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They Call This "The Best Homemade Ketchup"

... And they're right! Though I must admit, I stopped looking at any other recipes when I found this one.

Graying, wooden picnic table with a colorful array garden vegetables, mostly red and yellow tomatoes.

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While drafting this article I toyed with the title, "What Do I Do With All These Damn Tomatoes?" But, I decided that was wrong. Why? Because I know damn well what to do with these tomatoes. I'm making ketchup. But not just any ketchup, the BEST ketchup I've ever tasted. The only ketchup anyone in my household will eat. The ketchup that has gotten people who told me they didn't like ketchup to BEG me for more ketchup.

Now, I know some of you are thinking-- "Who makes ketchup?" And to you I say, "I know, right?!" It's weird. You can get the "good" ketchup at the grocery store for like, $10 a gallon. So, why make it from scratch? What's the point? The point is that it's DELICIOUS! Also, because we're fancy. Survival in Style, right? Why not? Artisan everything is in right now. On top of that, regular, store-bought ketchup, even the "good" kind, is made with high fructose corn syrup and whatever "natural flavorings" is. This recipe uses fresh ingredients and whole spices. It's a highly regarded addition to wherever hotdogs, hamburgers, or french fries are being served, and your family and friends will think you're a magical unicorn wizard because who makes ketchup?

When I originally discovered this recipe last summer it was because I most certainly did not know what to do with all the tomatoes from my garden. I had already made or canned whole tomatoes, tomato puree, various tomato sauces and salsas, chili... I was running out of ideas. Ketchup was a search born of the sheer desperation that resulted from every flat surface in my kitchen being blanketed in tomatoes for too many months.

I quickly realized that "ketchup recipe" was insufficient for my search terms. The first few recipes that I looked at called for canned tomatoes. I needed a recipe that called for fresh tomatoes, so I refined my search. I went back to Google and entered "ketchup recipe fresh tomatoes" and it was the first result. The Best Homemade Ketchup, subtitle - Made with Fresh Tomatoes!

That's what I wanted!

And I got what I had come for. I can't count the number of times I've made this recipe at this point. For a while, at the height of this year's gardening season, I was making a batch of ketchup every 2 days. While my version of this recipe doesn't stray exceedingly far from the original, I have managed to make the best even better. I have found a lot of suitable substitutions that do not detract whatsoever from the final product. I also can this ketchup into jars that are shelf stable so that it lasts longer than in the fridge, and I doubled the recipe because it wasn't enough. Trust me, you're gonna want more.

The Hardware

You will need:

- a pairing knife, or at least that’s what I use to core and halve the tomatoes, but you can do it however you want.

- a chef's knife and a cutting board, for the garlic and onions

- a big enough, non-reactive pot, i.e., stainless steel. Weird things happen you use reactive cookware for acidic foods. But… having said that, I do use my copper-coated pot for this recipe all the time… so… yeah. Moving along.

- a blender or food processor

- a strainer, ideally a fine mesh strainer with the hooky things that grab onto the side of the bowl for you so that it doesn't fall in.

- a rubber spatula, for stirring the puree through the strainer.

- cheesecloth and butcher twine, or some other food-safe something or other to tie your cheesecloth closed to make a spice pouch. If you're extra fancy, they make "spice pouch bags" that just sinch closed for you and you throw it in. But I prefer my cheesecloth. It's comparatively much cheaper, and I reuse the same square of it over and over again. I just wash it and once in a while soak it in bleach water. It's really the laundry of dishes.

The Main Ingredients

- 4 pounds of fresh (Roma) tomatoes, core removed and cut.

Halved, chopped, diced… dealer's choice 'cause you're gonna blend it all in the end anyway. I cut mine in half after taking out the core. Romas work particularly well in this recipe and that’s what I've had the most of this gardening season, but I do add in whatever other ripe tomatoes I have at the time. The author of the original recipe says that using different tomatoes will result in varying flavors in your final product, but the only time I ever found that to be true was the time I tried to use only yellow tomatoes. It was less acidic and a little sweeter, but still delicious. It confused people though because it was yellow.

- 1 cup apple cider vinegar

Choosing the expensive, organic ACV with the mother in it versus the cheapest ACV on the market hasn’t made a lick of difference in this recipe that I can tell. All that really matters is that it be 5% acidity for the purposes of canning. You could substitute other types of vinegar here to add different nuances of flavor, such as white balsamic vinegar, which is one of my absolute favorites. Regular balsamic would change the color and flavor quite a bit, but I don’t imagine it could possibly be bad. However, these other kinds of vinegar would not provide the level of acidity necessary to can the resulting ketchup safely in the water bath process I use. So, if you substitute a less acidic type of vinegar you’d want to just keep it in the fridge and use it up within about 3 weeks. You could substitute regular white vinegar and it would be safe to can, but don’t. It'll be a lot harsher. The ACV tastes much better.

- 10 tablespoons of packed brown sugar

Or ½ + ⅛ cups if 10 tablespoons are too many to pack.

The original recipe called specifically for light brown sugar for no good reason. I use dark brown sugar when I have it, but I’ve also made it with light brown and a mix of both to the same degree of success. Substituting white sugar also works just fine, but you lose the depth of flavor provided by the molasses in brown sugar. Solve that by adding 1 TBSP of molasses with your white sugar if you've got it.

- 2 medium-large sweet onions, peeled and rough chopped

The essay Cry, Baby, Cry - The World of Onions can explain to you why the original recipe called for yellow onions, but I substitute sweet onions in just about everything I make, raw or cooked. Please don’t tell Danny.

- 6-10 large garlic cloves, rough chopped

Never trust a recipe that calls for less than 3 cloves of garlic... and even then, you ignore that and you measure garlic with your heart.

- 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Salt is an ingredient that I only truly measure when I'm baking. However, one thing to note is that when a recipe, any recipe, calls for kosher salt, you can NOT substitute the same amount of table salt “in a pinch.” (See what I did there.) If you must substitute table (iodized) salt for any recipe that calls for kosher salt, use half as much as is called for, but beware that it may add an undesirable metallic flavor quality.

The Spice Pouch

These ingredients may be small, but they are mighty. They’re what makes ketchup taste like ketchup. Without it, we’d just have vinegary tomato sauce. Unlike the main ingredients above where you can play fast and loose with the types and amounts, I do measure these and have never tried this recipe whilst substituting ground spices for the whole spices that are called for. You’ve been warned.

- 8 whole cloves

- 4 bay leaves

- 2 cinnamon sticks

- 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

- 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice (6-10 berries, depending on size)

The Process

- As I prepare the ingredients, I throw them in the pot. There is no ceremonious procession required. All the ingredients in the pot. Stir a bit to combine.

- Prep the spice pouch. Put the spices in the square and cinch the cheesecloth closed with the butcher's twine, or whatever "keep it closed" apparatus you are using. Then, in the pot. I usually nestle it lovingly into the exact middle of the ingredients making sure it's completely enveloped by the tomatoes and onions, but the necessity of this is questionable at best.

- Put the pot on the stove over medium heat and let all the ingredients cook together for at least 30 minutes, stirring enough so that nothing burns or sticks to the bottom of your pot. Any burnt flavor at this point would only be accentuated by the rest of the process. The cook time and temp are really customizable to how much attention you want to have to pay to the pot at this point. I've done it on a lower heat so that I wouldn't have to stir it so much and taken my time with it, and I've done it on a bit higher heat paying closer attention, stirring often cause I needed to get'r done. So, this part of the process is flexible.

During this part of the cooking process, the tomatoes will give up their water, the essence of all those amazing spices will permeate everything, and the onions and garlic will become super tender in the resulting soupy mixture, making it ready for blending.

- Make sure you remove the spice pouch before moving on. Discard the spices and wash the cheesecloth with dish soap like you're handwashing a garment, rubbing it together against itself. If it's stained from your tomatoes you can put it in some bleach water for a little while to brighten it up again. Hang it to dry and save it for your next batch of ketchup.

- Once you've got a soupy mixture and your onions are nice and tender, it's time to blend and strain. I used to do the blending in 5-6 batches in my fancy food processor that you can only fill up so much with liquid ingredients until I reacquainted myself with my $20 blender. Now I do the blending in 2-3 batches and my blender has far fewer, and much simpler parts to clean. For the straining, I position my wire mesh strainer with the hooky things on top of a bowl and after each batch is blended, I dump it through the strainer into the bowl. This step is to remove the seeds. Seedy ketchup would not be delicious. Tomato seeds in general make your sauces and whatnot much more sour than is desirable at my house.

When the straining action of your puree inevitably slows once the more watery particles have passed through, use the rubber spatula to stir inside the strainer. It may take 2-3 minutes of stirring but, eventually, all that will be left is seeds and bits of tomato skin. Discard this, or put it in your compost pile, or feed it to your worms. Whatever.

- Wipe out any cling-on seeds or bits of skin from your pot and transfer your strained puree mixture back into it. Stick the pot back on the stove over low to medium-low heat.

The original recipe says to cook again at this stage for 20-30 minutes, but I disagree. The cook time at this point depends heavily on how high your heat is and how thick you want your ketchup. Personally, I slow this part of the process WAY down. I start it on medium-low heat and gradually turn it all the way down to low as it reduces. This way I don’t have to stand over and stir so much, and it doesn’t spit and splatter all over the stove. Depending on the water content of the tomatoes that I've used and how froggy I'm feeling about stirring, I've had this step last up to 2-3 hours, but we like our ketchup nice and thick. The thicker you want it, the more time it takes and the less total product you end up with.

Once it's at your desired consistency, you're done. If you're not going to can it, that is. Contrary to some other sauces, it doesn't really thicken much more after it cools. Store in the fridge. Storing in glass will help it last the longest and have the least chance of absorbing other flavors from within the fridge. The original recipe says it's good for 3 weeks like that and ours never lasts long enough for me to contradict that suggestion.

If you want to try canning...

People who haven't done any canning before may think that you need a bunch of fancy or expensive equipment in order to do it, but that's not the case. I just use my old pasta pot. For small jars with short processing times, I use the strainer insert. For taller jars or longer processing times, I use this $5 silicone thingy made for keeping the jars from touching the bottom of the pot. I had to look up what it’s called-- a Silicone canning rack. I have 2 of them hooked together so that it covers more of the bottom of my pot.

Besides the mason jars themselves, with the rings and lids, there are only 2 pieces of equipment that you absolutely have to have. Those are the jar grabber and the canning funnel. Though no substitute exists, these can be acquired in a set for under $15.

The water bath process is fairly simple and is used almost exclusively for high acid products like this ketchup.

The first thing you have to do is bring a pot of water to a boil. The pot should be deep enough that when the jars are added, the water level of the pot will be 1-2 inches above the top of the jars for the duration of the process. Put this pot on to boil while you're cooking down the strained puree mix.

Also, while you're strained puree is cooking down, prep your jars, lids, and rings. They should be freshly washed and the jars sterilized. I do this by setting my freshly washed, wet jars on a sheet pan and putting them in the oven on 250 for at least 25 minutes.

When your ketchup is your desired thickness, your pot of water is vigorously boiling, and your jars have been in the oven for 25 minutes, quickly and carefully fill the jars.

Using the canning funnel, ladle your ketchup into the jars leaving a 1/2 inch of headspace at the top, essentially filling them to the bottom of the funnel.

Once they're full, take a damp paper towel or cloth and wipe down the rims of the jars to make sure there's no ketchup on them. If they're dirty they may not seal properly.

Once the rims are clean, put the lids on and screw on the rings just finger tight.

Using the jar grabber to lower the jars into the boiling water in a single layer, put the top on the pot, and set your timer for 45 minutes. This processing time is a bit longer than I feel like it really needs to be, but for the sake of sharing it with others, just to be safe, do 45.

At the end of the 45 minutes, turn the heat off and remove the pot lid, but do not remove the jars yet. Set the timer for another 5-10 minutes and just let them sit in the pot to allow them to cool slowly. Once the timer goes off again, you're good to take the jars out. Use the jar grabber!

Set the jars on a wire rack or a kitchen towel somewhere they can be left undisturbed for 12 - 24 hours.

Soon you should start hearing the sweet ping of the jars successfully sealing, although, no ping does not necessarily mean no seal. But no matter what, just leave them alone for the duration of the resting time.

Once the resting time is over, check your seals. First test by pressing your finger down into the middle of the lid. It should be stiff and tight with no give. If you can push it down like a button, your jar did not seal properly and you should stick that one in the fridge and use it up. If there's no give when you press down on the lid, lift the jar up by the edges of the lid. Ensure that the seal of the lid is strong enough to hold up the entire weight of the jar by itself... but don't lift it too high and do it over something safe just in case it's not. If it passes both tests, your jar is sealed properly for shelf-stable storage. Wipe down the jars and store them in a cool dry place with your other canned goods. Modern lids advertise that they last for "up to 18 months" but in my experience, they last much longer than that. A good tip to ensuring that your jars stay safely sealed is to store them without the rings on them and with nothing set on top of them. This ensures that a "false seal" can't trick you into thinking that the product is still safe when the seal has actually failed.

Always perform these checks on your home canned goods to ensure proper seals upon opening for use as well.

And that's it!

I hope I have inspired you to try making some of your own "The Best Homemade Ketchup" and sparked an interest in home canning. It's becoming a lost art, which is a shame because it is an incredible skill to have in your toolkit.

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