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How to make ketchup from scratch (with no HFCS!)

July 24, 2012 2 comments

This post I debated – is ketchup worthy of being written up on a blog about lost culinary arts, about doing things that aren’t really very easy?  I mean, what’s next, posts about lemon bars and how to make a mean vegetarian pasta?  It’s a slippery slope between being true to the mission, and channeling Rachel Ray.

Because on the one hand, while ketchup’s not quite as easy as making tomato sauce, it ain’t rocket science.  But on the other hand, it’s enough of a mystery and pain in the ass that I had never done it before.

And while all that mental debate was being played out in some schizophrenic place in my head, I tasted the fruit of my efforts, and wondered how I had ever eaten Heinz.  Holy shit.  Really.  And with that, I knew it must be blogged about here.  Because you really should be making your own, it’s just that Goddamned good.

For me, this effort started where they often do: with a giant box of excess ingredients about to melt down into compost at any moment.  In this case, tomatoes.  On Saturday, as we were tearing down our tent at the Holly Springs Farmers’ Market, I made a deal with a nearby tomato seller: one bag of coffee in exchange for all the tomatoes he had left that wouldn’t last the weekend.  Which turned out to be around 50 lbs of butt-ugly, maximally ripe, about to burst or ooze out of the box tomatoes.

Some of those tomatoes wound up as sauce, and some just plain canned tomatoes.  But even after we had canned all we were going to need for the year (remember, I’ve been canning tomatoes for weeks now), I still had approximately a metric shitload of tomatoes remaining.  So I decided to tackle something that’s been on my list for years, but I’ve never quite gotten around to: ketchup.  How hard could it be, right? Turns out that the question I should have been asking all these years is “how good could it be?“.

Somehow, the “recipe” on the back of the Heinz bottle left something to be desired. All out of High Fructose Corn Syrup. But it did provide a useful guideline on starting sodium content.

The research started as it always does, with an internet search, and a scouring of my home library, now made much easier by eatyourbooks.com(no paid plug, I really just love their site/service)  I also read the back of the Heinz bottle looking for clues.

As an aside, I’ll mention that I also did a serious Heinz ketchup tasting, trying to ascertain the ingredients and proportions.  I must admit, it’s the first time I ever really tasted ketchup for the sake of tasting ketchup.  It was kinda gross.  It is way sweeter than I ever consciously realized.  And other than that, kinda benign, flavor-wise.  I realized it wouldn’t be hard to beat.

The recipes I read had many common threads.  Tomato concentrate. Sweetener. Vinegar. Spices. Salt.  All I had to do was deduce the proportions, cobble together a recipe, and figure out the technique.  And that, my friends, is the stuff this blog is made of. Most of the recipes out there are small batch, and struck me as being about 1/3 each tomato, sweetener, and vinegar.  I knew I would never like something so sweet, and my family would never like so much vinegar.  I also guessed that ketchup is a non-linear kind of recipe, i.e., a big batch doesn’t require proportionately more of everything.  So I figured I’d start small, and add to taste.  Here’s the photo blog, which I’ll follow with a recipe.

It all starts with these about-to-be-compost tomatoes. Wash, cut out the core, the bad spots, and give ’em a coarse chop. I used about 20 maters like these, which amounted to about 3 quarts chopped.

I used two small onions, one red and one white (they weighed 116 grams), and a couple large cloves of garlic, which I smashed with a pinch of salt in the mortar and pestle (probably not strictly necessary, but habit for me). Everything’s gonna get blended later so no need to fret about the panache of your knife work.

 

Simmer the maters, oniion and garlic for a while (20 minutes), then hit ’em good with the stick blender. If you don’t have a stick blender, you should buy one. Really. They are that useful, and no competent kitchen should be without one. If you must, use a food processor or blender, but for God’s sake, be careful because the stuff is hot. Safety first.

OK, now you need the spices, which will be simmered in vinegar to extract their flavor. I used a variation of my standard pickling spice blend – about equal parts coriander seed, mustard seed, cloves, cinnamon stick, and whole allspice. For this batch, my spice mix probably amounted to a couple tablespoons. Toast them for a few minutes before adding vinegar.

Ah, vinegar. Which type? I picked apple cider because I thought it would add more flavor than white. De gustibus non est disputandum, or in other words, use what you like.

Simmer the spices in the vinegar for 15 minutes or so, then strain the spiced vinegar into the tomato mixture.

Here’s where I cheated. I added a few cans of tomato paste to hasten the thickening. Sue me.

For sweetener, I used demerara sugar. You could use white sugar. Or honey. Or stevia. Or high fructose corn syrup. I live in a no-judgement zone.

Time to add salt to taste. Add it slowly and taste as you go. It’s really surprising when you hit the tipping point and a little bit changes the flavor quite a lot. I did a calculation based on the sodium content of Heinze, and the size of my batch, to determine that 26 grams of salt was probably about where I would end up. I added it about 5 grams at a time, but 26 grams turned out to be exactly right for me.

Now you need to simmer to get the right consistency.  Sorry, it didn’t occur to me to get a snap of it simmering, but how boring would that be anyway?  Turns out I needed quite a lot of simmering, about a lawn-cutting’s worth (I went out and cut the lawn while it simmered, uncovered, so about 2 hours.  When I came in it was perfect.)

Now you run the pureed condiment through a food mill or sieve. This is another tool that if you don’t have it, you should get one. If you must, you could push it through a wire strainer with a spoon, but I don’t recommend that. In any case, it really must be strained to get the right texture. This of you who know me know that I would never recommend extra steps if they weren’t essential.

Into jars for canning the usual way. Water bath for 30 minutes.

Final product. Better than anything you can buy.

So here’s the recipe for the batch I made:

Recipe

3 qts coarsely chopped, very ripe tomatoes (about 20)
2 onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, smashed
3/4 cup demerara sugar
2 cups apple cider vinegar
3 cans tomato paste
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp whole allspice
1 tsp broken up cinnamon stick
26 grams sea salt

Boil then simmer the tomatoes, onions and garlic in a large pot for about 20 minutes.  In a separate pot, toast the spices, then add the vinegar, boil then simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain the spiced vinegar into the tomatoes, discard the spices.  Add the past, sugar and salt.  Blend well with immersion blender.  Simmer uncovered until desired texture is achieved (depends on water content of tomatoes; mine took 2 hours).  Strain through food mill to remove seeds and stems.  Can in the usual way.

Cost Analysis

Tomatoes: if you bought them, figure about $5
Paste: $1.50
Vinegar: $1
Salt & Spices: $0.50
Sugar: $0.75
Onions and garlic: $1

Total: $9.75.  Yields 8 half pints. $1.22 per half pint, or $0.15 per ounce.  Heinz is about $0.11 per ounce, so mine’s not cheaper, but it’s not that much more expensive. But there is no comparison in taste, trust me.

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