Because I Can: Homemade Ketchup

The journey that culminated in my realization of the wonder that is homemade ketchup was long and circuitous, and, as sometimes happens, littered with the body of a friend.

One autumn night in 2000, our friend Geoffrey slunk back in through our kitchen door, a waft of cigarette smoke trailing behind him, as he hoped to avoid his wife, Sarah, who was helping The One clear the dishes from the dining table so we could play cards. Geoffrey leaned against the counter while I washed dishes.

“The lasagna was great,” he said.

“Thanks.”

It wasn’t, actually. It was an anemic imposter, devoid of the beef, veal, pork, and cheese that define the true Italian diva.  Instead, it contained zucchini, peppers, and broccoli rabe layered between spinach noodles. Geoffrey was in his green-food phase.

Geoffrey was the worst kind of vegetarian. He was the sort of self-righteous, self-appointed mayor of Meatlessopolis who never cared how he inconvenienced the unconverted. Whenever he and Sarah came to dinner, I had to haul out a special skillet, one that had never experienced the sizzling, seductive sear of cold meat on its surface, because Geoffrey insisted he wouldn’t eat anything cooked in a pan that had touched meat.

On top of all that, he was lactose-intolerant—say hello to dairy-free “cheese”—and also a bit of a hypochondriac. Half an hour or so after we would pour wine, he’d rub his forehead, grab the bottle, and mutter “sulfites” as he scrutinized the label. Then he’d turn his eyes heavenward and shake his head, looking to all the world like one of those beleaguered saints I used to read about in my catechism workbook when I was a kid.

Every time the two of them came over for dinner and cards, which was often, I not only tied myself into knots trying to come up with something to serve him that The One and I could at least choke down with wan smiles, I stomped through the supermarket seeking suitable meat alternatives and scoured the local liquor stores in search of a specific wine no one had ever heard of (and which we’d never, ever be caught dead drinking on any other occasion), all in the name of friendship.

“Oh, and the sauce? Fan-tas-tic!” Geoffrey turned his back to the sink and nonchalantly cleaned his nails with a toothpick. I, on the other hand, was so angry my back teeth began twerking. I redoubled my efforts scrubbing the nubbins of noodles from The Great Un-Besmirched Pan.

“Yeah, I got some beautiful second tomatoes,” I said, trying to keep the conversation going. “So I made a sauce. I’m making homemade ketchup, too. I think it’ll make a nice gift.”

With that, Geoffrey lowered his head and looked as if he was squinting over a pair of spectacles. Judgment rippled across his face. “Why on earth would you go through all that work for anyone?”

Clearly, the irony of the question was lost on him.

I looked at him as if he had asked me, “Why do you eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk by yourself?” or “Why do you binge watch TVLand all Saturday?”

“Because…I…can.” It came out quietly, almost whispered, but carried such weight as to shut down the conversation.

During the past 13 years, I learned how to wriggle out of my friendship with Geoffrey, but not how to make homemade ketchup. It was distaste by association.

Two weeks ago, though, The One and I pulled into the old-fashioned gas station just off the center of town in Roxbury, Connecticut, to buy organic vegetables from our local mechanic, Mark. On the counter were gorgeous globes of love practically rolling off the table and into our basket. But it was the boxes stacked beneath that caught my eye, “Sauce Tomatoes” scrawled across their sides. Always a sucker for the underdog—and alarmingly low on homemade tomato puree—I asked the price.

“A dollar fifty per pound,” said Lucia, the salesperson. A buck fifty? That’s incredible! I thought. I bought 20 pounds, then a few days later I went back for 20 more. And after making and freezing 12 quarts of puree, I still had ten pounds left.

Then I heard it in my head. “I’m making homemade ketchup, too. I think it’ll make nice gifts.” Why on earth did I let his offhanded comment stop me from doing something I’ve wanted to do for more than a decade? I asked myself. And with that, I began slicing into a beefsteak, its juices squirting across the counter, and simmering, and food-milling, all the while holding a raging one-sided conversation with Geoffrey.

You know, Geoffrey, if you got your head out of your sanctimonious ass, you’d see that making things from scratch is one of the best ways to live.

I grabbed a handful of overly soft Romas and squeezed hard, bleeding them into a bowl.

You may be a strict vegetarian, but you’re a food Nazi. Do you hear me? A FOOD NAZI!

I slammed the pot full of chopped tomatoes on the stove and brought the whole thing to a boil.

And ever since you started making millions of dollars, you’ve become a motherf…

And there it was. The cancerous root of it all. Standing over a pot of burbling tomatoes, I had a breakthrough that would have cost me $250 had I been sitting in my shrink’s office.

I understood that I have always felt less than Geoffrey. I’ve never dressed as if I was a member of the Connecticut Lockjaw Society. I don’t have famous actors as friends. I don’t throw fundraisers at my home to support state politicians. Instead I dress so messily I startle our UPS driver. I walked away from Meryl Streep just as she was about to talk to me at an event because I was utterly tongue-tied. And I couldn’t name a state politician if Mama Leite’s life depended on it. I had let his elitism—-his militant vegetarianism, his social exclusivity, his higher tax bracket—-cow me.

After the homemade ketchup was cooled, bottled, and tucked away, I considered giving Geoffrey a jar. There would be a certain symmetry to that. But I knew that such a simple gesture would cost me a lot. A hell of a lot more than $1.50 a pound.

David Leite's signature

swirl

Homemade Ketchup

What I love about this homemade ketchup recipe is that is doesn’t taste too homemade. There’s nothing worse than ketchup that tastes like tarted-up tomato sauce. There’s no unusual ingredients here–no chipotle peppers or paprika made by 17-year-old Hungarian virgins–that now pass for “house-made ketchup” in so many restaurants. You achieve the perfect Heinz or Hunt’s sweet-tart balance by using a common jam-making technique: reducing the tomato liquid to a thick, glossy syrup then swirling it into the tomato pulp.–David Leite

LC No Food Mill? No Problem! Note

No food mill? No problem! (For those unfamiliar with a food mill, it’s a boon to home cooks obsessed with tomatoes because of its ability to remove seeds and skins from a thick purée.) LC recipe tester and homemade ketchup aficionado Brenda Carleton has canned countless incarnations of this condiment recipe, and not once has she bothered to invest in a food mill. Why would she? She has her trusty potato ricer on hand. Carleton is on her 50th or so batch of homemade ketchup, each made in ricer fashion, and she has no complaints. (Uh, almost no complaints. She did mention that the ricer is messy, but then, a food mill would also be messy.

No potato ricer? No problem there, either. Another LC recipe-testing aficionado, Lori Widmeyer, has also made this ketchup more than once and removes the skins and seeds the old-fashioned way. She marks an “X” on the bottom of each tomato, blanches it (that is, plops it in boiling water for just a few seconds), immediately plunges it into ice water, then coaxes the skins to slip off with her fingertips. Then she chops the tomatoes and drains them in a colander. (Those times when Widmeyer was impatient and didn’t drain the tomatoes—albeit against her better judgment—the resulting ketchup always seemed a tad watery.)

Special Equipment: Food mill or potato ricer

Homemade Ketchup Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 30 M
  • 2 H
  • Makes 3 to 4 cups

Ingredients

  • 10 pounds very ripe red tomatoes, preferably beefsteak, cored and roughly chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3/4 cup white vinegar (for a mild taste) or cider vinegar (for a fruity tang)
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 heaping teaspoon allspice berries
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons salt
  • 6 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

Directions

  • 1. Place the tomatoes in a heavy, wide, nonreactive pan of at least an 8-quart capacity. Cover, place the pan over high heat, and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring every minute or so, until the tomato chunks spill their juice and everything comes to a boil.
  • 2. Working in batches, pour the tomato chunks and juice into a large, medium-fine strainer placed over a 3- or 4-quart saucepan. Gently press and stir the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon so that all of the thin liquid but none of the tomato pulp goes into the saucepan. You should have about 2 quarts of liquid. Reserve the tomato pulp.
  • 3. To the tomato liquid in the saucepan add the garlic, onion, vinegar, peppercorns, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne, ginger, and salt. Cook over moderately high heat until the liquid is thick and syrupy and reduced to about 2 cups. This could take anywhere from half an hour to an hour or even as long as 2 hours or, in the case of 1 tester, up to 4 hours, depending on the type of tomato used. [Editor's Note: Some tomatoes, such as beefsteaks, are more pulpy and mealy, whereas other tomatoes, like Romas, are more juicy. This will affect the final yield of juice and total simmering time.]
  • 4. Meanwhile, transfer the tomato pulp to a food mill fitted with the finest screen to eliminate the seeds and skin. You should have about 1 quart strained pulp. Transfer the strained pulp back to the first pan and reserve the tomato solids that you strained from the tomato pulp.
  • 5. Strain the thick, syrupy, reduced tomato liquid into the tomato pulp, pressing on the solids to extract all the liquid. Stir in the sugar and gently simmer over medium-low or low heat, stirring frequently, until the ketchup is reduced by 1/3, 15 to 20 minutes Taste the ketchup occasionally, adding more sugar if desired. You should have about 4 cups tomato goo at the end. If the ketchup still seems a little runny, continue to simmer the mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the desired consistency is attained. If the ketchup isn’t quite the texture of commercial ketchup and some very vocal dissenters in your household prefer that, purée the ketchup in a blender or food processor. Let the ketchup cool to room temperature. Transfer the ketchup to glass jars or other containers with tight-fitting lids and refrigerate for up to several weeks.
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Testers Choice

Testers Choice
Testers Choice
Melissa Maedgen

Sep 27, 2013

There were a couple things I’d change about this recipe, but the end result was so good it still merits a Testers’ Choice. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess that I’m not a big fan of regular ketchup. My husband, on the other hand, loves the stuff. We tasted this side by side with some Heinz ketchup. The dipping vehicle of choice was onion rings. The result of our tasting was that we both preferred the homemade ketchup to the Heinz. The commercial ketchup was noticeably sweeter. The homemade was brighter in flavor and a bit saltier. The spices were present without being overpowering or even individually identifiable. In short, it was delicious, even to a ketchup-hater like me. If I were to change anything, it’d be to reduce the salt just a little. If you decide to make this, make sure you have a really big pot. The author says you need at least an 8-quart pot, and you need to listen to him. You’ll also need to allow plenty of time to make this recipe. The finest screen on my food mill wasn’t fine enough to remove all the seeds from the tomato pulp, but that was okay. There were some seeds in my ketchup and it didn’t bother us at all. I also didn’t do a final purée at the end. I felt the ketchup was smooth enough—not perfectly smooth, but a perfectly acceptable texture.

Testers Choice
Adrienne Lee

Sep 27, 2013

The amount of effort for this recipe is tremendous. On the other hand, this ketchup is delicious. First, the cutting of the tomatoes takes a long time. Second, you use several pots and strainers. I was able to get a good texture just by cooking it a little longer than the recommended time. However, you do need to watch it so that it won’t burn. I used a food mill because I have one. (A food mill makes things easy.) I found that it took awhile to get to a syrupy texture (for the tomato liquid) and then the amount of liquid after cooking down wasn’t as great as it would seem. So I took some of the purée and mixed it in a few times to add more flavor into the final tomato puree as it cooked.

Testers Choice
Sofia Reino

Sep 27, 2013

My older daughter, who loves ketchup, helped me out during the whole process, continually tasting it to make sure it was to her liking and as similar as possible to the organic Heinz ketchup we usually buy. This was a tough recipe for me to test as I absolutely dislike ketchup. But the entire process is pretty easy. I used homegrown beefsteak tomatoes, which are more meaty. It took about 1 hour to reduce the liquid part and make it syrupy, but it never became thick. So my daughter thought of adding cornstarch, which did the trick to thicken it. I also ended up adding 3 more tablespoons of sugar. The final result, as per my daughter, is very similar to Heinz ketchup, except it’s just a bit darker. Now for someone who doesn’t care for ketchup, is it worth the trouble? I’m not quite sure. But I’ll make it again, mainly because I know exactly what’s in it as opposed to the store-bought kind.


Comments
Comments
  1. warbaby says:

    Now that I realize GMOs are in too many products we buy I am thrilled to get this recipe. I have learned from my mother that a good homemade meal is truly the best.

  2. Phyllis says:

    Was wondering if you would have more information about the canning of this? I see there is an acid (vinegar) in the recipe, is this enough to just do a water bath canning? Or, should I go the longer way around and pressure can? Any help would be appreciated as my tomato plants are starting to produce.

    Also was wondering as I have a steam juicer, would this work better for collection and boiling down of the tomato juice?
    Inquiring mind here….

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      Hi Phyllis, I asked Melissa, one of our testers here at LC, and this is her advice-
      “I would be willing to go out on a limb and say you could do this in a hot water bath. Some people do tomatoes that way as is, as tomatoes are fairly acidic, although pressure canning is preferred. This having some added vinegar, and sugar (also a preservative), and salt (once again a preservative), I think it would be OK in the hot water bath. That said, because this is already cooked quite a bit in the making, I don’t think pressure canning would cause any loss of quality, and would of course be the safest option. I bet it would also do just fine in the freezer.” As far as your steam juicer question, well, you have a pretty well equipped kitchen! Any other steam juicer owners out there?

    • Beth Price, LC Director of Recipe Testing says:

      And Sue, another of our testers, offers this tip-
      “When I have a question like this I always call a state university extension service. Almost every state university has one and they’re amazingly helpful. I’m from Atlanta so I use the UGA extension service but it doesn’t matter where you live or are from. They’re always helpful and it’s great to get correct information. I’d always rather be safe than waste a lot of time and ingredients.”

  3. Martha in KS says:

    “G” definitely sounds like a pain in the tokas, and IF I invited him to dinner, he would be welcome to eat any veggies on the table, but the rest of us would have something decent to eat. But I also have to wonder why spend so much time & effort on a bottle of something that, at least in my house, lasts about six months.

    • David Leite says:

      Dorothy, my heart sank when I read your comment. Why make it? “Because. I. Can!” The flavor is so different and so much better than bottled stuff. I don’t know. Maybe I was a homesteader on the prairie in a past life, making everything from scratch. (So I guess when I say I’ll be trying to grind my own flour, you’re going to groan, right?)

      • Martha in KS says:

        Maybe when I’m no longer toiling 40 hrs/wk at a computer I’ll have the energy to make more homemade things like ketchup. I bought peaches to make jam & threw them into the freezer due to lack of initiative. There’s always next year. At least it’s raining here today. YIPPEE!

        • David Leite says:

          Dotty, I’ll make you some and send it to you. Email me your address. You deserve a break today….

          • Martha in KS says:

            The Great & Powerful Leite sent me some of this ketchup to try & IT’S DA BOMB! I’m wondering if canned tomatoes could be used.

            • David Leite says:

              Dorothy, I’m so glad the package got there in one piece and the ketchup was still cold. I think you could use canned tomatoes. I’d use Roma tomatoes. The syrup you make from the juices might not take as long to reduce. The juice from fresh tomatoes is almost as thin as water.

      • ruthie says:

        Why make it? “Because. I. Can!”

        I’m with you, David. That’s why I looove the old cookbooks! I found a little book on Middle Eastern cooking published in the ’30s or ’40s that tells how the Bedouins make pita without yeast (really easy) and yoghurt just with milk and the natural organisms in the air (I put cheesecloth over the pan to keep out the winged creatures. I’ve been using both of those methods for so many years and have never done it any other way since then. Easy-peasy. And may I say cheap?

        My mom used to make something called “prune soy” which is similar to ketchup in flavor but uses Italian plums. I’m a Heinz girl, but I do want to learn to make my own ketchup, too. Just because I can.

        You should have invited Geoffrey over and raved about the BEEFSTEAK tomatoes you used in your lasagna sauce, and how you added some shiitakes to give it a more MEATY flavor…and since you had a special pan for him, you could have made him his own personal lasagna and made the “real thing” for the rest of you. /;) Why would he mind? Can you tell I’ve been hit by the meat police a time or two?

        • David Leite says:

          Oh, ruthie, you’re marvelously evil as I am. Love it! And I’m completely intrigued by your pita and yoghurt. I just bought 10 pounds of pork belly that will soon be hickory-smoked maple bacon. (You’d think I was preparing for the Apocalypse!)

  4. ruthie says:

    Just wanted to append RE: your mention of grinding your own flour from grains…I bought a full “brisket” of Wagyu beef pastrami for which I am planning to develop the quintessential Pumpernickel/Siberian Soldiers Bread recipe. I bought a grain mill (the Wonder Junior) that will grind fine enough for flour, a bunch of grains, malt syrups and so on. So I totally know where you’re coming from. ;)

    For me, it’s much more practical to buy and store the various grains (which stay fresher longer than ground flour) and grind them in very small batches when I’m feeling like experimenting than to buy the flours and eventually throw most of them away because they’re no longer fresh enough to make a good tasting bread. Grind all my own AP flour? Probably not in this lifetime, but the tweaks for added flavor or better nutrition profile, sure! ;)

    • David Leite says:

      You are so my kind of gal. Please send along pictures of the process so I can post for you.

  5. When I have time to make homemade ketchup, I will. The truth is that I’ve never tried homemade ketchup… I am very intrigued! But one thing is sure: It was fun to read this post, David! Thank you for putting a smile on my tired, sleepy face!!! Um abraço.

  6. DAVID Great recipe, David, and an even better story! I find it ironic that, as a “strict vegetarian”, Geoffrey has to sneak a smoke! But then again, tobacco is a plant!

    • David Leite says:

      I think that’s how Geoffrey saw it, Margie. Last I heard, he quit–which I’m happy about.

  7. lissa says:

    Ha! A smoking vegetarian!

  8. David, I may never make ketchup, but I will save and reread this post for years to come! (Glad you resisted the urge to send a bottle to Geoffrey – wouldn’t want to stir that mess up again!)

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Jean. It’s weird. I’ve gotten a lot of response (both in comments and through email) about people liking the post. Not exactly sure why. In fact, I was interviewed for an article, and the first thing the writer mentioned was this post. Hmmm.

  9. ATNell says:

    David, love this article. I think people like it because everyone has or has had a “Geoffrey” in their lives. It’s almost comforting to know someone else has a Geoffrey to bear and suffer through. I think I’ve managed to divest myself of my Geoffrey’s over the years and while therapy was expensive, it was money well-spent because I learned that life was too short to waste on people who clearly wanted to suck all joy of their own lives and my own. I’m looking forward to making ketchup next year when the tomatoes are bursting from my garden.

    • David Leite says:

      ATNeil, thank you for the kind words. If the comments are any indication, the world is filled with Geoffreys! But congrats to you (and your shrink). A lighter life, one that is blissfully empty of those nigglers and sticklers, is a good one, ain’t it?

  10. Rhonda says:

    David, Just recently found this site and the homemade ketchup commentary and recipe made me laugh…and remember. I grew up on my Grandma’s homemade “catsup” and absolutely loved it! In fact, I have her recipe and in her handwriting! Obviously it is very special to me. Personally, I love the flavor of homemade ketchup, and this post will hopefully encourage me to make some of both this coming year and compare the results, as the two recipes are quite different.

    • David Leite says:

      Rhonda, your grandma’s recipe in her own hand? That’s fantastic. The One has dozens and dozens of handwritten recipes from his mom and grandmother. They’re so special. When you make both ketchup recipes, let me know what you think. I’m in love with it.

  11. Ling Teo says:

    David,

    I’ve said those three words to more people than I can count, and sometimes it’s the only answer. Whether they crawl away in their heads feeling less about themselves, or take it as a challenge to try whatever they saw me doing (and therefore learn something) — I leave it to them. What I want to share with you is a slightly kooky Asian tradition that we have about not being angry in the kitchen. Mum always says that the food that is being prepared will KNOW, and react accordingly. If you’re sad, your food will taste of that sadness; if you’re furious, it will not come together, and will end in disaster. Ever heard of this…? For all my modernity, this is something I really, really believe — only because I’ve seen the effects of me being angry or sad while I’m making food for myself or the people I care about.

    So it takes a truly heroic effort to cook for people you don’t particularly care about, who actually enjoy what you serve them, which means you actually rise above yourself. Even so, I wouldn’t do this too often. I’d rather save my culinary efforts for those I truly and deeply care for.

    Just a thought… :)

    Beijos xxx

  12. Perma Frost says:

    This recipe looks great, but aren’t cinnamon, clove and ginger “unusual ingredients when compared to store bought? (Nothing wrong with that. ..)

  13. Larry Noak says:

    This may seem like cheating but…I plan to try this on a smaller scale with canned, skinless, plum tomatoes. The beauty of these home made condiments found on Leite’s Culinaria is the ability to control the ingredients (sugars, sodium) etc. With just 2 people in my household this seems an interesting option.

    • David Leite David Leite says:

      Larry, that’s not cheating. Cheating is taking Heinz ketchup, spooning it into a canning jar, and trying to pass it off as your own. This is smart cooking. Tell me how it comes out. Might be a good way to make ketchup in the non-tomato season.

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