Ketchup is the best way of jollying up a dull burger or a lacklustre sausage. With spice, tang, salty-sweetness and savouriness, it’s the full gamut of flavours in one red dollop of sauce. While some people swear by brown sauce (I love both, sometimes in the same bacon butty), ketchup is a great leveller, revered by both food snobs and junk-food addicts, children and adults. I’ve never met a chef, Michelin-starred or otherwise, who didn’t keep a bottle of Tommy K in their cupboard.
The top brand is Heinz, to ketchup what Hellmann’s is to mayo and Coke is to cola. But it’ll cost you: a recent report by Which? had Heinz ketchup topping its league table for food inflation among top brands, with a price increase of 53 per cent on two years ago. For some people, the distinctive bottle holds the taste of their childhood – but with prices this high, nostalgia may not be enough to keep on putting it in the trolley. So, is the taste irreplaceable? Or could another, cheaper ketchup hit the spot?
After all, ketchup has been around a lot longer than Heinz, which started making it in 1876 (until then it had been called “catsup”, a spelling that lingers in the US). There’s a debate about the origins of the word – did ketchup originate with southern Chinese fermented fish sauce koe-chiap, or Indonesian and Malaysian kecap, as in the treacly Indonesian soy sauce kecap manis and the salty fish sauce kecap ikan? Or, as Elizabeth David would have it, is the word derived from the same root as escabeche, meaning pickled in vinegar?
While it’s sacrilege to disagree with La David, my money is on both of the first two, as koe-chiap and kecap are probably related. There are plenty of culinary connections between the areas: the exquisite fusion cuisine Nonya originates from the time when Chinese sailors travelled through the Strait of Malacca and married local women.
Either way, ketchup arrived over here with British sailors in the 17th century and our early versions were made with spices plus anchovies, oysters, and whatever fruits and vegetables were to hand, bearing little relation to modern ketchup. British producer Geo Watkins (geowatkins.com) still makes mushroom ketchup, along with another long-forgotten classic, anchovy sauce. The mushroom version looks more like Worcestershire sauce, but it’s mild tasting and a great addition to all sorts of soups and braises.
What links all these sauces, from Penang to Pennsylvania to Portsmouth, is their savouriness. All add a hefty dash of umami to dishes. Tomatoes are the vegetable highest in glutamic acid – a source of umami – so no surprises that when, in the 19th century, tomatoes were first used to make ketchup, it took off. These days, you would be hard pushed to find a ketchup made with anything else – although food-waste champion Rubies in the Rubble makes a spicy (and pricey) version with apples and pears as well as tomatoes, while Caribbean shops often stock a delectable banana ketchup.
A true tomato ketchup needs nothing in it except tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and salt, plus herbs and spices – so keep a sharp eye on the ingredients label. Anything else listed is chiefly for the convenience of the manufacturer, and while they may argue it keeps prices down for you, you can bet it will keep profits up for them.
Granted, preservatives such as potassium sorbate will help the ketchup keep a bit better out of the fridge (arguably a benefit for us, too), but they aren’t necessary. Most ketchup will keep a month out of the fridge and at least six months in the fridge. As for the rest of the additives on the ingredients list – their role, generally, is to make up for deficiencies elsewhere, such as modified starch instead of tomatoes and acetic acid instead of vinegar.
The most obvious way to save money is to buy a bigger bottle, which almost always works out substantially cheaper per 100g. Not always, though: a recent look at the Asda prices for Heinz ketchup showed 910g at £3.50 (38.5p per 100g) and 250g at £1.25 (50p per 100g), but 450g on “special offer” at £2.50, which works out at 54.4p per 100g – more expensive than the smaller bottle.
So, the chips are down, and the burgers and the sausages. I tried a dozen ketchups blind to see if it is worth splashing out the extra on the red stuff, bringing in a couple of 20-something tasters to represent the youth vote. Our verdict? Strip away the iconic packaging and you may find new, nostalgia-worthy flavours.
The great ketchup taste-off
Heinz tomato ketchup
£3.50 for 900g (38p per 100g) from Asda, but widely available
A shiny, dark ketchup that tastes very sweet (it’s high in sugars) with a savoury richness, but little else going on. Its exemplary ingredients list does not include starch or preservative.
M&S Food tomato ketchup
£1 for 495g (20p per 100g)
More like premium “posh” ketchup than Heinz, it’s dark and grainy (it includes sun-dried tomatoes) with a powerful, almost brown-sauce-like flavour. No added starch, but contains preservative.
Sainsbury’s tomato ketchup
£1 for 970g (10p per 100g)
This has a very tomatoey flavour and is not too sweet. I could eat a lot of this gentle, not-quite-smooth ketchup, although Heinz lovers might look for a bit more of an acid kick. Contains starch.
Crucials tomato ketchup
£1.09 for 500ml from Poundland (22p per 100ml; approx 26p per 100g)
The only one to list water as the top ingredient. Low tomato content; includes sweetener as well as oil and modified starch. The flavour is cardboardy.
Verdict: Zero stars
Tesco tomato ketchup
£1 for 555g (18p per 100g)
This one is the closest to Heinz of the ketchups I tried, with a bright flavour, a good spice balance and a back note of chilli. Contains starch.
Asda Just Essentials tomato ketchup
42p for 530g (7.9p per 100g)
The flavour of standard Asda ketchup (£1.15/970g) is on the thin side. This is its Just Essentials version, which has a rough texture and a savoury tang. It’s a bit starchy-tasting, but will still lift a bacon sarnie.
Read last week's column: Supermarket mayonnaise ranked – from Hellman's to Heinz