If you open my refrigerator door right now, you’ll see four different varieties of mustard: classic yellow, Dijon, whole grain and spicy tarragon flavor. Yet, until recently, there was only one bottle of ketchup.
I never questioned this until I began spotting “gourmet” ketchups at my neighborhood grocery store last year. “Fancy ketchup,” I chuckled to myself, reaching for the 36-ounce bottle of Heinz. “That’s just silly.”
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But after a while I started to question that reaction. What’s so ridiculous about gourmet ketchup? Do we really have to go through life mindlessly consuming the same old ketchup, made by the same two or three big companies? With as much ketchup as Americans consume in a year — nearly 400 million bottles — you’d think we’d be ready to try something different.
The ketchup selection in the U.S. wasn’t always so limited. In the early 20th century there were hundreds of ketchups on the market, made not only from tomatoes, but mushrooms, grapes and nuts.
What happened to all that ketchup recipe variety?
The answer lies in ketchup’s saucy history. Andrew F. Smith, food historian and author of the book “Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment,” filled me in on the details.
In the 1700s, British traders in what is now known as Indonesia took a liking to a soy-based sauce called ketjap (also spelled kecap), and adopted it. “They didn’t have soybeans growing in Europe at that time, so they used mushrooms and dozens of other foods to make it,” he said. The British version was then brought to the American colonies.
When tomatoes became more prevalent in mainstream America, around 1840, Smith explained, ketchup producers realized it was much cheaper to make ketchup from surplus tomatoes than from mushrooms or walnuts, and they could sell it at a more affordable price.
By the end of the 19th century, tomato ketchup was king. Around the same time, the H.J. Heinz Co. in Pennsylvania launched its iconic tomato ketchup, and the holy trinity of ketchup vehicles — hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries — entered America’s culinary landscape. (Before that, ketchup was mainly used in cooking.)
Heinz quickly came to dominate the ketchup market by producing a high-quality, consistent product, and putting lots of advertising muscle behind it. “Heinz was very smart early on when the Federal Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906,” Smith said, referring to the first federal law created to regulate food and drug products. “When the FDA came along and declared putting chemical preservatives in ketchup to be illegal or not proper, Heinz jumped on the bandwagon immediately, and most of the other tomato ketchup makers didn’t. Heinz advertised that extremely well, and they got this huge visibility from that.”
More than a century later, Heinz still has little competition in the traditional ketchup realm. Rather than worrying about Hunts and other big brands stealing its market share, Heinz is rolling out new flavors, such as jalapeño pepper and balsamic vinegar, to keep variety-seeking Americans interested.
“When a condiment gets boring, that’s the kiss of death,” Smith said. “Then somebody else is going to come up with something new and fresh.”
And so they have. Ketchup upstarts are now sharing shelf space with the big boys, boasting unique flavors, small-batch production and the use of sweeteners such as raw sugar or agave nectar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.
Gourmet ketchups on trial
To find out if gourmet ketchups cut the mustard, I sampled six varieties.
Sir Kensington’s Gourmet Scooping Ketchup (Classic): This is made with apple cider vinegar instead of traditional white vinegar, plus raw sugar, honey and lime concentrate. It has a bright and tangy tomato flavor, with a touch of sweetness and a fairly thick texture.
Nature’s Hollow Sugar Free Ketchup: Perfectly smooth and thin in texture, this looks more like tomato soup than ketchup. Made with apple cider vinegar and sweetened with xylitol (a natural sugar alcohol), its flavor is disappointingly one-dimensional.
Traina California Sun Dried Tomato Ketchup: Sweetened with corn syrup, this ketchup has a deep red color and a thick paste-like consistency. It really tastes like sun-dried tomatoes, yet retains a classic ketchup flavor. This would be a nice addition to sauces.
Melinda’s Black Pepper Ketchup: Made in Costa Rica, this glucose-sweetened ketchup has a deep burgundy color, with large flecks of black pepper. It’s rich and smoky, with a peppery kick and notes of garlic and lime juice.
Heinz Ketchup Blended With Real Jalapeño: This is classic ketchup with a spicy twist. It has a bright red color, good tomato flavor and a mild, lingering heat.
Heinz Ketchup Blended with Balsamic Vinegar: Deep burgundy in color, this has a tangy, rich flavor that hints at smokiness. Both Heinz ketchups are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
Make your own
If you can’t find commercially made gourmet ketchups in your area — and even if you can — why not make your own ketchup from garden-fresh tomatoes?
This ketchup recipe comes courtesy of Erin Coopey, author of “The Kitchen Pantry Cookbook,” due for release in August. The spices really come through, making this a delicious condiment for grilled pork or chicken sausages.
Makes about 2 cups
2¼ pounds plum tomatoes
1½ cups distilled white vinegar
2½ teaspoons coarse sea salt or kosher salt
1 cup sugar (for a less-sweet ketchup, use ½ cup)
1 tablespoon grated onion or 1 teaspoon onion powder
½ teaspoon mustard powder
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the tomatoes and blanch until the skins break and the flesh becomes soft, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain the tomatoes and press through a fine-mesh food mill or sieve to remove the skins and seeds.
2. Pour the sieved tomatoes into a medium-size saucepan. Add the vinegar and salt. Stir to combine. Bring the tomato mixture to a boil and then whisk in the sugar, onion, and spices.
3. Return to a low boil, stirring occasionally, and cook until the mixture has reduced to one-fourth the original amount and has thickened, about 1 hour. Some tomatoes are more watery than others, so additional cooking might be necessary to reduce moisture. Your ketchup should be the consistency of tomato purée, slightly thinner than bottled ketchup. It will thicken slightly when it cools.
4. Pour into a sterilized jar. Cover and refrigerate. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Top photo: Ketchup flavors are no longer limited to plain tomato. Credit: Tina Caputo