Despite those long rows of red bottles on supermarket shelves, ketchups can and have been made from a variety of ingredients, including bananas and mushrooms. Tomato ketchup came about when European traders brought the fruit from the Americas to China in the 15th century. The Chinese found it useful for making sauces, which they seasoned with onion, garlic and peppers. The British in particular had acquired a taste for spicy Asian sauces, but they embraced the tomato version only after overcoming their aversion to the tomato itself (including the belief that it was poisonous).
Today, exotic ketchups are enjoying a renaissance. You can find varieties flavored with anything from organic tea to Bordeaux wine. These gourmet ketchups can carry gourmet prices, of course. Are they worth the added expense? Or can you have the best of both -- fancy flavor without a high price to match? Let's examine the options.
Ketchups Plain and Fancy: Comparing Condiments
Except for a handful of gourmet varieties, all ketchups start with some form of tomato -- either paste, puree or concentrate, although some gourmet brands use whole tomatoes. For that characteristic sweet-tart balance, everyday ketchups use corn syrup and vinegar. Gourmet brands are more varied, using sugar, honey or maple syrup, and sometimes red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Some specialty blends add heat with horseradish, chile peppers or curry spices. Salt, pepper, onion and garlic are common seasonings, too.
Nutritionally, gourmet and regular ketchups are pretty similar. Most have 15 to 20 calories per tablespoon, and no fat. Carbohydrates and sodium are minimal. The tomato itself provides a little vitamin A. Whole tomato ketchups have the highest amounts of lycopene, a phytochemical thought to help protect against cancer.
Prices, on the other hand, vary widely, depending on the brand, shopping venue and whether the ketchup is organic. Boutique bottlers that sell online tend to be the most expensive, but even a "budget" gourmet ketchup will run two to three times more than popular brands you'll find at the grocery store.
When to Put on the Ritz (Instead of Heinz)
If you're a condiment connoisseur, the variety of unusual blends will probably make some gourmet ketchups worth the price. If your tastes are more middle-of-the-road, you might want to splurge on special occasions.
For example, when you're going all out on elegance, don't skimp on the condiments, especially if they complement a main dish. Grilled prawns deserve fancier company than run-of-the-mill cocktail sauce.
Also, a high-brow condiment can be a quick, easy and unique way to elevate a lowly recipe and jazz up a tired one. A curry ketchup turns beans and rice into Mexican-Indian fusion cuisine. A cranberry ketchup takes chicken salad from school lunch to luncheon status. Stir in some orange chili ketchup, and your baked beans will be the talk of the potluck dinner.
Suppose you crave fancy ketchups on a more regular basis. You can still indulge your desire without breaking your budget.
Alternative: Jazzing Up Store Brands
To feed a connoisseur's taste on a smaller budget, consider making your own gourmet ketchups from store-bought brands. Start with one cup of plain ketchup and a few basic recipes. Experiment with ingredients and amounts to find the perfect blend.
- Fruited ketchup: Stir in a few tablespoon of fruit preserves.
- Herbed ketchup: Add a half-teaspoon of dried Italian herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary and fennel) or French herbs (parsley, savory, marjoram, tarragon and chives).
- Thousand Islands ketchup: Blend in 1/4 cup mayonnaise and a tablespoon sweet pickle relish.
- Sweet-and-sour ketchup: Mix in a few tablespoons pineapple juice, a squirt of mustard and a shake of ground ginger.
- Cocktail Sauce Ketchup: Add a few tablespoons each of horseradish and lemon juice, plus a dash of hot sauce.
- Barbecue sauce ketchup: Blend in a tablespoon of honey or molasses, a tablespoon of finely chopped onion, 1/8 teaspoon of minced garlic, and a dash of liquid smoke.
- Cajun/Creole ketchup: Add a half-teaspoon of Cajun seasoning (cayenne and black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika) or Creole seasoning (Cajun seasoning plus oregano, basil and thyme).
DIY: the Gourmet Ketchup Kitchen
If you're an inventive home chef, you might go a step further and make your own ketchup from scratch. A simple recipe looks something like this:
Mix well and store in the refrigerator.
You can customize homemade ketchup, too. For a sweeter taste, add finely chopped or grated bell peppers or Vidalia onions. For something a bit hotter, add chile peppers or hot spices like ginger, cayenne pepper and allspice.
To bring out more complex flavors, make cooked ketchup. Start with whole tomatoes seeded and peeled, bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer for about 10 minutes. This can be refrigerated or processed in jars. If you're really impressed, write down the recipe. Someday, your ketchup could be the newest addition to the local gourmet shop or farmers market.
- Foodtimeline.org. "Ketchup." (May 28, 2010) http://foodtimeline.org/foodsauces.html#ketchup
- Gladwell, Malcolm. "The Ketchup Conundrum." The New Yorker. Sept. 6, 2004.http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html
- Muir, Glen. "Organic Tomato Ketchup: Nutrition Information." (May 28, 2010) http://muirglen.com/products/product_nutrition.aspx?upc=7-25342-48540-6
- Naturally Yours Grocery. "Products." (June 2, 2010) http://www.naturallyyoursgrocery.com/search_results.asp?ct=Products&site_search_qu=ketchup&storieID=268FD57EE5D3489B62FB67226651CA7
- Stonewall Kitchen. "Country Ketchup: Product Information." (May 29, 2010) http://stonewallkitchen.com/prdMoreInfo.aspx?SellGrp=CountryKetchup
- The Kroger Company. "Special Order Catalog: Condiments & Relish Brands." (June 2, 2010) http://kroger.elsstore.com/retailer_categories/10-condiments-relishes
- The Straight Dope. "Did the Reagan-era USDA really classify ketchup as a vegetable?" July 24, 2004. (May 28, 2010) http://thestraightdope.com/columns/read/2517/did-the-reagan-era-usda-really-classify-ketchup-as-a-vegetable
- Wolf, Burt. "Time to Play Ketchup: The Story of the Tomato." What We Eat. Acorn Associates, Ltd. 2002. (May 29, 2010) http://burtwolf.com/whatweeat/newsletters/Tomato.pdf
- Zonis, Stephanie. "A Fresh Look at Ketchup." TheNibble.com. October 2007. (May 28, 2010) http://thenibble.com/reviews/main/condiments/ketchup/ketchup-roundup.asp