Is familiar better than newfangled? We tried eight products to find out.
How We Tested
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. Heinz launched his own commercial ketchup. By 1906, the company produced more than five million bottles of ketchup per year, says Smith. More than 100 years later, commercial ketchup is made on a massive scale, but the process is fairly simple. First, a concentrated tomato product (often tomato paste or puree) is heated in a large kettle. It's then flavored with vinegar, sugar, salt, and a few seasonings, such as onion and garlic powder. Once it reaches the desired consistency, the ketchup is typically strained and then cooled before being bottled.
Keep the Flavor Simple
Most of the ketchup in America hits on the same flavor profile: tangy and savory, with plenty of sweetness and saltiness. When we called our staffers to our blind tastings, they were all too happy to take a break from their work and participate. For many of us, it's our favorite condiment.
Each of the ketchups got a few things right. Whether made with white wine vinegar or distilled white vinegar, every ketchup was bright and tangy enough for our tasters. They were all sweet and salty enough, too. Although their sodium contents varied, none of the ketchups was too salty or lacking in seasoning. But they weren't all perfect. Some ketchups had such assertive and unusual flavors that our panelists wondered if they had gone to the wrong tasting.
One ketchup was sweetened with honey, while every other ketchup was made with sugar or a mix of corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup. The honey version tasted “almost like a watered-down honey BBQ sauce.” Tasters clearly preferred the more neutral sweetness of the ketchups made with sugar or corn syrup.
Two ketchups had “weird extra flavors,” thanks to some nontraditional seasonings. Tasters noted flavors of “smoke,” “pepper,” and “cinnamon.” Another product contained both lime juice and green bell pepper, which reminded tasters of salsa. As one taster wrote, we “don't really want to be surprised by ketchup.” The warm spices, lime, and bell pepper simply felt out of place.
Keep the Texture Smooth
The textures of a few ketchups surprised our tasters, too. Two of our lowest-rated products were noticeably grainy and pulpy. Some tasters thought these tasted more like cocktail sauce or marinara than like ketchup. One taster complained that they were “too coarse to coat my fry nicely.” Our top-rated ketchups were silky-smooth, so tasters could easily scoop up a little or a lot of them with each dip.
When we took a closer look at the ketchups, we noticed that five of the eight were made with tomato concentrate. The other three listed tomato paste, tomato puree, or a mix of tomatoes and tomato paste among their ingredients. Tomato paste contains more solids than tomato puree, which can make for a thicker ketchup. But we also learned that “tomato concentrate” is an umbrella term for both paste and puree, and there's no way to know which one a company is using. We did notice, however, that the especially “coarse” ketchup was the only one made with both tomatoes and tomato paste.
Processing also plays a role in ketchup's texture. In Tomato Production, Processing and Technology (1992), author W.A. Gould says that ketchup goes through a finishing screen (much like a large fine-mesh strainer) after it's cooked, which gives it a “smooth body.” The screen openings range in size from 0.033 to 0.04 inches. It's a tiny difference, but, according to Gould, it's enough to change the consistency of the finished ketchup. “The larger openings generally give more body to the catsup, but it is not as smooth,” Gould says. We preferred the silky, viscous ketchups that were likely run through a fine finishing screen before being bottled.
The Best Ketchup: Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup
By the end of testing, it was clear that tasters weren't ready to give up their favorites made by major condiment companies. Three products that were too coarse or tasted too strongly of nontraditional ingredients didn't meet our expectations for ketchup; we recommend them with reservations. Happily, the other five earned our approval. These silky-smooth ketchups were bright, tangy, sweet, and savory. Our two favorites were both from Heinz. The organic version edged out its sibling, perhaps because it contains slightly more sodium, which can boost flavor. The next time we're enjoying a burger or French fries, we know what kind of ketchup we'll be using.
We tasted eight nationally available tomato ketchups (priced from about $0.10 to about $0.40 per ounce) in two blind tastings, plain and with French fries. Scores were averaged, and products appear in order of preference. Nutrition information was taken from product packaging and is listed per 1-tablespoon serving. Prices were paid in Boston-area supermarkets.