Recipe: Tomato Catsup (1871)

Vine Ripened Tomatoes, Photo: Eric Colleary

I’m reminded of that classic 1944 Vincent Minelli movie-musical, Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland, when the family cook is slaving away in the kitchen over a large pot of ketchup. Before pouring the thin liquid into individual bottles, each member of the family tastes it, and each one inevitably gives a differing opinion – too sweet, too spicy, too thick, etc.

Ketchup Ingredients, Photo: Eric Colleary

With summer in full-swing, I couldn’t resist attempting this most classic of American condiments.

Believe it or not, though, ketchup is not American. Or European. It actually has its roots in the fermented and pickled sauces of Chinese cuisine. The term ke-tsiap originally refers to a kind of pickled fish sauce.

The term spread around the world through the trade routes of the 17th and 18th century, and was applied to most sour sauces that had nuts, fish, vegetables or fruit as its base.

British Colonists grew tomatoes as ornamental plants, believing the fruit was poisonous, though legend has it that Thomas Jefferson was introduced to tomatoes on a visit to Paris, and liking them so much, he had seeds sent back home.

Tomato ketchup recipes appear in the earliest of American cookbooks including one in Mary Randolph’s classic The Virginia Housewife (1824). However, it wasn’t until 1876, when F. & J. Heinz launched their brand of bottled tomato ketchup that the condiment achieved cult status.

Why? Because it was a challenge to make at home. It takes quite a bit of time, and the bottling process didn’t always prevent spoilage. Heinz tackled this challenge by adding more vinegar – basically pickling the tomatoes – and guarenteeing the lack of spoilage of their product by offering a money-back refund. Today, Heinz is the world’s leading producer of tomato ketchup, with the bulk of it bottled and produced in my home state of Ohio at a plant in Fremont.

The thick tomato ketchup we’re all so used to is a relatively recent change, as the recipe below proves. Tomatoes used in ketchup had less pectin, and were often picked unripe. More recently, industrially made ketchups have more pectin added, or sometimes even a thickener like corn syrup or corn starch.

Sliced Tomato, Photo: Eric CollearyThe recipe below is makes a much thinner, much tarter ketchup than what you’ll find in the store. The spices also offer a savory flavor that contemporary ketchups lack – a flavor that makes it the perfect pairing for meats and vegetables, or to give a bit of a boost to sauces and stocks.

So, if you’re expecting a ketchup that can easily be scooped by a French fry, skip it and reach for the Heinz. However, if you’re looking for an uncommon condiment that’s versatile with any number of dishes, I highly recommend giving this a try.

This comes from Marion Harland’s 1871 tome Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery. Harland includes an entire chapter on “Catsups and Flavored Vinegars,” including receipts for lemon catsup, mushroom catsup, oyster catsup and walnut catsup. Yep. Future blog posts right there.

This recipe does take a bit of time and attention to make. Regardless of the pot you use, there will be a tendency for the tomato sauce to burn as more of the water evaporates. There is a substantial amount of time spent stirring. Finally, note that the vinegar is added at the end to the chilled sauce and then not reheated. Add the vinegar to taste, and do try it before you start doctoring it up with sugar and such.

If you don’t want to go through all the trouble of cooking down tomatoes and straining them, you could start with a large can of tomato juice. Of course, if you really want to cheat, start with a can of tomato sauce. If you go this far, though, you might as well by the ready-made ketchups.

My notes are in [brackets].

The Recipe

1 peck ripe tomatoes [about 17 medium tomatoes]
1 ounce salt
1 ounce mace [mace is the hull of nutmeg. Ground nutmeg can be used in a pinch]
1 table spoonful black pepper
1 teaspoonful cayenne
1 tablespoonful cloves (powdered)
7 tablespoonfuls ground mustard
1 tablespoonful celery seed (tied in a thin muslin bag)
[1 pint vinegar]

Cut a slit in the tomatoes, put into a bell-metal or porcelain kettle [any thick bottomed pot should do], and boil until the juice is all extracted and the pulp dissolved. Strain and press through a cullender, then through a hair sieve. Return to the fire, add the seasoning, and boil at least five hours, stirring constantly for the last hour, and frequently throughout the time it is on the fire. Let it stand twelve hours in a stone jar on the cellar floor [or cool on the stove to room temperature, then at least two hours in the refrigerator]. When cold, add a pint of strong vinegar [white distilled is fine, but cider vinegar can also be used, particularly for the gluten intolerant]. Take out the bag of celery seed, and bottle, sealing the corks. Keep in a dark, cool place.

Tomatoes in Pot, Photo: Eric CollearyTomato Pulp, Photo: Eric Colleary
Straining Tomato Pulp, Photo: Eric CollearyStraining Tomato Pulp, Photo: Eric Colleary
Strained Tomato, Photo: Eric CollearyKetchup, Photo: Eric Colleary