Last Updated: September 3, 2023
Get a taste of the original American condiment with this classic home recipe for ketchup from 1915
Freshly jarred old-fashioned ketchup
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A brief history
Ketchup (or “catsup” if you prefer) has a long and storied history. While it’s not all that clear where it originated (possibly China or southeast Asia), we do know in the late 17th century the British brought a fermented sweet and sour fish sauce commonly referred to as “kecap” or “ketjap” back to Europe from Asia.
By the late 1700’s the British had introduced it to the New World where anchovies and mushrooms were swapped out for salted and fermented tomatoes flavored with western hemisphere herbs and spices like allspice and coriander.
Tomato ketchup became a standard condiment with the arrival of commercial production and distribution by companies such as F&J Heinz in the late 1800’s. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the sweet, spiced tomato sauce we now associate with “American” ketchup came into being.
After the U.S. government banned the use of sodium benzoate as a preservative in foods, ketchup producers were forced to find another way to prevent the product from spoiling. Fortunately, a scientist with the USDA researching food preservation discovered that increasing the amount of sugar and vinegar prevented spoilage, eliminating the need for artificial preservatives.
Commercial food producers quickly found that boosting the sugar and vinegar in ketchup wasn’t just cheaper and more reliable than fermentation, but far less complicated and time-consuming. Within a few years it became the preferred style for commercial food producers. Smaller food makers, farmers and home cooks soon followed.
And thus, “ketchup” as we know it today is a thick, sweet tomato condiment instead of a watery sauce made of fermented fish and/or fungi.
What’s in ketchup?
Tomato ketchup is made with tomatoes, sugar and vinegar and a variety of herbs, seasoning and spices. There are all kinds of recipes, but most include onions and garlic as well as a combination of apples, peppers (sweet or hot), and celery. Spices commonly include allspice, coriander, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, and mustard.
The recipe below was adapted from a 1915 edition of The Settlement Cook Book. These books were designed to provide new immigrants everything they need to know to cook and eat like Americans, so all of the ingredients were commonly available even in smaller communities.
The one minor modification to the recipe is the substitution of cassia flower, a cinnamon-like spice much more common 100 years ago, with coriander which is much more common today.
Old-Fashioned Ketchup Recipe
Yield: 1 gallon (4 quarts)
Total time: 6 hours
- A large pot (at least 2 gallons / 8 quarts)
- Sieve or strainer
- Bottles or jars sufficient to package 1 gallon (4 quarts) of ketchup
Ugly tomatoes make great ketchup
- 2 (dry) gallons of fresh tomatoes*
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 onions
- 4 small sweet peppers
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp salt
- ½ cup sugar
- ¼ tsp hot pepper (I use cayenne)
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground allspice
- ¼ tsp ground coriander
- 2 cups vinegar
- Skin tomatoes and place in a pot. Cut onions, garlic, and sweet peppers into chunks and add in with the tomatoes. Add salt and heat at a low heat.
tomatoes, onions, and garlic cooking down before the spices are added
- Once ingredients have become warm and aromatic, add bay leaves.
- Heat until ingredients are soft. Puree with a stick blender and strain through a sieve.
- Stir in sugar, cayenne and the spices.
Ketchup through the sieve with spices added
- Cook slowly at a very low boil (don’t burn the tomatoes!) until half of the water is removed.
- Add the vinegar and bring to a slow boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat and cook until the liquid is thickened to the consistency of ketchup.
- Pack in clean jars while still hot
Allow the jars of ketchup to cool so you know they’re sealed before you store them. Once opened, refrigerate it. It should keep fresh for at least 6 months.
A gallon of freshly jarred old-fashioned ketchup
* The original recipe called for “one peck” of tomatoes, so I had to research how much a “peck” is. Turns out it’s a how much a peck basket can hold, which is two gallons. So, if you ever have to pick a peck of peppers to pickle, just know that’s a two gallon basket.
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