Gilded Age tomato ketchup

For a few summers several years ago I made ketchup from half-bushel boxes of paste tomatoes, using a recipe from an old issue of Fine Cooking. The ketchup had good flavor, but it was a little too reminiscent of something Italian, with lots of bottom notes from charred onion and the faint pizza-aroma of oregano. We liked it but never used up a batch. The problem was that it substituted for industrial ketchup in only a few of its uses. It made a good topping for burgers and dipping for fries, but as a base for cocktail sauce it was terrible. Industrial ketchup essentially has no aroma; it’s pure mouth-taste — sweet, sour, salt, and umami. To emulate that blend at home would be a waste of time and money; homemade ketchup ought to have flavor. But making ketchup flavorful makes it something entirely different.

I decided to give homemade ketchup another try this summer, and this time, I went back to the nineteenth century for inspiration.

Ketchup wasn’t originally made from tomatoes. The tomato didn’t become a staple of American gardens and kitchens until after the Civil War; the seed catalogues of the 1870s offered more varieties of celery than of tomatoes. Ketchup was an old English condiment made from walnuts or mushrooms — strongly flavored, slightly fermented, with the familiar salt-sour-umami combination. (Not so much sweet; the overpowering sweetness of modern industrial tomato ketchup wasn’t part of the Anglo-American table until the twentieth century.) Tomato ketchup started to appear in the mid-nineteenth century, when it was something a little exotic. The very proper and ladylike Godey’s Lady’s Book offered this recipe in 1849:

The following, from long experience, we know to be the best receipt extant for making tomato ketchup. Take one bushel of tomatoes, and boil them until they are soft. Squeeze them through a fine wire sieve, and add— Half a gallon of vinegar; One pint and a half of salt; Two ounces of cloves; Quarter of a pound of allspice; Three ounces of cayenne pepper; Three tablespoonfuls of black pepper; — Five heads of garlic, skinned and separated. Mix together, and boil about three hours, or until reduced to about one-half. Then bottle, without straining. Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1849.

Note the powerful flavor: five heads of garlic! Not cloves, but heads! Three ounces of cayenne pepper: probably dried and powdered and not as strong as the stuff in my pantry, but enough to pack quite a punch. This from a ladies’ magazine. But nineteenth-century condiments were condiments, intended to accentuate the flavor of food, not conceal it.

In the half-century that followed, the flavor was slowly drained from American cooking. Blandness became a virtue. After the Civil War, condiments like mustard and pickles — and, eventually, ketchup — were increasingly purchased rather than prepared at home. But homemade ketchup remained for the most part strongly flavored, because, I think, it’s simply not worth the trouble to make bland ketchup at home. Only people who wanted a condiment took the bother. The ketchup recipes I’ve found aren’t all complex, certainly, but they’re all strongly seasoned. The most intriguing recipe I’ve found is this one, from Thomas Jefferson Murrey, who owned several restaurants in New York and Washington:

Cut into slices half a bushel of ripe tomatoes, put them in a large earthen crock, and between each layer put a small quantity of salt (enough to season them nicely). Let them stand eight hours. Put into a large saucepan two ounces of mustard seed, one ounce of celery seed, a dozen whole cloves, the bruised cloves of six roots of garlic, two roots of green ginger shredded, an ounce of fresh capsicum peppers, a blade of mace, and two ounces of shredded horseradish root. Add the tomatoes and half a pound of cut sugar. Boil slowly three hours; stir occasionally, care being used not to allow it to burn. Add a quart of new brandy. Strain while hot; cover close, and let stand two days; bottle, cork, seal, and keep in a cool place. It will be noticed that no vinegar is used. The object is to prevent fermentation, which invariable appears when it is used. Strain the ketchup as free from seeds as possible, as they are objectionable.Thomas Jefferson Murrey, The Murrey collection of cookery books (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1895), 23-24.

“Very little of it,” Murrey added, “produces remarkable results on the palate of an appreciative guest.” I’ll bet. But it’s the brandy that makes this unique. Note what he says about vinegar causing the ketchup to ferment: These were days when vinegar came from a live-cultured barrel to which anything and everything could be added to keep the culture alive. Lydia Maria Child had recommended “old cider, sour beer, or wine-settlings, &c., left in pitchers, decanters or tumblers; weak tea is likewise said to be good.” The American Frugal Housewife (Boston: Carter, Hendee, and Co., 1833), p. 15. If the ketchup wasn’t boiled enough to kill the yeast culture, or if the bottles weren’t carefully sealed, it might well ferment.

In my ketchup I drew strongly on Murrey’s recipe. I wanted to keep the flavors bright and strong — no onions, lots of high notes — to complement the rich meats and potatoes the ketchup is likely to accompany. I wanted the tomato flavor to come through, so that it was clearly ketchup and not chili sauce. And while I wanted it spicy, I didn’t want it to taste like chutney. (I like tomato chutney, but it’s a different beast.) I reluctantly skipped the brandy and used cider vinegar instead — I wanted to seal the ketchup in jars and needed the extra acid for safety. At some point, though, I’d like to make a small brandied batch for the refrigerator. Brandy would make a very manly ketchup — if Murrey’s ketchup isn’t already manly enough. Mine isn’t as high-powered as Murrey’s, but it’s still pretty zippy, a respectable manly ketchup that I think would be welcome on the overstuffed tables of the Gilded Age.

Recipe: Gilded Age Ketchup

This makes four to five pints, plenty for an experimental batch. If you like the result, it’s hardly any more work to double it.

Ingredients

  • 10-12 lbs. fresh paste tomatoes
  • 1-2 tablespoons mustard seed
  • 2 teaspoons peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon mace
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 2 heads garlic, cloves separated, peeled, and bruised
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2-3 fresh ripe cayenne peppers (or several shakes Tabasco, to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated horseradish root, or a good dollop of high-quality bottled horseradish
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup cider vinegar

Procedure

  1. I peeled the tomatoes to start, although since I wound up both puréeing and straining the ketchup, this may have been unnecessary. If you want to peel them, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Core the tomatoes and cut an X into the bottom of each, then drop them into the boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon. When they cool a bit, you’ll be able to slip the skins off quite easily.
  2. If you have a mortar and pestle and don’t mind using it, crush the peppecorns and mustard seeds a bit. Otherwise, you can use freshly ground black pepper (half as much) and add the mustard seeds whole.
  3. Seed the tomatoes (again, you could skip this if you’ll strain the product at the end) and chop them coarsely. Finely chop the cayennes.
  4. Place all ingredients a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 3 hours.
  5. Purée the ketchup in batches, then strain it. A mesh strainer is really too fine for this; a chinois works well, as would a food mill. If you use a food mill, you could skip the puréeing step. Do try to strain out the seeds, though: Murrey was right; they really are objectionable.
  6. Return the ketchup to the stove and simmer, uncovered, until reduced to the desired consistency. What’s “desired consistency”? Place a couple of tablespoonsful in a small bowl and set it in the freezer for a few minutes until it’s cooled to room or refrigerator temperature — serving temperature, in other words. Then taste it. If it’s thick enough, you’re done. If it needs a bit more salt or anything else, correct the seasoning.
  7. Pack into half-pint jars with scant 1/2-inch headroom and process in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes. (If you’re new to this, check the new USDA guide to home canning.

0 thoughts on “Gilded Age tomato ketchup”

  1. At the beginning of this summer I promised my four-year-old daughter that we’d make ketchup together, mainly because she insists on drowning every lunch and dinner in the stuff, which as you say is rather bland and also heavy in high fructose corn syrup and “natural flavors,” whatever that means. I wanted her (and me) to at least have some idea of ketchup besides “it comes from this plastic bottle and goes all over my plate.”

    I did some reading, not as much as you have, found out that ketchup once had nothing to do with tomatoes, that it was for storing fish or some such thing, and then I fell back on a recent edition of Putting Food By for the recipe. Not quite the same as your Gilded recipe — white sugar instead of brown sugar, and more of it; no mustard seed, mace, peppercorns, ginger, or horseradish; a bit of cinnamon and a decent amount of whole cloves; slightly more vinegar. Obviously the ketchup we made is not packing the wallop of your Murrey-based recipe, and yet it is much tastier than our supermarket ketchup (which I suppose is not saying a whole lot).

    Anyway, the experience of making ketchup was fun, my daughter enjoyed it, and she tried what we made … and went back to the bland stuff in the fridge. Pft.

    “Strain the ketchup as free from seeds as possible, as they are objectionable.” Yup. Strain those suckers out.

    Thanks for posting this — I’m impressed with Murrey’s recipe and will try your version of it next year, if the ketchup-making mood strikes. Think I’ll use the brandy.

  2. I’m trying to imagine the flavor and not quite succeeding; it sounds really delightful though, almost like a good homemade chili sauce. What did you most like it with? Would you have preferred it sweeter, do you think? I saw a reference to fig ketchup once and am fascinated by that idea, want to find out what it is, agreeing with your “chutney is a different (yet good) thing” dictum. If you should happen across a recipe of any other substantive info, send it my way!

  3. Christine, I actually prefer things less sweet than most people seem to, so I didn’t miss the sugar at all. I hate to say, though, that so far I’ve only eaten it on roasted potatoes. I need to get more creative with it. As for fig ketchup — it sounds like it would be quite jammy, but I did a quick search and found a fig-tamarind ketchup that looks really well balanced. I might have to try that.

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