Daniel: When I was a kid we were so poor…
Chorus: How poor were you?
Daniel: We were so poor we only had four tastes!
Anyone else remember when we only had four tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter? Nowadays you lucky kids have ‘umami’ too, normally described as the non-salty savor of foods such as cooked tomatoes, aged cheese, meat stock, or soy sauce – and not only that, there are scientists arguing right now that ‘metallic’ should be considered a taste (biting aluminium foil is a sensation like no other, after all), or ‘water,’ or ‘fattiness’ or even ‘calcium.’ But, even including umami as an extra bonus taste, my childish reaction to this dogma is unchanged:
Yeah, and the pope’s a Buddhist.
Let’s take bitterness, for example. Common bitter tastes are coffee, beer, olives, citrus, and wormwood (wormwood is so unimaginably bitter that I had to leave it out of my homemade absinthe, which rather defeated the purpose). Now I know smell and texture and temperature and ‘mouth feel’ all have their role to play in the game, but how on earth does coffee resemble olives? A sprinkle more sour, a dab less salty? I don’t think so. In kid think, I naturally deduced that if I had the four tastes in little jars (say, refined sugar for sweet, salt for salty, citric acid for sour, and wormwood for bitter) by mixing them in different ratios I should be able to reproduce any taste at all. Now I know food scientists can do amazing things (read Fast Food Nation), but I don’t even need to attempt this experiment to confirm the null hypothesis. Okay, okay, so maybe we only do have a few kinds of taste receptors, but is this really important? Reductionist science has no place in cookery and results in such useless myths as the ‘tongue map’ once found in school textbooks everywhere.
However, I recently read a New Yorker article on Heinz ketchup that made me rethink this whole proposition. Analyzing just what it was that made Heinz’s share of the ketchup market so overwhelming despite the existence of many gourmet alternatives, it was the conclusion of the article that Heinz ketchup, like Coca-cola, is a nearly “perfect” flavor with all the ingredients blended so that you cannot isolate them in your mouth. All five of the basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami – there’s going to be a quiz later) are present in Heinz ketchup, and pretty much pushed to the max, so what more can you do? Ketchup resists improvement. Hard to argue with that.
That being said, I’m not a big fan of Heinz ketchup (or Coca-cola, for that matter). Too much high fructose corn syrup for my liking. It wasn’t the intention of the article, but I was taken with the idea of making my own ketchup, one where the distinct ingredients are a little more distinguishable, perhaps with a hot pepper as a dominant theme. I decided to make two batches: a basic red ketchup, as a control, and a bright yellow ketchup with peppers.
First, the tomatoes. I don’t know what kind of tomatoes Heinz uses, but I’d lay money they don’t include Brandywines, Green Zebras, or other exotic heirloom varieties. For the red ketchup I was leaning towards some traditional red beefsteaks, since they looked so nice and I like the name, but the vendor at the farmers market, after a discussion with his coworkers, recommended Roma. The Roma tomatoes were firmer, denser, and less watery. Roma it was for the control group. I found some yellow tomatoes, but I forgot to ask their exact variety. They were tangy, so they might have been Lemon Boys.
For both batches the basic procedure was the same: puree six large tomatoes and two onions together. For the yellow ketchup, I added four roasted goat horn peppers (I’d never used them before, but they were yellow) and also a few sprigs of dill. Push the resulting mess through a sieve (this step is important. If I am making a tomato sauce I am happy to leave the skins and seeds in, but ketchup is different – ketchup must be smooth). The pulp goes onto the stove and is simmered until reduced in volume by about a third and substantially thicker. Already it will begin to look like ketchup.
Meanwhile, in a small pan, combine:
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup white vinegar
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
6 allspice berries
Leave this on low heat for half an hour until the vinegar is properly infused, then strain it into a measuring jug.
Here is where the fun of ketchup making really begins: using some carefully selected spices, and your infused vinegar, add a little of this and a little of that until you have something you consider to be ketchup. This is a very good fundamental practice for cooking. Take a little taste, and imagine what is lacking. Pick up a spice, give it a sniff. Do the two sensations match or clash? Remember, if it’s true there are only four/five tastes, smell is going to be very important. Good cooks I know do a lot of sniffing when they invent a recipe (and more afterwards when it doesn’t turn out right).
To my control group, I stuck to the traditional mustard powder, brown sugar, sea salt, and a dash of worchestershire sauce. I cannot give exact quantities because I was just making it up as I went along. Ketchup needs to be salty, but it also needs to be sweet. These two flavours should be apparent. The mustard and worchestershire help round out and broaden the savor.
For my yellow ketchup, the dill and peppers had already provided much of the flavour profile. I added a little salt and a little sugar, but the hotness wasn’t all I was hoping for, so cayenne went in too.
The result? Well, honesty compels me report that the traditional red Roma-based ketchup was, in fact, superior. The yellow ketchup lacked zing, and the cooking process turned it a light brown colour and not the hot dog mustard-like fluorescent shade I visualized. I do prefer my Roma ketchup to regular ketchup, but it is apparently not so easy to break the Heinz tyranny of perfect flavour as I imagined. But I am encouraged: some day, when my two jars of ketchup are all used up, I will return to the fray. And then, Heinz, watch out.
Bonus Quiz (5 points):
Which of the following is not one of the basic tastes?
f) duct tape
Answer: (e). Your childhood experiences may differ.