Warmer days had me game to make homemade barbecue sauce, so I went to the well — the little cedar recipe box filled with family recipes. Sure enough, there was one for “Junior’s Barbecue Sauce,” (my dad was a junior and was known by the moniker for most of his life). The recipe was old-school, using real tomato juice, brown sugar, spices and vinegar, but was a little heavy on the cumin (my dad’s favorite) and bay leaves (it called for 15!).
One ingredient also found in the recipe — along with so many others in the box — was Worcestershire sauce, that tangy, but tongue-twisting, common condiment made of who-knows-what, with its rich, salty-sweet-spicy bite that adds immediate depth of flavor to all manner of sauces, meats and so much more.
A bottle of Worcestershire sauce (we always pronounced it with an extra syllable, but the correct way to say it is WOOS-ter-sheer), was always in my parents’ pantry, as it is in mine now. As a youngster, I remember studying the ingredients listed on the bottle of that liquidy, dark potion, smeared with more than one set of household cooks’ fingerprints, wondering, just what are anchovies, anyway? Whatever was in it, the sauce was used considerably in a wide array of cooking. A dash (or more) in everything from meatloaf to the gravy topping the meatloaf sometimes made the difference in completing that just-right taste.
A Place — and a Sauce — with Tangy History
Worcester, England (in the historic and ceremonial county of Worcestershire), was the birthplace of its saucy namesake, said to have been created in the early part of the 19th century by chemists William Perrins and John Lea, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” by Alan Davidson (Oxford University Press: 1999).
Apparently, duo’s initial attempt at a spicy vinegar sauce was so strong when first mixed that it was considered inedible and left in a barrel in the basement. A few years later, the barrel was rediscovered and, upon tasting, the sauce’s aging had produced an improved, milder flavor, so the first bottles of Worcestershire sauce were made.
Worcestershire sauce’s one-of-a-kind taste is the sum of its ingredient parts, which, as a whole in the fermented final product, no longer taste like themselves. The sauce includes anchovies (I know what they are now), tamarind (a tropical, bean-like fruit), vinegar, sugar, molasses, garlic, onions, salt and pepper. The original Lea & Perrins is one of many different brands of Worcestershire sauce on the market. There are even powdered variations that provide a way to sprinkle or rub in that classic flavor.
If you have got the time and gumption, you can even make your own Worcestershire sauce. In her book, “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should (and Shouldn’t!) Cook from Scratch to Save Time and Money” (Atria Books: 2012), author Jennifer Reese shares Emeril Lagasse’s recipe for Worcestershire sauce that includes anchovies, spices, molasses and horseradish and is cooked for six hours.
’Shire Thing — Ways to Use the Secret Sauce
The savory “umami” taste of Worcestershire sauce is ideal in tomatoey foods or to enhance meats but is also a surprising little something playing a big role behind-the-scenes in other dishes.
- Drinks: That classic tomato/celery cocktail served at many a brunch and bar, the Bloody Mary gets some of its kick from a splash of Worcestershire sauce.
- Sauces: Barbecue and teriyaki sauces are keenly tangy from Worcestershire sauce, among the ingredients, but other sauces, like shrimp cocktail and classic marinara often include Worcestershire. It makes sense, too, in any beef sauces or gravies, but can add a depth to chicken or turkey gravy, too. Cheese sauces, such as the one for Welsh rarebit, also include Worcestershire sauce for a nice balance to all that cheesy richness.
- Dressings: Many don’t realize that what makes Caesar salad so tasty and tangy is a little Worcestershire sauce in the dressing. It also comes into play in vinaigrettes, French dressing and some dressings for slaw.
- Meats, Seafoods and Eggs: Worcestershire sauce is a perfect condiment for cooked burgers, steaks, pot roast and even shellfish, but it also adds seasoning mixed into meatloaf and meatballs or added to beef or pork roasts or glazes for fish and seafood before cooking. Worcestershire sauce is often added to the filling for deviled eggs.
- Soups and Stews: Beef vegetable or all-vegetable stew gets a boost from Worcestershire sauce, as does seafood chowder or classic French onion soup, bringing out layers of flavor in all those caramelized onions. It also deepens the hearty tastes of beef, turkey, chicken or veggie chili.
- Vegetables: A splash or two of Worcestershire sauce is ideal in a pot of ham and beans or baked beans. But it also provides a savory little kick to cooked string beans, too. It adds nice tang to stir-fried or roasted vegetables. Fried rice takes on a little color and a flavor charge from Worcestershire sauce.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Junior (Daughter’s) Barbecue Sauce