Is novel and newfangled better than tried and true? I tried nine ketchups to find out.
BY ANDI WENCK | PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 29, 2021
Searching for ketchup perfection
KÔECHIAP: THE ORIGIN STORY
It's on every table in every restaurant, it travels in your pocket as a packet and it's probably in your pantry or refrigerator. Ketchup is everywhere. From hamburgers to french fries, to hot dogs to scrambled eggs, ketchup is the condiment of choice when it comes to sweet and savory deliciousness. Ninety-seven percent of American households have ketchup in their kitchens, leaving me to believe that it's more than just a condiment. Ketchup is a national treasure.
As it turns out though, ketchup's origins are anything but American. The precursor to our ketchup was kôechiap, a 17th century fermented fish sauce from southern China. As you can imagine, this kind of ketchup was a lot less sweet and a lot more, well, tangy, as it was made from fish entrails, meat by-products and soybeans.
But what made kôechiap so desirable was its savory flavor, created by the fermentation process. Fermentation allowed for a rich, salty depth of flavor, as well as the breeding of good microorganisms. This version of ketchup lasted for months without spoiling, which was important for a time when trade routes took months to journey.
By the 18th century, kôechiap had spread along trade routes to Indonesia, the Philippines and even Great Britain. And as it spread, there were some modifications. Western cooks found ways to make kôechiap their own, swapping ancient ingredients with more savory flavors, like mushrooms, shallots, peaches, ginger, cloves and walnuts.
Some recipes used oysters as the seafood component while others cut out fish completely. But it didn't take long for the word kôechiap to evolve into a catch-all term for any spiced condiment served with a meal, which we recognize today as ketchup.
Where do the tomatoes come in? Well, it wasn't until the early 19th century that anyone experimented with tomatoes in their ketchup recipes. Philadelphia native James Mease was a scientist, horticulturist and the first to publish a tomato-based ketchup recipe. His mix included tomato pulp, spices and brandy, but lacked vinegar and sugar. The problem with Mease's ketchup wasn't a matter of taste, but rather preservation, as the fruits would quickly decompose without vinegar.
But in 1876, a revolutionary recipe was born. Pittsburg entrepreneur Henry J. Heinz introduced his famous formulation, including tomatoes, distilled vinegar, brown sugar, salt and a secret combination of spices. Heinz's commercial ketchup not only tasted sweet and savory, but also lasted on the shelf. By 1906, Heinz produced more than five million bottles of ketchup per year. Nearly two hundred years later, it's almost impossible to imagine ketchup as anything other than bright red, sweet and tangy, tomato-y sauce.
THE POWER OF UMAMI
During its earlier years, scientists and doctors thought ketchup could cure ailments like jaundice and indigestion. And while we know today that none of this is true, there's still something magical about ketchup. What makes ketchup so perfect? The answer, returns us to the tongue.
Ketchup is all about three elemental tastes: sweet, sour and umami. The sweet element is obvious: ketchup has a disturbing amount of sugar in it, most of which comes from corn and not just tomatoes. The sour element is also pretty straightforward: every good ketchup contains vinegar, which gives it that necessary tang. But the most important element in ketchup and the reason it's such an indispensable condiment, has to do with umami.
Umami is the fifth taste sensation first discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1907. Translated from Japanese, umami simply means “delicious.” Its that indescribable sensation, the mouth-filling savoriness, the magnificent balance that makes some foods irresistibly satisfying. Its also the flavor you probably crave most when eating other American foods. Even the juiciest of hamburgers and crispiest of french fries often taste incomplete. But don't get it twisted, it's the power of umami in ketchup that helps complete the flavor hoop in American food.
ARTISANAL KETCHUP: A CONDIMENT TO BE RECKONED WITH
In the past, Heinz has had the largest U.S. market share in a highly concentrated ketchup market. But since its merger with Kraft in 2015 and a new wave of diet culture, Heinz (and traditional ketchups alike) are in trouble. As more and more flavor trends arise, consumers are leaving tried and true traditional ketchup brands for something a little more, well, fancy. Say it with me now: Artisan ketchup.
While some enjoy traditional ketchup in all its glorious flavor and savor, others are hungry for something a little more novel and a lot more healthy. Artisanal ketchups tend to feature organic ingredients, fewer artificial additives and lower sugar levels. Fancy ketchup brands like Sir Kensington's, Whole Food's 365 and Trader Joe's, are gaining speed on traditional ketchup captains like Heinz, Great Value and Hunt's. But will any of them succeed? Is there even such a thing as ketchup perfection?
I tried the nine most popular supermarket ketchup brands to find out. In the first round of testing, I completed a blindfolded plain test, followed by a blindfolded taste test with air-fried Ore-Ida french fries. Each testing followed a palette cleansing process consisting of water and banana slices. Brands were then scored according to their color, consistency and flavor.
THE RESULTS ARE IN: HEINZ REIGNS SUPREME
When I set out to find the best ketchup on the market, I'd hoped an artisanal underdog might win. But after testing nine of the most popular ketchup brands out there, there is only one brand that truly ticks every box.
Heinz undoubtedly nails the standard of ketchup - hitting all five flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. It's one long crescendo of satisfying, tomato-y flavor that keeps you wanting more.
The bright red color is the perfect contrast to any American cuisine. Reminiscent of red ripe tomatoes, Heinz gives the appeal of a ketchup that's mouthwateringly fresh, although I know it's certainly not (don't remind me).
There's nothing worse than a ketchup that's grainy and running away from you, but Heinz has somehow managed to create a condiment that's somewhat of a tomato smoothie. The silky smooth and slow-dripping consistency of Heinz allows for ample application when dipping and dunking - a non-negotiable when it comes to condiments.
It's no reason Heinz ketchup is an iconic American brand. It's perfect in every way. I can confirm, myth-busted: Newfangled is not better than tried and true.
Second place: Great Value
Third place: Simple Truth
Fourth place: Kroger
Fifth place: Hunt's
Sixth place: 365
Seventh place: Annie's
Eight place: Trader Joe's
Ninth place: Sir Kensington's