What is in Worcestershire Sauce and Why is It Called That?

Karla asks: What exactly is Worcestershire sauce?
worcestershire-sauce

Mmmmm, congealed aged fish juices…

Worcestershire sauce, sometimes known as “Worcester sauce” is a savoury sauce that is often added to meat and fish dishes or, if you like your alcoholic beverages, the Bloody Mary cocktail. It may (or may not depending on how much you research your sauce choices) surprise you to learn that it’s literally made from fermented fish and spices.

Yes, when you order a Bloody Mary, you’re pretty much asking the guy behind the bar to pour aged fish juice into your vodka. It probably won’t surprise you that Worcestershire sauce is English, because of course rotted fish sauce is English. “Rotted fish sauce” is possibly the most English phrase ever typed on this website- and I should know, I’m English.

The sauce is made from anchovies fermented in vinegar, if that sounds disgusting, we’re just getting started. After around 18 months (yes, months) the anchovies should hopefully be fermented enough to be little more than a fishy purée. When they have the purée, they then throw in garlic, onions, chilli peppers, salt, sugar and a big ol’ pile of “natural flavourings“.

After they have this mixture, they either add water and bottle it, or ship off the concentrated fish paste mixture in big barrels so other people can add water to it.

If you’re wondering what those natural flavourings are, even though the main ingredient is literally year old rancid fish, Lea & Perrins and later, Heinz after they bought L&P, have never revealed the exact mixture they use.

This is, of course, probably more to do with the fact that someone else could steal their recipe and make their own sauce than people thinking the mixture was disgusting(er). However, according to rumours and rumblings that have happened over the years, lemons, soy sauce, pickles and something known as “devil’s dung” are all supposedly used, because of course “dung” could only improve the flavor of vinegar and congealed fish remains.

As for why the mixture is called, “Worcestershire sauce” that’s a decidedly much simpler issue- it’s because the sauce- most likely adapted from recipe from India- was originally made in the English city of Worcester around 1840. The city of Worcester just so happens to be smack, bang in the middle of  Worcestershire. So that’s it, mystery solved and in only 400 words, boy do we wish all of our article were this simple. But wait, there’s more.

Back when Worcestershire sauce was first created in roughly 1837 (the exact date isn’t know) by chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins (Mr Lea and Mr Perrins), it was marketed as something quite exotic. The sauce was supposedly created from a recipe handed down by a member of the English nobility known only as Lord Marcus Sandys, who apparently learned the recipe while serving as the governor of Bengal.

It probably comes as no surprise that no one by that name ever served as the governor of Bengal. On top of this, somewhat fantastical claim, Lea and Perrins claimed that their sauce also served as an aid to digestion (as rancid fish is wont to do) and that it was effectively a great medicine. As you’ve probably guessed already, this is all hogwash- which, to be fair, was probably one of the original ingredients when they were experimenting with versions of the recipe for the sauce.

Another fishy claim made by the pair was that they first made the sauce at the bequest of someone rich and powerful, because hey, why not? Unfortunately, they claimed the first batch was awful.  It was apparently much too strong. So much so that instead of throwing it away like a normal person, they left the barrel with the sauce in their basement.

When they came back many months, or a couple years, later (depending on the version of their story you read) and saw the mixture of fish paste they’d forgotten to throw away, they decided to stick their finger right into it to see if it tasted any better than it had originally.

For some reason, rather than dying of stomach cramps on the spot, they were fine and the mixture actually tasted awesome; and thus, the sauce we know and love was born.

This is probably the one aspect of the intricate original tale weaved by the pair that I’m almost, but not quite, inclined to believe, since, well, that’s exactly how the sauce is made today and why else would you randomly store awful tasting fish juices for so long?

Regardless of the true origins of the sauce, Mr Lea and Mr Perrins quickly displayed their business acumen by paying to have ocean liners out of Britain take barrels of their sauce on-board in the late 1830s. When passengers tried the sauce and realised that it was totally god-like, they’d buy a bottle and take it with them. The ingenious part being that thousands of bottles of their sauce were now in cupboards across the globe, just waiting for people to try it and be hooked.

The plan worked perfectly and by 1866 the pair were able to sell their chemist shop to instead sell aged fish sauce full time due to the worldwide demand for it; truly they were living the dream. A fishy smelling dream, but the dream nonetheless.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Worcestershire sauce is likened to a much earlier, Roman sauce known simply as “Garum”, made from the fermented intestines of small fish. Other anchovy-based fermented fish sauces were around in Europe as far back as the 17th century.
  • The sauce is enjoyed the world over and many countries have their own unique take on it; in Japan, for example, it’s known as Tonkatsu sauce and it is usually eaten with breaded pork.
  • As decided in a high court case on July 26th, 1876. Lea & Perrins do not own the rights to the term “Worcestershire sauce”. As such, there have been many other sauces bearing that name since their creation. This is perhaps why Lea & Perrins markets itself as The Original Worcestershire sauce.
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  • Miguel.M

    Like salt, vinegar is one of the oldest food preservative known in human history… so, writing “rotten fish” or “rancid fish”, isn’t – at least – a little bit “misleading”?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Miguel.M: It makes it funnier. 😉

  • LOVEPAREEK

    A SOLID PIECE OF MORBID LUCIDITY….THE YUCK QUOTIENT WAS SO HIGH, LOVED THE ARTICLE. SOME MORE OF BIZZARE AND MORBID IS WANTED. TNX KARL FOR SUMTHING OFFBEAT.

  • Hildy J

    The claim that it was made by request and found to be too strong may hold water (sans hog residue) since anchovy based fermented fish sauce is a Southeast Asian staple and has a much stronger taste than what ended up as Worchestershire Sauce. BTW, Worchester is properly pronounced Wooster and Worchestershire, Woostisure.

  • Yer Pal

    The mystery ingredient is figs.

  • Sandy Sansing

    Find: “Lee”. Replace with: “Lea”. Ignore spellcheck.

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  • Joseph Ficht

    Worcestershire Sauce quite popular in Mexico but is simply called “Salsa Inglesa”. I think they had a hard time pronouncing “Worcestershire”.

    • Miguel.M

      Joseph, in fact it is called “English Sauce” all over the world and even some brands use it.

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  • Fish sauce is ancient. You can find a 2000 year old roman recipe, called Garum. Which calls for aging it for months. They probably had read about it in the apicus cook book. Which is about 1700 years old. Fish Sauce was prized in Roman society.

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  • Here’s one for you. (Heinz 57 catsup) when it was in glass bottles_ the 57 embossed on the upper part of bottle was put there why
    ? If you taped or hit that mark with palm of hand- the catsup would always come out within 3 taps or less.(when I was a young child, I was seated next to the man, on an airplane- that came up with the idea of doing this) CharlieT….
    ?
    ?

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  • Poppy

    Actually, pickled fish is not disgusting at all in certain culture. It’s one of the way to preserve fish when there is no refrigeration [aside from drying in the sun]. In the tropic, and where I came from, Asia…preservation of food rely on plentiful ingredient like salt.
    .
    The fish preserve you talked about in Worchester sauce..was probably preserved in salt [brine] rather than vinegar . The sourness of the Worchester sauce came from Tamarind pulp which lend the sauce the brown thick texture.
    .
    Think also of fish sauce, used commonly in delicious Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cooking- that’s also from pickled fish, rendered into clear sauce.
    .
    The disgusting smell of Camembert came to mind, when you want to compare the sensation.
    .
    Thanks for your fun article, if somewhat skewed

  • I think the “devil’s dung” is referring to asafoetida or hing powder. It’s actually quite good, with a oniony or garlicky taste.

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  • Michel

    One strangely missing titbit of info for people not of the British Isles – the name Worcester is pronounced ˈwʊstər / wuus-tər (source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worcester)

  • mtybrn

    Rotten fish sauce isn’t English, it is Roman.
    “Devil’s dung” is a folk name for an herb that is used extensively in Asian cuisine that smells bad in large amounts.

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  • Thank you for this historical review of this wonderful condiment! I admit, I arrived early to the Worcestershire sauce fan club, thanks to Bugs Bunny’s stuttered pronunciation of the county’s name and the fact there always was a bottle in my parents’ cupboard, mostly unused. As a lad, tomato juice was my go-to morning beverage and I would liberally add a few squirts to my glass, along with black pepper, at every breakfast. When I learned later in childhood of some of its exotic ingredients, instead of being repulsed, being a boy, I was only more enamored with the stuff.

    When I began to cook, I experimented with the sauce in various dishes and found it to be quite versatile in many kinds of recipes. Definitely a must-have in a wannabe chef’s toolkit. 🙂

  • Mikey

    Yeah, the author needs to cool it with the inflammatory language. It’s completely inaccurate and biased. The fish is neither “rotten”,”rancid” nor “congealed”. It’s preserved and completely safe. No rotting has occurred. Added “for humor” or not, these words don’t belong here. It’s a pickled fish, just like actual pickles are pickled cucumbers.

    I guess this is what we get when anyone with a keyboard can be a “blogger”, no more editorial oversight. I guess we should all consider ourselves lucky that the author at least made sure the grammar and spelling are correct, since most people now choose to let Spellcheck and Autocorrect do all of the heavy lifting.

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  • Jimmy T

    This article is poorly written…. maybe for a Cracked article it is okay but considering it is on this site “todayifoundout” the humor is distasteful and sounds more like a bias article by some uneducated fool who dislikes Worcestershire sauce.

    By the writer’s biased taste :

    Fine wines, grape jelly raisins = made from rancid grapes
    pepperoni, beef jerky, slim jims = rancid meat and if arguments sakes these meats are as cured as the fish above

    all cheeses, yogurt = rancid rotten milk

    Plenty of other things… who doesn’t like pizza?

    Bonus: Caesar dressing in Caesar salad calls for anchovies and raw eggs to make….

  • GladSvamp

    A bit sad really, but only the English laugh and sneer at themselves. Other nationalities and countries take pride in their culture and history, but the first to have a go at the English are the English.

  • Aidan Clark

    Actually, lots of Worcester sauces don’t have fish in them and even in Lee and Perrins’ version there’s really not very much anchovy involved. It’s a far more complex sauce than your description of it as “rotten fish” suggests.

    • Zachariah C

      Ah, yes, that is quite true. I myself am addicted with a type of ‘Worcestershire sauce’ that hasn’t a trace of fish. What I believe the article is talking about though, is ‘true’ Worcestershire sauce.

  • Steve Skubinna

    As others have noted, salted and fermented fish sauce goes back to the Romans, and today is common, even essential, in Thai, Vietnamese and Filipino cooking.

    Just today I was chatting with a young woman who confessed that she never properly learned to pronounce Worcestershire and since childhood has called it “Oyster Shower” sauce. Which for some reason tickles me to no end.

  • Philip Peters

    I don’t get the “I’m English” comment. People from England and Great Britain would normal tell you they are British and that they “speak” English.

    • Philip Peters

      Sorry for the typo, it was normally, not normal .

  • Zachariah C

    I get a sauce that is called Worcestershire sauce, but fish isn’t in the ingredients, why?

  • Nitrobuz Ae

    There’s definitely clove in it.