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How (not) to make Ketchup

by Flash Wilson Bristow, 16th August, 2007

Having lately learnt to make pesto, and then mayonnaise, I've been enjoying creating healthier condiments from scratch. So when the Heinz Tomato Ketchup ran out recently, my first thought was "I won't buy more - no, I'll make it!"

I succeeded, but my goodness, what a trial! The recipe I eventually developed is at the end of this article, but first, read on and decide for yourself whether it was worthwhile...

In recent months, I have been paying more attention to what I eat, trying to look for additive free, healthy and organic options. This means that I have tried many varieties of ketchup; Heinz is great, but a little artificial, Peter Rabbit is organic but sweetened for a baby's palate, and Tiptree is lovely but only comes in small bottles, costing twice the price of Heinz. So it seemed to me that making my own from raw ingredients would be a good idea, after all I already do it with other condiments and find them quick and easy to make, and full of flavour.

I am very lucky to have a good Turkish shop near my house which sells flavoursome tomatoes on the vine for less than the price of Tesco's mankiest "value" items. Therefore it would be easy to pop across the road and pick up whatever I needed, or so I thought.

A quick search of the BBC's food pages - which I've always found reliable - soon uncovered Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's ketchup recipe. It sounded simple - but straightaway the quantity concerned me. Six kilos of tomatoes, and talk of bottling for a year? I can't even lift six kilos at a time, so I decided to halve the quantities, and if successful I could make larger amounts later. Hazy pictures began to form in my mind of handing out "Flash's Wonderful Ketchup" for gifts at Christmas... but for now, it was still an experiment in progress.

I was inspired by Hugh's comment "Use it as you would any commercial tomato ketchup... but always with enormous self-satisfaction bordering on smugness." That part at least sounded easy!

After I arrived home with a full bag of tomatoes, I got to work roughly chopping them as directed. I quickly realised that my largest pan would hold only two kilos, and started recalculating... I was now down to using 1/3 of the quantities stated. Oh well, it was still a big pot and would surely produce enough ketchup for a few weeks' use! I popped the tomatoes, pepper and onion into the pan, and left them simmering while I got on with some work for a while.

Now, you need to realise that I am not a natural cook. I don't have the knack of being able to look at a batter or taste a sauce and instinctively knowing what to add in order to produce great results. However, I can follow instructions to the letter, and as stated I find the BBC recipes very reliable, so I fully expected to return to a lovely red puree in my pot. No such luck. However, it was "very soft" as directed, so after much deliberation as to which of my sieves might be "course mesh", I began pushing the cooked veg through.

After ten minutes, and with an aching arm, I had one bowl full of tomato skin and pieces of onion and pepper, and another containing about 200ml of thin orange liquid. Tentatively I tried it. Tomato water. Was this what Hugh intended?

I checked and double-checked the instructions, but I hadn't missed anything, so I continued, adding the vinegar, sugar and mustard to this pathetic juice. After a few minutes of chasing mustard blobs around the pan, wondering whether I should have used powder instead, it was time for the spices, tied "in a square of muslin".

Oh yes. The muslin square. Well, it's confession time! Earlier in the day, I'd rung my mother from the supermarket, unable to find suitable material, hoping that perhaps "DIY Bouquet Garni" kits were on sale - but to no avail. My mother's got 30 years of cooking experience on me, surely she'd know what to do?

Her first advice was "use an old cotton handkerchief". What a horrible idea! Firstly, we don't have such items, and secondly if we did, I don't think I'd enjoy eating anything which I might mentally associate with an old hankie. Her second suggestion was to use an old stocking. I don't own any of them either, but I bought a box of cheap tights for the purpose. Hell, the rest of them could go in the guest room.

So there I was, ready to stuff a pair of tights with a selection of spices, and feeling slightly confused about it. However, when I raided the cupboard I remembered that I'd recently thrown most of the contents away for far exceeding their expiry date. So I discarded the tights (with a strange feeling of relief) and instead added a teaspoon of ground allspice and three only-slightly-elderly bay leaves to the pot.

The conglomeration had been simmering for a while now, so it was time for a taste - the moment of truth, as I discovered that what I had been conscientiously stirring was orange coloured vinegar. More to the point, it wouldn't make enough for a week's use, let alone some to bottle for a year! Drastic action was required...

...so I opened a jar of passata and chucked it in. After all, I needed to empty something in order to free up a vessel for my newly made sauce, so I could pretend this had always been my plan!

After ten minutes of simmering, it actually tasted a bit like ketchup. Well, it was more like vinegary tomato soup, but we were going in the right direction.

I fished out the bay leaves, and realised there were also some pieces of tomato skin present. Time to go back to the sieve, but this time almost everything went through and I was left with a promising red liquid. Surely this is what Hugh F-W intended me to create originally? If only he'd told me how...

Optimistically, I simmered the mixture for a further ten minutes. And then another ten. When it became apparent that nothing was happening, it was time for further intervention. I took some of the liquid into a bowl and added cornflower, praising myself for remembering to make a paste to return to the pot, rather than adding the cornflour directly and destroying the whole thing with lumps.

After three iterations of this process, my proto-ketchup finally began to thicken. I stirred constantly and eventually ended up with something which looked and tasted like warm, tangy, tomato sauce!

Feeling every bit as smug as Hugh had suggested, I let it cool, before bottling in the passata bottle. Finally, I had made my own ketchup!

It was at this time that I returned to my computer and discovered an article which began simply "Making Ketchup Is Too Hard". Ah, the benefit of retrospect. If only I'd read that to start with. But too late - and I'd won!

Was it worthwhile? Well, it took 2 hours of my time, and cost £1.50 for the tomatoes (as well as the cost of vinegar, allspice etc, but I discount them as they are useful additions to my store cupboard in any case). However, if I'd taken the passata tactic from the start, the finished product would cost about half the price of Heinz, and it's true it is very satisfying - but unless you enjoy cooking and don't value your time, it's probably easier not to bother! On the other hand, now I've worked out a simpler ("cheat's"?) version, it's not as insurmountable as the article suggests. It should only take an hour, although you will be attending to the pot frequently throughout that time.

Here's the recipe that I would now recommend:

  • Get a large jar (e.g. 680ml) of good, plain passata. Put into a large pan and bring to the boil.
  • Take off the heat, push through sieve and return to the pan.
  • Add 100ml cider vinegar, 1 tsp ground allspice, 1 tsp dijon mustard. Stir until it's all mixed in, add 3 bay leaves and simmer.
  • After 20 minutes, remove the bay leaves.
  • Take a small amount (e.g. 50ml) into a separate bowl, add 1 tsp cornflour, blend into a smooth paste and return to the pan. Mix it in and keep stirring as the mixture simmers.
  • If after 5-10 minutes it's not noticeably thickening, repeat procedure with the cornflour. Stir constantly once added.
  • When the mixture looks and tastes like warm ketchup, cover and leave to cool.
  • When cool, use a funnel to bottle - it makes about 750ml so that will fill your passata jar (for future use) and a ramekin (for immediate use - ooh, a ready-made excuse to make chips!)

As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says, do feel smug and self-satisfied when serving - but unlike with his recipe, you don't have to stand for hours over sweating vegetables to achieve it.

A jar of passata costs around 90p so if you already have the vinegar, spice and cornflour, home-made ketchup will end up at half the price of Heinz, just as tasty and far more satisfying. Maybe using passata is a cheat - but it works well (my ketchup passed the husband test) - and life's just too short for the alternatives!

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