Ketchup is a funny food. It’s never (okay, rarely) eaten on its own, yet it’s an indispensable topping to burgers, fries, and a host of other foods. It’s also quite possibly the most divisive condiment; some people douse their scrambled eggs and hot dogs in it while others gag at the sight of ketchup on an egg sandwich. While it might seem like all ketchups are created equal, we sampled 11 popular brands in a blind taste test, and the winner might not be the one you’re expecting.
Out of all the commonly-eaten foods, ketchup has one of the more intriguing backstories. It actually dates back to Imperial China, when it was a tomato-free sauce made from fermented fish entrails and soybeans (fun!) pronounced “ke-cheup.” The earliest references to ketchup date back to about 300 B.C., and because it was easy to store, it would be brought along on long voyages to Indonesia and the Philippines, where British traders developed a taste for it. So in the 1700s they brought some back to England and promptly corrupted the original recipe beyond recognition.
Ketchup has always been a flavor bomb. Over the years, ketchup recipes called for everything from oysters, celery, plums, and mussels to walnuts, peaches, mushrooms, lemons, berries, and anchovies. It wasn’t until 1812 when a Philadelphia scientist names James Mease wrote down the first ketchup recipe that called for tomatoes. So while our modern palate might identify ketchup only as the sweet and tangy red sauce we dump on fries, there are plenty of other versions around that include lots of other ingredients, and we included a couple of those in our taste test as well.
In order to conduct our test, we picked up all the major ketchup brands as well as a few organic ones; the house brands offered by Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and local New York grocery chain Key Food; and a couple pricier artisanal brands. We grabbed a bunch of orders of McDonald’s fries, set up a blind taste test, and asked our team of tasters to try each one and give it a number grade. They judged the ketchups on color, smell, balance of sweetness to vinegary tang, and whether it hits that ketchup sweet spot that we all recognize. In the end, the ones that came out on top were pretty surprising, and quite possibly not what you’d expect.