Most packaged foods pale in comparison to their homemade brethren. Hellmann’s mayonnaise (Best Foods left of the Rockies) will do in a pinch, but homemade mayo usually tastes better. Ketchup, though—Heinz ketchup—is irreplaceable.

“Heinz ketchup is synonymous with what ketchup is,” says Randy Garutti, the chief operating officer of Shake Shack, which has locations in Manhattan and Miami.

For many chefs of the artisan-food movement, ketchup is the hiccup in their DIY repertoire. Bobby Hellen, the executive chef at Resto in Manhattan, talks of butchering whole animals for his meats, but when it comes to ketchup, he reaches for Heinz. “We try to stay away from the high-fructose corn syrups, but it’s hard to give up the ketchup,” says Hellen.

And that’s the problem: thanks to a hefty dose of salt and high-fructose corn syrup, Heinz tastes so good that chefs can’t put the stuff down. “When it comes down to what’s American, it’s not necessarily the hamburger or the french fry; it’s eating them with ketchup,” says Eric Bromberg of the Blue Ribbon restaurants.

In 17th-century China, ke-tsiap, a spicy, pickled, fish-soy sauce was popular. Zak Pelaccio, chef and owner of New York’s Fatty Crab, says that in Southeast Asia, the phrase kecap manis means a sweet soy sauce sometimes seasoned with dried shrimp. British and Dutch seamen brought these fish sauces back from their overseas posts, and the sauces morphed into milder forms. In the late 18th century, New England canners added tomatoes to the mix of spices, sugar, and vinegar.

Henry J. Heinz started making ketchup in 1876. He and his company transformed it from a thin, watery, salty sauce to a thick, sweet, and sour one. Aside from using the evil high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar, the biggest change they’ve made is that “all of the tomatoes are now grown in the Central Valley of California, and are made into a paste not far from the farms,” says Jessica Jackson, a spokesperson for Heinz. That, and the fact that they now sell both an organic and a nonorganic ketchup made with sugar that’s lighter in color and not as thick or, in our opinion, as well balanced as the HFCS version we’ve all come to know and love.

Last year Heinz reported selling 650 million bottles of ketchup across more than 140 countries, with annual sales of more than $1.5 billion. Heinz clearly dominates the market, but what is it about the product’s taste that’s so appealing? “It’s bold, savory, sweet, pleasingly thick, and mixes nicely with meat juices, pickles, and cheese,” says Howard Kalachnikoff, a sous-chef at Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan. “And it sticks to french fries.”

What is perplexing, though, is how Heinz creates that unattainable taste and mouthfeel. “Perhaps there is a scientific process—one we probably don’t want to know about—that creates that perfect texture,” says Blue Ribbon’s Bromberg. When he and his brother first started out, they dabbled with homemade ketchups. “We tried and tried, and it’s pretty tough to replicate,” says Bromberg. You need perfectly ripe tomatoes and time to slowly simmer the ingredients into a thick sauce—the 760 milligrams of sodium in each 1/4-cup serving of Heinz doesn’t hurt either. (Homemade ketchups might contain 50 to 100 milligrams per 1/4-cup serving.)

When Peter Hoffman put a burger on the menu at Savoy in New York, he knew he’d serve it with house-made ketchup. It took time for guests to adjust to his version. “For a while people would ask if we had any ‘real’ ketchup,” says Hoffman. “My response was always, ‘You mean Heinz, because this is ‘real’ ketchup.” Most of his customers slowly caught on. Nowadays, “People do ask, but not that often,” he says.

Hoffman still keeps a bottle in the back though: Malcolm Gladwell, who authored a New Yorker piece about the supremacy of Heinz, requests the stuff regularly.

Maria Hines, the chef and owner of Tilth in Seattle, believes that ketchup, like the one she serves with her mini duck burgers, tastes better homemade. “I think whenever you make something from scratch it’s better than what you get from a mass-produced product,” explains Hines. She claims that her ketchup recipe, which calls for tomatoes at their season’s peak, matches Heinz in taste and texture. “There is a lot of natural pectin in tomatoes that requires slowly cooking it down,” she says.

Savoy’s Hoffman finds it ironic that great chefs who make everything else from scratch would serve sodium-laden ketchup from a bottle. “Good cooking takes time and effort. If you want to buy good products, you have to go find the farmers,” he says. “Is it cheaper to buy Heinz than make your own? Of course it is. If we’re here to buy the cheapest food, great! But that’s not why I cook.”

True. But we’re also here to eat the most delicious food. And until homemade ketchup tastes as good as Heinz, we’ll stick with the lowbrow, mass-produced stuff.

If you’re still intent on making your own ketchup, check out this CHOW Tip and recipe from Adrienne Capps, who blogs at Capps’s ketchup is good, but it’s not Heinz.

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