Barely anybody can pronounce it. Fewer even know what’s in it. “To this day, the recipe remains a closely guarded secret,” boasts the Lea & Perrins website. “Only a privileged few know the exact ingredients.”
John Lea & William Perrins were chemists in the county of Worcester, England in the early 1800s. Lord Sandys, a local nobleman, asked them to produce a recipe he’d picked up for a sauce he’d enjoyed while posted in Bengal. The chemists were not impressed by their first batch, and tucked the jars in a basement. A few years later they stumbled upon the batch and discovered that aging had quite improved the product.
The secret sauce is not quite so secret anymore. Thanks to modern labeling laws we now know that nightshades are included. According to the Lea & Perrins ingredients label there is definitely chili pepper extract in the current formulation. There are also ‘natural flavorings,’ which may or may not be nightshade derived. One Heinz version reports definite nightshades—oleoresin capsicum—and ‘spices,’ which may or may not be nightshade derived. Bourbon Barrel brand and French’s brand also report ‘spices.’ Both varieties made by The Wizard’s contain chili pepper.
Chilies are constant, as are molasses and anchovies, the dominant source of the sauce’s umami. But with such a wide source of ingredients, it’s fascinating to construct your own. And as you’ll see from the video below there is little chance of actually duplicating this process at home.
In some ways, watching this daunting industrial-scale process unfold liberates you further in the quest for flavor mimicry. My attempts were initially inspired by an online version excerpted from DIY Pantry by Kresha Faber. If you want to experiment and build from the same base you can check that out, or just do a Google search—the variety of approaches is fascinating, with ingredients ranging from dark beer to honey to corn syrup. And, of course, lots of nightshades.
I’ve made substantial revisions from my own starting point, and I’ll certainly do more. I’ve already made a batch that doubled up on the pungent dry spices (intense) and forgotten the cinnamon (I might officially test this). There are so many funky ingredients that two things can happen: First, you won’t have something, and you’ll either do without or brainstorm a replacement. Second, you’ll be pawing through your funky ingredients tin, not thinking about Worcestershire at all, and you’ll see something that sets your brain to itching. An hour or a day later and your flavor-matching neurons will start to fire and suddenly you’ll be chanting incantations over a steaming saucepan on the night of a full moon.
While my own incantations are trade secrets, these were my biggest decisions:
I chose dry anchovies over canned; I didn’t want this essential umami confused by oil. (I also didn’t want to deal with partial cans. Dried anchovies, available at many Asian markets, keep well, and are very reasonably priced. And that’s good, because you’ll have to buy substantially more than you need for a single batch.)
I replaced the molasses. I was wary of this, but I wanted to highlight the intensity of some of the spices I use to replace the nightshade peppers. I questioned how well they could handle that very heavy, almost metallic overlay of molasses. Grape syrup and date syrup have dark body and earthy overtones similar to molasses, but are ultimately lighter in flavor, with subtle fruity notes to complement the various peppercorns.
Lastly, to compensate for the lack of aging inherent to this scaled-down process, I scrounged my cupboard for unique flavor notes that derive from aging. Things like fish sauce, umemboshi plum vinegar, and doenjang, the Korean fermented bean paste. All are aged, fermented products.
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup malt vinegar
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons umemboshi plum vinegar
1/4 cup grape syrup
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup naturally fermented fish sauce
1/4 cup dried currants
1/2 cup tamarind paste
1 tablespoon doenjang
1 tablespoon dehydrated onion flakes or 1 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cubeb pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon grains of paradise
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 shallots, finely minced
6 cloves garlic, crushed or finely minced
1 clove black garlic, finely minced (or 1/2 teaspoon black garlic powder)
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
10 dried anchovies, minced finely or pulverized in a spice grinder
1Put wet ingredients—water, vinegars, grape syrup, fish sauce, tamarind, doenjang, fresh garlic, and ginger in a saucepan. Add shallots, anchovies, and currants. Bring to a boil, then cover and remove from heat for at least half an hour to allow the dried ingredients to rehydrate.
2Toast the spices until fragrant, about 1 minute. (Toasting ground spices is tricky business. It’s a flash operation, so everything must be properly prepared or you may burn your prize ingredients and have to start over again. Combine all except the dried onion powder and black garlic powder in a dish or bowl. Heat a heavy saucepan—cast iron works best—over medium high heat. Have a metal spatula handy, along with oven mitts, and a cooling plate, then dump the spices onto the hot surface. Shake or work quickly with the spatula to distribute the spices evenly and keep them from burning. Depending on your surface, powdered spices might stick, so shaking won’t work and the spatula is necessary. When an aromatic smoke begins to appear—this may take only a few seconds—keep stirring for another beat or two, then scrape them quickly onto your cooling plate.)
3Add the toasted spices, plus the onion and black garlic powder, to the wet mixture and simmer for another half hour.
4Process using a blender, food processor, or food mill. Now, to strain or not to strain? Depending on which you use, and it’s relative power, you may also want to strain. Too fine a mesh will trap too much goodness, but it’s also possible that if your anchovies were on the large side, there will be some bony bits. There shouldn’t be anything to worry about from a choking perspective, but you do want the sauce to have a silky smoothness.
5Return to the stove on low heat, simmering a while longer, then transfer to a glass bottle. Will keep in the refrigerator for several months. Be sure to shake before using.
Updated September 25, 2020.