Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ketchup and Tomato Jam

I have a story to tell you that starts with forty pounds of tomatoes, but to ease into it, I'm going to start with just six pounds: four for ketchup and two for tomato jam.

Either Malcolm Gladwell ("The Ketchup Conundrum"; totally worth a read) or Jeffrey Steingarten (The Man Who Ate Everything) is the original king of telling you that it's impossible to make a better ketchup than Heinz. Jonah Lehrer has written about the problem. So has the Washington Post. And the Kitchn.

So of course I was going to try. There are lots of ketchup recipes out there, but aspiring to match average all-American ketchup, I used the USDA-approved canning recipe. (I made 1/6 the recipe, using four pounds of tomatoes and ending up with less than one pint of ketchup.)

But to hedge my bets, I also plotted to make a spicy tomato jam from America's Test Kitchen. Should my ketchup disappoint, I could plausibly deny that I had even been trying to make ketchup.

I e-mailed Jack the jam recipe, just to emphasize that I was not planning to make ketchup.

He wrote back, "They are totally talking about ketchup, right?"

But the ketchup recipe and the tomato jam recipe were actually very different. The only common ingredients are tomatoes and sugar (and the jam uses six times more when you consider its yield). They also both have vinegar, but different kinds.

Also, and this is important when you're as lazy as I am: the jam was fast and did not require peeling tomatoes. Or painstaking sieving. It did not bring you to that stage, an hour into the process, when you realize you've made tomato-flavored water that you despair of ever reducing down to ketchup consistency. And it yielded more finished sauce than the ketchup, while using half the tomatoes.

The jam -- whose secret nonvegetarian ingredient is a healthy amount of fish sauce -- turned out savory and jammy and sweet and chunky and every kind of delicious. I'm really pleased with it, and I've been enjoying it on toast and eggs and grilled vegetables and everything else I can think of.

And the ketchup? It turned out almost exactly like Heinz ketchup. I'm not sure what to make of that.

P.S. The upshot of having homemade ketchup on hand is a French fry renaissance in our house. We're trying a new frying method courtesy of Jeffrey Steingarten (really, his The Man Who Ate Everything is mouthwatering, despite the food criticism being fifteen years old). Instead of doing a long low-temperature fry (to cook the insides) followed by a short high-temperature fry (to crisp the outsides), you just cover the potatoes with room-temperature oil, turn the heat to high, and pull them out when the temperature hits 350. Results so far are encouraging.

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