Could homemade ketchup beat Heinz?

Photo by Renee Comet for The Washington Post
Photo by Renee Comet for The Washington Post
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 2:12 PM

Whether it's pickles or preserves, DIY food is all the rage. But when I told a group of food-loving friends that I was planning to make my own ketchup, their response was muted. First, there was an awkward pause. Then, one piped up with the question that everyone must have been thinking: Why?

Ketchup, apparently, is an exception to the everything-is-better-if-you-make-it-yourself ethos. In a 2004 piece in the New Yorker magazine, journalist Malcolm Gladwell argued that although different people have different ideas of the perfect tomato sauce (chunky, spicy or smooth) or mustard (yellow or Dijon-style), everyone likes the same kind of ketchup. And that ketchup is Heinz, a condiment that offers a perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savory or umami.

More than a decade earlier, Vogue's Jeffrey Steingarten came to essentially the same conclusion when, in a characteristically extensive taste test, he grouped 35 ketchups, including two homemade versions, into the following categories: Worse Than Heinz, Heinz, Better Than Heinz and Not Really Ketchup. Other cooks and writers have piled on. Their point is always the same. When something as good as Heinz can be had so cheaply ($3 for a 40-ounce bottle), why on Earth would you make it yourself? But there are people out there, two kinds of people, with reasons. One group wants a more wholesome product. For all Heinz's claimed perfection, two of the eight ingredients listed on its label are high-fructose corn syrup and regular corn syrup. Homemade ketchup, in contrast, has none of the "weird stuff" and more personality, says Derek Luhowiak, who makes just about everything from scratch at his food truck Local Sixfortyseven (which now serves private events only).

"I've done taste tests with my ketchup and Heinz's," he says. "Heinz tastes like sugar and cardboard. With fresh ketchup, you can actually taste the layers of spices, the sweet component, the acid component."

The second group is driven by circumstance. It is made up of people - maybe even you - who right about this time of year have a hell of a lot of tomatoes and need something to do with them.

Americans didn't always have a singular idea of what ketchup should taste like. Indeed, the first ketchups weren't made from tomatoes at all. According to "Pure Ketchup," Andrew F. Smith's definitive history of the condiment, the first known English-language recipe was published in the 1727 edition of E. Smith's "Compleat Housewife" and called for anchovies, shallots, white wine vinegar and spices such as mace, ginger, cloves and lemon peel, making it closer to an Asian fish sauce. By the early 19th century, cookbooks offered a range of recipes for ketchup made with walnuts, mushrooms, lemons, cucumbers, oysters and, of course, tomatoes.

The tomato version soon surpassed its competition in popularity. And commercial producers began making the stuff using trimmings from the tomato canneries. In 1896, the New York Tribune declared ketchup the national condiment of the United States, available "on every table in the land."

Heinz, Smith reports, began making tomato ketchup in the late 19th century. By 1905, the company had become the ketchup king, turning out more than 5 million bottles a year. Today,Heinz owns 59 percent of the market, according to data from Nielsen, with Hunts (15 percent) and Del Monte (2 percent) fighting for the leftovers.

Heinz's recipe is a trade secret. But some of the brand's earliest recipes are not. Its first blend included cloves, cayenne pepper, mace, cinnamon and allspice. The second had black and white pepper, ginger, mustard seed, horseradish, celery seed and brown sugar. Vinegar and salt were added to taste.

A good homemade ketchup needs some combination of almost all of those seasonings. There's nothing wrong with a simpler mix of cooked-down tomatoes and chipotle or dill. But it will not come close to meeting your expectation of what ketchup should be. "You can deviate, but the taste [of ketchup] is so ingrained in us that you have to get close to that or people won't like it," Luhowiak says. "It's funny to try to make a homemade version of an industrial product. But you have to."

So what makes Heinz the standard by which all others are measured? Consumer tests identify four key characteristics: tang, sweetness, a concentrated tomato flavor and a thick, pourable consistency. Re-creating that blend with fresh or more-wholesome ingredients was my goal.

Coming up with a recipe, though, wasn't easy. I collected more than a dozen from local chefs and cookbooks, and, with the exception of tomatoes, vinegar and sugar, they had almost no ingredients in common. Some had a just a few spices, usually ginger and dry mustard; others had more than a dozen, and in that category, there were myriad combinations and quantities.

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