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What is Ketchup and How Is It Made?

Most people will be likely to agree with you when we state that ketchup is simply amazing. However, there is some scientific basis behind this idea. Most scientists have reckoned that there are five major flavor groups that human beings respond to: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and the very mysterious umami flavor.

ketchup and tomotoes

This is why ketchup is so good – it is the only food that manages to hit all 5 groups! When we eat this food, all of our taste palettes are satisfied, so there is some scientific basis to the idea that ketchup is simply the perfect food!

Let’s talk about umami, which might be a flavor you have never heard of before, which is what makes it so difficult to describe. Umami is translated from Japanese and it simply means ‘delicious’, but there is more to it than that.

This is a much harder concept to articulate in English, but it is akin to that buzz you get when you eat a shaving of parmesan cheese or the rich and warm tingly feeling that you get in your stomach when you drink up some vegetable broth.

French fries with ketchup

One other thing that might describe ‘umami’ will be MSG, otherwise known as monosodium glutamate. This is what is in practically all fast food and the reason why we crave it even when we know that most junk food is very bad for us.

Needless to say that ketchup contains this much-craved chemical. It is also one of the reasons why we buy it by the gallon every year. The average American will buy over 71 pounds of ketchup every year, which probably accounts for the reason why companies such as Heinz and French’s have made profits year after year.

One of the reasons that Heinz ketchup has been so dominant since first manufacturing ketchup way back in 1869 is because they are the only company that has still managed to tick all the five taste boxes. This might be luck or a finely-honed skill, either way, Heinz has kept this a closely guarded secret.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the reasons that ketchup is so attractive, let’s take a look at the ingredients of ketchup and what makes them so irresistible.

What is Ketchup Made Of?

The origins for the tangy texture of tomato sauce first came from the Chinese, who use a type of ketchup in the brine of their pickled fish dishes. This was originally called ‘kechap’ and it was made up of fish brine, herbs and spices. When English sailors sampled this delicious delicacy in the 1600s, they took some samples home with them.

ketchup ingredients

This is when chefs in Europe attempted to replicate this sauce, mainly using cucumbers, mushrooms, nuts, oysters and other substitutes. This was partially successful, although they never quite nailed the tanginess.

Now we fast forward to America in the late 1800s, when New England settlers tried to create a version of ketchup using tomato seeds gained from Mexico and the Spanish West Indies. Once this was nailed, they started using it as a relish for meats, fish cakes and vegetables. The sharpness instantly popularized it throughout developing America.

However, way back when, making this ketchup was a very laborious process. You had to cook the tomatoes in your wood-burning stoves, which took a long time and required constantly churning and mixing to stop this delicate fruit from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

However, as the late 1800s approached, ketchup became mass-manufactured, lead by the company Heinz, so the tedious cooking of this dish became completely redundant.

How Heinz made their sauce was a very ingenious method. They used a bottle that was very narrow in the neck, which stopped the sauce from making prolonged contact with the air, which gave it its rich and dark color.

ketchup bottles

In the early days of ketchup making, the bottles were sealed with wax, which also helped prevent air from getting into the bottle. However, as technology moved on, screw caps were then introduced, leading to the early glass bottles that became the hallmark of the Heinz ketchup brand for years.

As the years went by, the glass bottle was replaced by the plastic ones that we have today. The squeezability of the plastic container meant that customers could get more sauce out of their bottles. This also made them a lot safer, which is why ketchup has become much more popular with children around the world.

But what exactly goes into your ketchup? Well, there are subtle differences between the brands, although there are a few must-have ingredients that really define ketchup and make it what it is.

Ketchup Ingredients

The main ingredients that go into ketchup are as follows:

  • Tomatoes – this is the core ingredient and gives the ketchup its lush flavor.
  • Sweeteners – sadly, this is one of the ingredients that makes consuming ketchup in very large quantities very unhealthy.
  • Vinegar – this is what accounts for the ‘sour’ flavor of the ketchup.
  • Salt – this gives the ketchup its bitterness.
  • Spices
  • Onion – you might notice a hint of this when you take a lick of it.
  • Garlic

The types of sweeteners that are included are cane sugar and beet sugar. Other sweeteners include dextrose or corn and glucose syrup. This is one of the reasons why people all over the world find sauces such as Heinz ketchup so addictive.

The white vinegar that it uses is traditionally distilled from 100-grains. There are plenty of spices that are used in the making of this ketchup and those include: cassia, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves, pepper, ginger, mustard and paprika. This delicate balance of spices is what makes this sauce so unique.

There is a school of thought that states that what makes this ketchup so interesting is this blend of whole spices. The reason why is that if the balance is right, it will hit all those flavor points that we mentioned earlier. This is also the same principle behind why curries are so popular.

The more high-quality spices that you use then the better that your ketchup will taste. If you are making homemade ketchup from scratch, then we would recommend that you use as many fresh ingredients as possible. If you want thicker ketchup, then you’ll have to increase the spices and reduce the amount of sugar.

Occasionally certain companies will want to balance out the acid content of the tomatoes by adding more sugar. However, these very sugar-heavy ketchups will not be very healthy, so you should make sure that you check the sugar content of your ketchup.

How Ketchup Is Manufactured

Now we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of how tomatoes are made in the factory. It really is a wondrous process, so strap yourselves in!

  1. Finding the best quality tomatoes – the company has to make sure that they pick the right tomatoes, really going for flavor, color and texture. Only the best tomatoes are considered right for the job.
  2. Preparation – most of the tomatoes that are used in ketchup are harvested during June and July. They are then washed with water, which also protects them from getting bruised. Once they have been inspected by the US Department of Agriculture, they are then chopped, sorted and washed.
  3. The tomatoes are then pulped – This is where the tomatoes are placed into cyclones that mash them up and separates the skins, the pulp and the seeds. The pulp is then filtered through a juicer. The more solid matter is used for pastes and purees.
  4. More ingredients – the tomato pulp is placed into a cooking tank and heated to boiling point. This is when the sweetener, salts, vinegar and spice oils are added. Onions and garlic are also mixed in, as well as more salt and sugar.
  5. Cooking – the mixture is cooked at high temperature for around 30-45 minutes, stirring using rotating blades. The cooking is regulated so that the ingredients are absorbed completely without burning the food.
  6. Finishing procedure – once the food has been cooked properly, it passes through a machine that removes it from all the solid matter and fiber. It also gets rid of any particles that might have gotten into the mixture. This mixture is then put into a holding tank.
  7. Milling – the ketchup is then milled to either increase or decrease the consistency.
  8. The ketchup is then completely removed from the air. Excess air in the ketchup might result in bubbles where bacteria could spread in the ketchup and ruin the final product.
  9. Filling – the ketchup is then passed into another container which removes even more air and will remove contaminants. The ketchup is then placed in plastic bottles, room service pouches or single-serve packets that are ripped open.
  10.  Cooling – the ketchup is then cooled properly to prevent loss of flavor. They will usually be cooled using cold air or water.
  11. Labeling – this ketchup is finally labeled with all the product information and those distinctive packing colors that we are used to seeing in the supermarket. This bottle might be inspected again before it leaves the factory.

The process of ketchup manufacture, although complex, only really takes 2 to 3 hours. The process is very meticulous and requires plenty of experts on the floor to make sure that the machinery is working properly.

Okay, now that we’ve discussed the history, ingredients and manufacturing history of tomato ketchup, now we’ll move on to the list of some of the best ketchups that we can find on the market. 

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Written by Brian N

Brian has been an influencer in the food and beverage industry for over 20 years. He not only loves to eat and drink at restaurants on a regular basis, he also knows the business inside and out.