Love Apple Sauce: A Personal, Theoretical and Practical Guide to Homemade Ketchup

One night in August about five years ago, a friend and I decided to cook slow fast food. On our menu were hamburgers, fries, Waldorf salad, mayonnaise and ketchup, which we’d make from scratch. I lived in Belgium at the time, and consequently, my friend and I had mastered the art of making mayonnaise, each with a distinct role in the process. I was the pourer; he the stirrer. But we had never made ketchup before.

We’d been preparing stuff all day. The hamburger buns had risen beautifully and were ready to be baked. The burgers were waiting to be grilled. Our mayonnaise was soft and creamy, and a tomato mixture was simmering away on the stove. It all smelled great, right until the minute the first person arrived. Our bright red soon-to-be ketchup suddenly turned brown and gave off a putrid scent. “God, what is that smell?” she said. We sent her out to buy a bottle of Heinz and threw out the tomato sauce.

When the summer was over, I moved back to Amsterdam and started working with Jan Hein, a university teacher and self-taught programmer. He designs curriculum to teach humanities students how to code. We soon bonded over a shared enthusiasm and frustration of making ketchup at home. I discovered that tomatoes used to be called love apples. It took a few years, but our story turned out to be a love story too. We started dating and got engaged last summer.

Yet, I never tried to make ketchup again until now. As I’m writing this, my first batch of ketchup is bubbling on the stove. It still smells good.

A Short History of Ketchups

Caveach, escaveche, escabeche, escaveach, iskebêy, caveach, kitjap, kecap, fan-kei cheop, kê-tsiap: the etymology of ketchup is as diverse and uncertain as its origins. Some claim ketchup is derived from pickles used to preserve fish, while others claim its ancestry is East Asian, or more precisely, Indonesian. “Ketchup” would be derived from “kecap,” which means sauce.

Until the 1800s, ketchup wasn’t made with tomatoes, but with fish, walnuts or mushrooms. Ketchups were sour-tasting fermented condiments, intended to keep for eternity, and used to spice up other sauces.¹

The ketchup we know today is sweet and uniform, and mostly by Heinz, who has a market share of 60 percent. “Old” ketchup was never uniform and was therefore very hard to produce on an industrial scale. But a few things have changed over the course of two centuries. Ever since the benzoate war, ketchup’s big historical landmark, the condiment has balanced our five fundamental tastes. The most important changes are increased amounts of sugar and vinegar, and the use of ripe tomatoes instead of young ones. Ripe tomatoes are rich in umami, our fifth flavour component. Tomato ketchup has always been salty and bitter, but with the added sugar and vinegar, our sweet and sour receptors jump with joy. A recipe for success.

As the culinary curious attempt to make more things at home—from growing produce on a fire escape to making sourdough bread—ketchup makes its return to DIY-cooking too. Ketchups are increasingly made with other ingredients besides tomatoes, from cranberries to cabbage to carrots. This movement is both historical (the fish, walnuts and mushrooms) and contemporary, given our increasing concern with local and sustainable farming.

Tomatoes are a soil-depleting crop, which means they require a lot of nutrition to grow relative to their yield. They’re also a seasonal fruit, and apart from a few months each year, they usually travel a few thousand miles before ending up in my market. Depending on where you live, there are other crops that grow with ease and abundance that you can use to make ketchups, including red cabbage and beets.

Homemade Tomato Ketchup

ketchup2
Photos by Nicole Fenton

Ingredients

  • 1 28-oz can of pureed whole tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ⅓ cup packed dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Method

To start with the basics, I followed Gourmet’s recipe for tomato ketchup. My friend said the ketchup is great on everything from fries to grilled cheese, but it was too sweet for my taste, so I cut the sugar down quite a bit.

To make the ketchup, start by sautéing and softening the onions in a medium saucepan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring the sauce to a boil. Simmer on low uncovered for several hours, until very thick, and then purée.

lovions

Variation I

For an extra fishy umami ketchup, pound 5 anchovies into a paste, and add them to Gourmet’s Homemade Tomato Ketchup’s recipe with 2 teaspoons of tamari, worcester sauce and oyster sauce. Yum, yum, yum.

Variation II

For a tangier ketchup, mix in a tablespoon of curry power, a pinch of ground allspice, and a pinch of ground cloves.

Red Cabbage Ketchup

Ingredients

  • ½ head of red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • ⅔ cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ginger powder
  • 1 thumb sized piece of ginger, sliced
  • 1 cup of water

Method

This ketchup is inspired by Dan Barber’s article in Time Magazine, Cook with the Whole Farm. The dollop of sauce on the plate is supposedly red cabbage ketchup.

There’s no recipe, so I let all the ingredients simmer and then puréed it. While the sauce is sweet and spiced, the texture is a tad grainy for ketchup. Still, it’s a great sauce for meatballs!

Beet Ketchup

Ingredients

  • 3 beets, diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • ⅔ cup of honey
  • 1¼ cups of balsamic vinegar
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • ¼ teaspoon powdered mustard

Method

Beets have a gorgeous color and are cheap and available where I live throughout most of the year. Carrie Fehr’s recipe for beet ketchup gives you a rich, dark and sweet sauce that’s great on chicken or turkey burgers. I ran out of balsamic vinegar, so I used 1¼ cup and ⅔ cup of honey, which was good because I wanted to bump up the percentage of beets a bit.

Sautée and soften the onions. Mix in the remaining ingredients and let them simmer, uncovered, for about an hour, or until reduced by half. Remove the spices and then purée. It should be thick, smooth and shiny. For an extra kick, add some grated horseradish. I recommend eating the ketchup with regular fries instead of sweet potato ones, and it’s also delicious on a piece of leftover steak.

A Recipe for Experimentation

“Am I earth? Or am I sulfur?” I overheard this while at a dinner party.

People were laughing. I didn’t get what they were talking about. A friend held a book in her outstretched arms, turning it around and around like a steering wheel, while the others pointed at various parts of a pie-chart-like circle on the front endpaper of the book.

flavor wheel dutch

“I’m definitely citrus,” one person said. “Or fresh fruit,” another replied. I started to recognize the categories. Over the past few weeks, this book had become both essential to my cooking and my favorite bedtime literature.

The categories weren’t psychoanalytical. They were food. My dinner companions were using the wheel of Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus as a mold for their personalities. But it didn’t work; they decided their personalities couldn’t be classified by labels on the wheel. Apparently, our ids, egos, and beings can’t be defined in terms of watermelon, butternut squash, or cumin. The book wasn’t meant for that in the first place, but the conversation was too heated for anyone to notice my interjections. I couldn’t convince them of the book’s non-psychological brilliancy, and it was tossed aside. I figured it was time to go home.

At the time, the thesaurus was my most inspiring cheffing resource. For years, my walls were paneled with books and magazines that told me what to cook and how to cook it. Over time, the stacks started feeling like the walls of prison, limiting my creativity rather than feeding it. But Segnit set me free. She re-introduced me to ingredients and introduced ingredients to me. She gave me the tools to dig deeper into recipes, making reading cookbooks an active and involved practice, rather than a passive one. Being able to engage with my books, they became sources I could learn from again, and I learned to love them anew.

In her book, Segnit describes foods through their flavors, categorizes them accordingly, and presents them as meaningful duos, pairing raspberry with basil, beetroot with horseradish, and coriander with coffee. She gives you an idea rather than a recipe. Not an order, but a gentle push in a direction. Segnit’s book opened up my cooking to experimentation: spicing up a bland eggplant risotto with nutmeg, or replacing lemon and parsley with orange and coriander in a fish recipe.

This also inevitably means that Segnit opened up my cooking to the occurrence of failure. Following recipes is like reading a language. At one point you can. You know you won’t fail. But going off the recipe means things won’t always work out. And this failure is liberating. It teaches you something, namely that (and maybe even why) what you thought would be great isn’t. It’s scary too. You can no longer blame the recipe. You, your experiment, and your interpretation are at “fault”. This is why I don’t fail enough in the kitchen yet, but I’m slowly learning to embrace it. Segnit teaches me how to take baby steps.

Having spent years focusing on Jamie’s Italy and the seminal Silver Spoon, I thought Italian food was the absolute, unsurpassable summum of cuisines. And the food is great, although a great deal less delicious if you’re stuck using Dutch tomatoes. But I discovered there are so many more cuisines to explore. Californian and Australian are both fantastic fusion kitchens. Or the hearty German, Flemish and Austrian dishes that comfort me during cold winters. And my newest fad: Lebanese. You know you’ve entered unknown territory when you’re buying produce with Google Images, because the name written in the list of ingredients means absolutely nothing to you.

No longer looking for recipes, but for combinations of ingredients, the Flavour Thesaurus has led me to the more unfamiliar corners of my bookshelves. By focusing on pure ingredients rather than geographical kitchens, Segnit changed the way I navigate recipes. I love cooking Asian food, mainly because I love ginger. Shifting my focus from Asian to ginger, however, I learned about Dean & Deluca’s lovely but untraditional tomato and ginger pasta sauce. Or take horseradish: I love horseradish, but I didn’t know what to do with it besides combining it with roast beef. When I was in Vienna, I discovered that it’s a staple in the Austrian kitchen. So I started cooking Austrian food, which I probably would’ve never done otherwise. The Flavour Thesaurus is like a culinary Lonely Planet: it gets you off the beaten track, but makes sure you don’t get lost.


Three combinations and ideas to get started

Coriander and coffee

Segnit advises to start with 1 teaspoon of coriander seeds on 6 tablespoons of coffee beans and go from there.

Grind them together? Or grind separately and brew all together? She doesn’t say. This is where the journey begins. But I hardly drink coffee and don’t have a coffee grinder. Who wants to give this a try?

Raspberry and basil

Donna Hay makes a mean Moscow Mule. Mix about half/half of vodka and ginger beer, stir in lime juice syrup to taste. Serve with raspberry ice cubes and basil leaves.

Beetroot and horseradish

Austrian cuisine and I love horseradish. Tafelspitz (cooked beef), a national dish, comes with many, many sides.

My favorite is a salad with beetroot, apple and horseradish. Grate cooked beetroots, apple, and horseradish. Mix in some roasted cumin seeds and vinegar. Have some leftover beetroots from yesterday’s dinner? You think roasting will add an extra dimension of flavour? You like your food spicy? Go with your gut.


And yes, there are recipes in there too. For the lazy days.