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The Best Ketchup
Is familiar better than newfangled? We tried eight products to find out.
Published June 1, 2019. Appears in Cook's Country August/September 2011, Cook's Country TV Season 13: Bread, Cheese, and Meat Can't Be Beat
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What You Need To Know
There's no denying it: Americans love ketchup. Ninety-seven percent of American households have ketchup in their kitchens, according to National Geographic. We've been slathering it on our burgers, French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and countless other foods for more than a century. Ketchup hits all five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Its complex flavor profile and viscous, smooth consistency make ketchup more than just a condiment. In the test kitchen, we add it not just to meatloaf glazes and barbecue sauces but also to more surprising dishes such as Shrimp Tacos and Stuffed Bell Peppers.
Heinz has dominated the market for decades, but that hasn't stopped other brands from trying to compete. Since our last tasting, two major condiment companies, Hellmann's and French's, have started manufacturing ketchup. Meanwhile, small companies have gained traction with American shoppers looking for “artisan” alternatives. One, Sir Kensington's, was recently purchased by Unilever (the food and consumer goods giant), and its ketchup is now sold nationally. How do these new options stack up to their more familiar counterparts? To find out, we purchased eight top-selling ketchups and compared them in two blind taste tests. We first sampled them plain and then evaluated them in one of our favorite applications: with a big bowl of crisp, golden-brown French fries.
Ketchup's Origin Story
Although ketchup is now as American as apple pie, it originated in Southeast Asia—and it didn't contain any tomatoes. Instead, it was probably similar to the fermented fish sauce that's common in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. According to an article by Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor and the author of The Language of Food (2015), it's likely that the British encountered this fish-based sauce, which was known as kª-chiap, when they began trading in Southeast Asia in the late 1600s. In the early 18th century British cooks attempted to reproduce the sauce back home and creatively replaced hard-to-find ingredients with other savory items such as mushrooms and walnuts.
Tomato-based ketchup is a more recent creation. According to Andrew F. Smith's book Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment (2011), Philadelphia horticulturist and scientist James Mease created the first recipe for tomato-based ketchup in 1812. Fish, walnut, and mushroom ketchup, along with tomato ketchup, continued to increase in popularity through the 19th century.
The popularity of homemade ketchup began to decline with the rise of commercial ketchup production, which was less expensive and less time-consuming. In 1876, Henry J. He...
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Carolyn is a senior editor for ATK Reviews. She's a French-trained professional baker.