The Great Catsup Caper

Catsup, ketchup, tomato.

I decided, out of the blue, and out of tomato season, that I needed to make ketchup.  I was out, not that I use it all that often.  You see, I don’t really like ketchup all that much.

Or so I thought.

So, since I needed tomato paste anyway, I thought, “Why, I’ll just make some ketchup at the same time!  It can’t be that hard!”  It’s not HARD.  It takes forEVER.

BUT, it doesn’t take a lot of time all at once.

You really just need an afternoon you can spend tethered to the stove so you can stir every 15 minutes or so.

And some tomatoes, an onion, a bell pepper, vinegar and whatever spices you want.  I also used a bit of brown sugar for mine, since I like sweet ketchup.

Yes, the vinegar is necessary.  No, it will neither taste nor smell like vinegar, you are only using 5%.

Now you are wondering why I needed to make tomato paste.  Did you know that canned goods have BPA in them?  There is a thin little plastic lining on all those lovely canned goods in your pantry.  And when goods are canned, they are heated up under pressure, which means all that plastic is heated up too.  Which means there is now all sorts of nastiness in your good foods.  Tomatoes and other acidic foods are the big baddies.

Which means no pre-made tomato paste for my chili.

I turned to the trusty internet to find out how to make my own tomato paste.  I ran into a problem immediately.  Every single recipe I found involved processing 10-20 pounds of tomatoes, leaving you with pints and pints of the red gold you are expected to can.  (On the upside, with tomato paste, you can just cover it with a layer of oil and freeze it if you don’t do your own canning.)

I don’t need pints and pints and pints of tomato paste or ketchup.  Seriously.

So, my internet failed me.

But I noticed something.  Tomato paste and ketchup are sort of the same thing, at least at first.  You cook up some onion and bell pepper, throw in some coarse chopped (and sometimes seeded and skinned) tomatoes, and cook it down for awhile.  You run them both through a sieve, and then you get the differences.

Tomato paste is slowly reduced, no extra spices or vinegar added.  You just bake it at low heat to take the place of sun drying.  (Sun drying is how people in Italy did it forever and ever.  Some still do.)

Ketchup has more spices added as well as vinegar, sometimes brown sugar, and then is reduced to a ketchup consistency on the stove.  (I bet if you were doing a big batch, you could do it really well in a crock pot without the lid.)

I can do both of those things!

So I did, and surprisingly, it turned out.

Frankly, I’m not sure tomato paste was worth the effort.  At least, for me.  I don’t use it all that much, but it tastes fantastic.

Ketchup, on the other hand, was totally worth the effort.  It’s all the best things you can possibly envision ketchup being, and totally customized to what you like.  And it *insert gasp here* tastes like tomatoes.  Who knew?!

Now, knowing what I do, I wanted to at least start with the seeds and skins and all their vitamins.  When I do it again, I think I will skin and seed them.  Or maybe not.  I’m not sure it will make the straining any easier, and it wasn’t hard to begin with.

Out of my adventure, I got 8 oz of truly fantastic ketchup and 20 oz of tomato paste.

If you are following along at home, you will need:

  • A kitchen sieve (I got mine at Wal-mart, it’s just a mesh strainer.  Also useful for rinsing beans, quinoa, rice and anything else that needs rinsing.)
  • 5 pounds of roma tomatoes (Romas are called sauce tomatoes for a reason.  They have more meat, which means more bang for your buck.  You could use whatever tomatoes you like, though.)  If you are just making the 8 oz of ketchup, you probably can get away with a pound or a bit more.  The paste reduced a LOT.
  • 1 onion, whatever your preference is (use less for less tomatoes)
  • 1 bell pepper, I used a red pepper, but any would work just as well.
  • white vinegar (I only needed 2 table spoons)
  • 2 tablespoons of brown sugar
  • minced garlic
  • any other spices you might like.  Most ketchup recipes call for cinnamon, allspice, and clove, but use whatever tastes good to you.
  • A big ol’ pot, a little tiny pot, and some baking pans, the bigger, the better, but they need a rim of some kind.
  • a blender or food processor.  I used a blender, because that’s how I roll.

I will preface the rest by saying, no, I don’t know if you could can this ketchup successfully.  I also don’t know how long it will keep in the fridge.  I am freaking clueless.  If I was going to can it, I’d follow a tested canning recipe.

So, chop up your onion and pepper and mince your garlic if you aren’t using the pre minced wonderfulness you can get in a jar.  How much garlic?  However much you want.  I used around 4-5 cloves.  Don’t like garlic?  Don’t use it.

Put a little olive oil in your big ol’ pot, around 2 tablespoons is plenty, heat it up and cook those onions and peppers till soft.  They can do that without assistance, unless you are prone to turning your burner too hot, like me.  You don’t want them to brown, just soften.

While your kitchen starts to smell wonderfully of cooking onions, and you are starting to get hungry, chop up those tomatoes.  It doesn’t have to be pretty, rough quarters is plenty.  It really doesn’t matter all that much, since you are going to puree them later.

Once the onion is softened, toss in those lovely tomatoes and give it a good stir.  Now is a good time to salt and pepper it a bit.  Nope, no measurements.  (Measuring spoons?  You have measuring spoons in your kitchen?  You are not the parent of a small child.)

Now you get to walk away.  Make sure you have your stove at a lower midrange.  You want to sort of simmer the tomatoes to break them down, but you don’t want them to burn or caramelize.  All the liquid will come out of them once they heat up, you will be shocked to find a pot filled with liquid when you drop by to stir.  Let them cook at least an hour, but longer if you like.  Do some laundry, read a book, just don’t get too far, you need to stir it every now and again.

The tomatoes will break down into sort of a stew.  It will smell lovely.  You could use it now on pasta and it would be very nice.  But that isn’t what our goal is, now, is it?

Puree the hell out of it.  The finer, the better.  It should resemble tomato soup.  Seriously, really get that stuff liquidy.  It makes the next step easier.

Once it’s pureed into submission, you have to pull out that strainer.  Work in small batches and run them through, getting out all the pulp.  You don’t want any seeds or stringy bits left in your ketchup or paste.

Separate about a cup and half of that lovely liquidy puree (or just strain some into your little pan, like me.  Yeah, I went there.)  The rest goes onto those baking pans.  Bake your pans in a 200 degree oven.  It will take HOURS.  HOURS AND HOURS.  You still need to stir every half hour or so.  The thinner the layer of tomato ooze, the faster the water will cook out of it.

Once those are in the oven, you can go back to the ketchup.  You want it to be at a low simmer.  For all you who cook like me, a simmer isn’t a boil.  It isn’t even a low boil.  The liquid should barely move.  Get it to boil, the turn it down till the surface just barely moves.  Shimmer my rosy red… you get the picture.

If you have a silicone spatula, now is a good time to break it out.  Don’t use metal.  Bamboo is fine.  You will need to add 2 tablespoons of vinegar and anything else that makes your soupy stuff taste good.  You like it spicy?  Cheyenne pepper.  You like it sweet, use honey or brown sugar.

(if you started with 5 pounds of tomatoes, but don’t want to make paste, then you’ll need around 8 tablespoons of vinegar.  Maybe. Math is not my strong suit.  You can taste when it’s right.)

If you have one of those tiny crock pots, you could use that, just don’t cover it.  The idea is to reduce it, afterall.

Reduce it down.  It takes about an hour, just don’t forget to stir it, making sure to scrape the edges.  It is done when you can scoop it up and liquid no longer separates from the puree.  You will need to turn down the stove regularly to keep it from going all splatery as it thickens.

Clean your kitchen.  No, really, it’s the perfect time.  Use that vinegar you still have out.  Mix it one to one with water in a spray bottle.  I’m sure you have an almost empty one under your sink.  Add tea tree oil or lavender for antibacterial properties.  Raid your fridge for “soft scrub.”  You know you have one of those odor boxes of baking soda.  Sprinkle it on a wet sink and scrub to your heart’s content.

Once your paste is paste-like, scoop it into jars.  Anything you can seal with a lid is good enough.  Ball makes these fantastic freezer jars, BPA free and complete with full lines.  Bang the jars on the counter, poke a stick in them, get all the air out of the paste that you can.  Your silicone spatula is seriously helpful here.  Then, all you have to do is pour some olive oil on top.  The oil seals out air.  Without air, no mold or spoilage.  (Seriously, they still store it like this in Italy.)  It will keep in your fridge, or you can freeze it.  You could also freeze it in ice trays, then bag the cubes.  Make sure you taste it.  Quality check, you know.  It’s goooood.

When the ketchup is done, it will still set up more as it cools.  It’s alright if it seems a bit runny.  Scoop it into a jar.  Make sure everything is given a chance to fully  cool before you put it in the fridge.  Don’t worry, your ketchup will be thick enough to scoop out with a spoon.

I had it with french fries today.  It was… an experience.  It tastes so fresh with just enough sweetness.  All the best things about tomatoes distilled into a dip.  I added almost no salt, just enough to help the tomatoes break down.  If I’d been using riper tomatoes, I might not have added any sugar.

As far as canning it goes, tomatoes are considered borderline acidic enough for water bath canning.  Since you add vinegar to it, that increases the acid content.  It shouldn’t be a problem to use a water bath canner, regardless of recipe.

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One thought on “The Great Catsup Caper

  1. Pingback: Little Red Head Boy | Horrible Neglect

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