Ketchup

Ketchup used to be awesome. With the possible exception of bread, I don’t think any food product has suffered more from commercialization. But bread’s made a comeback, and I’m pretty sure ketchup could, too.

Today we drown in homogenized, pasteurized, syrupy-sweet, gloppy-thick tomato ketchup. Meanwhile we’ve forgotten all about old-fashioned ketchup — in all its mad, multifarious, sour-spicy, fermented glory. There is no good reason why this should be. Old-time ketchups were delicious, and I could easily see a gastronomically fashion-forward restaurant reviving them.

And yes, I said fermented.

Check out this recipe from the excellently titled Civil War Ketchups page:

TOMATO CATSUP (from The Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia by Mrs. E. F. Haskell, 1861)

1 gallon tomatoes
3 tbs. salt
3 tbs. ground black pepper
3 tbs. (dry) mustard, or ground mustard seed
1 tsp. ground allspice
4 peppers, type unspecified but “sweet”, not hot
1 onion (optional)
1 quart horseradish “juice” (roots grated and liquid pressed out)

Select tomatoes not overripe, skin and strain the tomatoes; to every gallon add three table-spoons of salt, three of ground black pepper, three of mustard, and one teaspoon of ground allspice; mix the spices in a part of the tomato, and strain them through a sieve; put in a small bag four large pods of sweet peppers and, if relished, one onion, and boil them with the catsup while it is being reduced; add the expressed juice of one quart of horseradish, and reduce it until it is of the proper consistency to pour from the bottles without difficulty; let the catsup remain in the bottles, with a piece of cotton cloth tied loosely on the neck, for three months to ripen, then cork and seal tightly.

“Pepper pods” are simply whole peppers, not divisions thereof. Slicing them into strips will both free up flavoring elements and reduce the space the pepper bag takes up in the boiling pot. Depending on the type of pepper used–which is not easy since even producers of “heirloom” vegetables today often trace their varieties back only as far as the late 19th or even early 20th century–you may wish to remove the core and seeds before boiling.

This is of course far from the only version of the condiment even if we confine ourselves strictly to tomatoes here. Mrs. M. H. (Mary Hooker) Cornelius gives us one which is very similar to Mrs. Haskell’s above, then the following, which she notes “retain[s] the color and flavor of the Fruit.”

I suspect this ketchup will have a pleasant fizz to it. Less the old familiar Heinz, more a liquid sauerkraut or a kimchi. And it should be thin; if you’ve ever seen the Judy Garland film Meet Me in St. Louis, there’s a scene where they make ketchup and then ladle it into bottles. Old-time ketchup runs out, and often tastes, like a Thai nam chim or a fish sauce.

That isn’t a coincidence, either. It’s a family resemblance:

In the 1690s the Chinese mixed a concoction of pickled fish and spices and called it (in the Amoy dialect) kôe-chiap or kê-chiap meaning the brine of pickled fish ([“carp juice”]) or shellfish.

By the early 18th century, the table sauce had made it to the Malay states (present day Malaysia and Singapore), where it was discovered by British explorers, and by 1740, it had become a British staple. The Malay word for the sauce was kechap. That word evolved into the English word “ketchup”.

Civil War Ketchups has an oyster ketchup recipe if you’re feeling brave enough to scroll down. But if you blanch at the thought of a fermented, fishy ketchup, try this savory, not-even-a-little fermented mushroom ketchup, which I’ve adapted from my grandmother-in-law Alice’s 1950 Gourmet magazine cookbook:

Mushroom Ketchup
Slice 2 pounds of ordinary white button mushrooms. Place in a large saucepan with 1 cup water and 1 bay leaf. Apply medium-low heat and cook for 35-40 minutes; the mushrooms will release more liquid on cooking. Puree them in a blender with cooking liquid and return to the pot. Add 1 cup malt vinegar, 3 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon mace, 1/4 teaspoon white pepper. Cook for 30 more minutes at a slow boil.

For anything meat, mushroom ketchup is perfect served warm as a dipping sauce. It’s an excellent addition to meatloaf, pork pies, stews, soups, lentils, or almost any savory dish. Just add it to taste for a distinctive, vegetable-umami flavor.

Or try this, adapted from the same source. I’ve nudged down the onion and upped the spices:

Apple Ketchup
Peel, core, and quarter 1 dozen apples. Put them in a large saucepan with water to cover. Simmer until soft. Pass the mixture through a sieve, return to the pot. Add 4 cups vinegar, 1 large grated onion, 2 cups sugar, 4 ts salt, 2 TB cinnamon, 1 TB dry mustard, 2 ts ground cloves. Boil. Simmer for 1 hour.

So far we haven’t tried this one except as a dipping sauce for pork chops. It was great, though I somewhat dread the fact that I have roughly a gallon of apple ketchup in the fridge right now and not quite so many ideas about how to get rid of it. This is also one of the reasons why specialty ketchup seems to require a restaurant-based revival. No one will want to make a small batch of anything that takes so long to produce.

Ketchup


Seared pork chops with warm homemade apple and mushroom ketchups.

Gourmet‘s recipe for walnut ketchup is weird. Really weird. So weird, in fact, that Gourmet magazine appears to have singled it out and published it on the web just for that reason. Look how weird we were back then, folks!

Take a look at this recipe, and tell me honestly — if this weren’t a post about ketchup, would you ever have called it a “ketchup”? It looks more like something you’d find at a tannery. Which may explain the disclaimer:

Select 100 young tender green walnuts, gathered before the enclosed nutshells harden, using the whole fruit. Bruise them slightly, put them into a jar with 6 tablespoons salt and 2 quarts vinegar, and leave them for 8 days, stirring them each day with a wooden spoon. Then drain the liquid into a kettle and add to it 4 ounces anchovies, 12 shallots, finely chopped, 1/2 stick horseradish, grated, 1/2 teaspoon each ground mace, nutmeg, ground ginger, ground cloves, and pepper, and 1 cup port wine. Let the mixture simmer gently for 45 minutes and cool. Strain the ketchup, pour it into bottles, and cover the corks with melted paraffin. Cork the bottles immediately and store them in a dry, cool place.

This exclusive recipe is pulled directly from Gourmet’s archive. It has not been re-tested by our food editors since it was published in the magazine, but it’s a pretty good indication of the kinds of things we once cooked—and ate—with great pleasure.

There’s a resemblance to Worcestershire sauce. Maybe. Needless to say, I have to try it. So here’s a bleg: Can anyone in the DC area get me some still-green walnuts? Right now would be the time of year for them, if I’m not mistaken. I promise you a bottle of… ketchup… in return.

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20 thoughts on “Ketchup

  1. I just made a batch of ketchup up earlier this summer. It has cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, cumin, & chili powder in it. If you’re from the southern Ohio/ northern Kentucky area you’d say it reminded you a bit of Cincinnati (Skyline) chili. Pretty good, but the other big issue is since it has no preservatives in it you only have a few weeks to enjoy it. I ended up with 7 – 1/2 pint jars, but my family just doesn’t eat enough ketchup condimented foods to use it up quickly enough! =/
    I’ll post the recipe later this afternoon.

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    • There are two viable options for preserving, freezing and canning.

      Freezing has the advantage of being easy. Just pour into a Tupperware container and put it in the freezer.

      Canning is more work, but who wouldn’t want a nice selection of mason jars full of artisanal ketchup for Christmas? Use caution, of course, with the fermented varieties.

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      • Oh they’re canned, it’s just once I open one up we have trouble finishing a half pint (one cup) in a couple weeks. I am thinking about giving some as gifts, though. We’re vegetarians, so we don’t have as many ketchup opportunities (though it does go great on Tofurkey brats).

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  2. I acquired a taste for what the Lao people call nam pa, fish sauce. When it was introduced, the Hmong took to the tomato with a will and began to do interesting things with it, which resemble something akin to ketchup, albeit not as blended. When the Hmong refugees arrived here, they would put ketchup in their fawm noodle soup, which you’d recognise from Vietnamese cuisine as pho.

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  3. Compare this to a bottle of commercial ketsup. I’m betting it’s got HFCS in it. As always, it’s better to make it yourself.

    I’ll have to eyeball these a bit more. Nice work.

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  4. This being tomato season, my wife whipped up a batch of homemade fermented catsup… as uncular said, it had an excellent cinnamon/clove/nutmeg background that goes extremely well with butcher crafted Bratworst (where you can still taste the spices). In subsequent batches we further reduced the sweetness to make it even better. The fermenting extends its life a bit, so she typically makes a batch that lasts 30-45 days… about 3 per year; but hardly a hardship as catsup is not really eaten year round, or oughtn’t be.

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  5. In U.S. parlance, “ketchup” has come to be synonymous with the sweet, vinegary, viscous tomato product sold ubiquitously by Heinz. If the condiments described herein were called “sauces” or “remoulades” instead of ketchups, we wouldn’t think they were weird at all. Still labor-intensive for what you get and the sort of thing only a certain class of home cook will attempt, but not all that odd. “Walnut ketchup” gets you a skeptical “Watchootalkinbout, Willis?” look. “Walnut sauce,” an intrigued interest.

    I note, though that the phrase “apple sauce” means a different kind of product entirely than the apple-mustard condiment described herein, so perhaps Italianizing or Hispanicizing it in that case makes more sense: salsa mele.

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  6. My 5YO daughter and I made a batch of old-timey catsup based on the Tomato Catsup #2 recipe from Marion Harland etal’s 1905 New England Cookbook. We had a great time at every stage of the process, from translating the measurements in the recipe to their modern equivalents (a tablespoonful back in 1905 meant different things depending on what you were measuring) to cooking for hours and tasting the end result on a variety of ketchup-friendly foods. And in line with your premise in this post, the resulting catsup was pretty thin and it tasted a lot more like A1 than Heinz.

    Delicious. Come to think of it, it’s probably time to make another batch while tomatoes are still in season and my husband is still in the mood to grill steaks on the weekend.

    You can find my write-up of the experience here: “How did they make old-timey catsup: A Caterpickles Investigative Report”

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