homemade ketchup that tastes right

IMG_4035IMG_4032You forgot about the ketchup, didn’t you?  Turns out that being sad makes for great ketchup. Indeed, this year’s version was the ne plus ultra of ketchups.  OK, I mostly got lucky.

As my previous, lengthy post on ketchup describes, and I’ve mulled over in countless classes, ketchup’s balance of flavors is more about the craft than the mystery of the perfect flavors in Heinz 57.  I’ve been honing my ketchup technique for a few years now, focusing on the texture and the umami component. Until this year, I’ve been unhappy with the thickness of the ketchup, as you can see from the photos in the post.  But I think I’ve got that settled.  My ketchup doesn’t leak watery ketchup juice on the plate.  Finally.

Powdered vegetables are the secret to thicken the sauce. After the frustrating experience of cooking the sauce down for many, many hours and still having it leak, I was thinking about adding agar-agar or xanthan gum to help.  But it turns out I didn’t have to because my umami solution solved the thickness issue, too.  Last year, my ketchup was almost too bitter with celery and lovage seed, so I brought those levels down and rounded out the whole thing with onion powder, an absolutely essential component, and garlic powder. It transforms the ketchup from something that’s too sweet and sour and high note-y into a baritone boom-boom-boom.  It’s ketchup that tasts right; even better, I’d argue, than Heinz.  Yeah, I know that’s crazy-talk.  But it really is that good.

In fact, it’s so good, I might even add more powder next year: tomato and celeriac powder.  And if I dry and pulverize tomato peels when I process my next batch of tomatoes, as Joel MacCharles of the marvelous preservation blog, WellPreserved, suggests, it will help add more umami and heft.  And although I used my magic celeriac salt, I might be even more successful if I’m not too worried about the salt content and can fiddle with the unique glutamate that celery root always adds.

I’m indebted to several sources for this recipe.  The base is from the tested standard recipe for spicy ketchup in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, and auxiliary recipes provided by the OSU Extension Master Food Preserver program (with which I am affiliated as a MFP volunteer), with improvements by Linda Ziedrich in Joy of Pickling and Joel of WellPreserved’s methodical, patient, multi-year series of posts on tomato sauce and ketchup.  The WellPreserved family processes over 400 lbs. of tomatoes a year, so I’m pretty convinced they can teach us a few tricks.  Mine diverges from all of these sources a bit in method, but don’t worry, it’s still safe.  It only changes some techniques to make things easier on the cook and some spices to enhance the flavor. Oven roasting adds flavors and removes much of the water without the need to boil for hours.

If you’ve canned Ball ketchup in the past, you’ll notice I half their recipe, approximately half a lug of tomatoes.  Quite frankly, I don’t eat that much ketchup, and this amount fits in my oven and stockpot much more easily.  I don’t have to do anything twice. Also, I can in half-pint jelly jars for ease of use.  If your family eats a lot of ketchup, you should double the recipe and can in pint jars.   If you decide to double my recipe for the standard amount, though, be warned you’ll need a huge pot, more sheet pans or two overnight sessions for roasting, and longer time cooking down the purée.

Some of the ingredients are not common.  From Joel, I take the idea of adding a Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) to the ketchup for umami.  For a recipe my size, he’d add a tablespoon of umeboshi vinegar, but I only had the plums.  I grow bay, lovage, and my own cutting celery for seed, and as mentioned above, make my own celery salt, so I have these things on hand. Hell Dust smoked dried peppers are awesome; buy them here.  But if you can’t, it’s ok to use others if you can find them.

The vegetables are the best quality, either my own or from local farms, and I use Bragg cider vinegar. If you are shy about spiciness, don’t use fresh cayenne peppers from Thistledown Farm as I did.  Good ripe red mild frying peppers are fine.  I used mostly my own tomatoes (paste and others) and some ‘Scipio San Marzano’ paste tomatoes from Good Food Easy to arrive at the proper weight, but I strongly suggest using only paste tomatoes.

Feel free to improvise on the spices, but not on the ratio of the tomatoes, vegetables, vinegar and sugar.  This ratio was tested for safe canning by the USDA-affiliated folks.

Update, 2015: Use baking parchment paper on your aluminum pans when roasting the tomatoes, and it will prevent etching or staining.

Ketchup That Tastes Right

Makes 7-8 half-pints, depending on tomatoes and reduction time.

  • 13 pounds paste tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon homemade celery salt (or regular salt with some celery seed in it)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic
  • ½ cup chopped red hot peppers (e.g., cayenne)
  • 1 umeboshi (optional) or a little soy sauce or anchovy paste for umami
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 1.5 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Hell Dust smoked pepper flakes or smoked paprika

Spice Packet:

  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • sprig of lovage
  • 2 teaspoons whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons whole allspice
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon coriander

Equipment Note: You’ll need cheesecloth for the spice packet; several sheet pans; and a food mill or grinder.  If you have a grinder, great.  I’m guessing you do not.  A food mill is fine.  You might also opt to just blend in the skins and seeds, which will add a slightly bitter flavor and grainier texture to the final product, but I like a smooth ketchup so I use the food mill.

Instructions:  Wash, cut off stem end, and slice tomatoes in halves or quarters.  Toss them in some salt.  Oven roast them in a single or double layer on sheet pans in a 200-degree oven overnight or for at least 4 hours.

Move tomatoes to stockpot and add chopped onion, garlic, red peppers, umeboshi, and two bay leaves.

Simmer for 3-5 hours, stirring frequently, on very low heat, until the tomatoes break down and the onions and peppers are very soft.  Cool purée until you can handle it. Discard the bay leaves.

Now for the part that’s a pain.  Be patient.  Wax on, wax off.

Press the purée through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds.  Take your time.  Really press out all of the flesh from the skins.  You might even knead and squeeze the skins with well-washed hands to extract every bit you can.  This is important because most of the umami flavor in the tomato is in the flesh near the skin and the seeds.  Consider saving the skins/seeds for dehydrated powder (see note above and instructions).

Add the purée to a deep stockpot, because it will spatter all over the stove if you use, say, a 5.5 quart dutch oven L.  Add the vinegar, sugar, salt, onion and garlic powders, and Hell Dust.  Prepare a spice packet by placing the whole spices in cheesecloth and tying the top of the bundle with kitchen twine or similar.

Cook down the purée for another 4-5 hours over very low heat, stirring frequently.  The thicker it gets, the more likely it is to burn, so watch it carefully and scrape the bottom of the pan when stirring.

IMG_4036 The ketchup is ready when it clings like paste to your spoon, and when you mound it up on a plate, it doesn’t leak juice out.  (Joel describes four tests for ketchup thickness if you’re truly concerned.)  As you see above, last year’s ketchup has a bit of juice pooled around it; this year’s is much thicker and more appetizing, more paste-like.

You might food mill the finished product yet again before a final simmer before canning if you want an even smoother texture, but it’s pretty smooth as it is.

About 30 minutes before completion, set up your canning equipment. Wash your jars, rings, and lids, and heat the lids according to the package instructions as you’re heating up the waterbath canner.

Spoon the hot ketchup into jars carefully and pressing down product with a spoon to reduce air bubbles, leaving 1/2-inch head space.  Wipe rims of jars and adjust lids and rings.  Process in a waterbath canner for 15 minutes for half-pints or pints.  Do not process in quarts.

Important Timing Notes: it is easier to do this process over several days, refrigerating the purée in between.  Day 1: prep and roast the tomatoes.  Day 2: cook down the tomatoes with vegetables, mill the tomatoes, and add spices.  Day 3: cook down the purée into ketchup, then can it.

And more good news: tomatoes improve if you let them sit out and further ripen for up to four days after purchasing.  Joel notes that his sauce yield was dramatically improved by riper tomatoes.

8 thoughts on “homemade ketchup that tastes right

  1. Chelsea 30 August 2013 / 12:43 pm

    Your description of the deeper baritone boom makes me think of the Tom Robbins novel Jitterbug Perfume. This is a tastier version of the characters’ quests for the mysterious but necessary bottom note to create the perfect perfume. I hate ketchup, but I love this.


  2. carolynjembry 31 August 2013 / 9:23 am

    Your blog is beautifully written (I’ve been following it for about a month now). I am inspired to make this ketchup before tomatoes disappear from my farmer’s market.


  3. Eugenia 31 August 2013 / 4:22 pm

    Thanks, ladies. It’s ketchup worth making, finally.


  4. Sarah 6 September 2013 / 12:26 pm

    I’ve managed to collect 13 pounds of paste tomatoes from my garden, but before I start, I wanted to ask a couple questions. First, how does this taste compared to store bought? My children have only experience store bought and I don’t want them to reject it outright because it tastes too different. I understand it is spicy, and that should be ok, but how does it compare?

    Second, have you had problems with the tomatoes etching the sheet pans while roasting? I made a roasted tomato sauce a couple years ago and lost a couple of layers of metal from them, which was not good.



  5. Eugenia 6 September 2013 / 12:57 pm

    Hi Sarah, if you have finicky children, you might not want to waste the time and beautiful result. Buy Heinz instead. They have a decent version without HFCS. Just melt down the tomatoes (roasting and then using the food mill in the same way to remove skins) and then cook for a while with some minced onion, garlic, and oregano for spaghetti sauce that you can freeze by the cupful. Much less work, more child-friendly.

    The tomatoes can etch sheet pans, but I’m surprised you lost layers of metal — just put down aluminum foil and the problem will be solved.


  6. angela 22 September 2013 / 12:47 pm

    I also have etched sheet pans with my tomatoes- and seeing as how we put up all our own tomato sauce I was wondering/thinking about aluminum leach- and so I decided to use my enameled roaster, and a stainless steel roaster instead of my beloved sheet pans. same end result but no leaching. trying the ketchup recipe today…


  7. Eugenia 22 September 2013 / 12:51 pm

    @Angela, agreed; I’ve been doing smaller batches as my plum tomatoes ripen using pyrex pans and my non-stick roaster. Smaller area but certainly no etching.


  8. Tomato Paste Importer 26 December 2013 / 2:39 pm

    Thanks for the good tips on making a good homemade ketchup… i am always struggling to get it to taste the right way, usually just end up buying storebought. I’m going to implement your tips the next time I try to make ketchup


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