour power. For a liquid component, malt vinegar is the most British choice. I like using apple cider vinegar in my recipe. Whichever vinegar you choose, make it a decent but not exquisite or expensive vinegar–remember, you’ll be adding plenty of other ingredients to it. Citrus sometimes shows up, too, either the juice or zest or whole shebang, including the bitter pith.
- Earthy/spicy: Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mustard, cardamom, and black or white pepper bring in aromatic elements.
- Umami: Dried mushrooms, tinned anchovies, dried seaweed, black olives, or MSG add that all-important savory character.
- Salty: If they are part of your formula, miso, fish sauce, oyster sauce, mushroom sauce, or soy sauce contribute a saltiness of their own. What else makes Worcestershire sauce salty? Salt!
Recipes Featuring Worcestershire Sauce
- Easy Shepherd’s Pie
- Shrimp Cocktail
- Homemade Bloody Mary Mix
- Clam Dip
- Kentucky Burgoo
Combine the ingredients:
Put all of the ingredients in a large non-reactive pot (such as stainless steel or enamelware). Stir to combine.
If you have a vent, turn it to high, or open the windows. The simmering vinegar smell will be strong and sharp.
Simmer for 30 minutes:
Cover the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once at a simmer, set the lid ajar and cook partially covered for 30 minutes, reducing the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature. At this point, it’ll have some of the appearance and aroma of Worcestershire, but the flavor will be sharp. Now it’s time to age it.
Transfer to a jar and age for a month:
Remove and discard the cinnamon stick, then pour the mixture into a 1-quart canning jar. Screw on a lid (preferably plastic to prevent corrosion), label and date, and set in a cool, dark place to age for 1 month. It’s fine to check on your brew as it sits, though changes will be gradual.
Strain and bottle:
After aging, pour the sauce through a fine mesh sieve lined with one layer of cheesecloth. Once most of the liquid has drained, press the solids to squeeze out any remaining liquid.
Transfer the sauce to a bottle for storage (your yield may vary a bit, depending on how much moisture the solids trap and how much evaporation there was during the simmering step). Taste the sauce, which will have softened in character. If it seems overly concentrated, thin it out a tiny bit with filtered water.
Label and date the bottle. The sauce will continue to mature and mellow in the bottle, only getting better with time. It’ll keep in a dark cupboard for at least 5 years.
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