Ketchup Truths

I first read about fermenting in the book Nourishing TraditionsLater I read more in Wild Fermentation. I found the lactofermented ketchup recipe and thought what a brilliant idea. Who doesn’t want a healthy alternative to ketchup if you have kids or like burgers and meatloaf? So, that was one of the first “ferments” I attempted.

I followed the recipe from Nourishing Traditions precisely. It came out so-so. It tasted rather flat with no depth. Part of the problem was that I made it in a mason jar (read why I don’t recommend mason jars for most ferments in my book, Lisa’s Counter Culture: Pickles and Other Well-Bred Foods). I played with the spices and left out the whey and though it was good enough to serve the family. So, I patted myself on the back for making ketchup from scratch.

I was excited to try other fermentation recipes relying on what I thought was the wisdom of the two books I mentioned earlier. In the meantime I was becoming hooked on the possibilities of fermenting and I was determined to perfect these potentially healing and healthful foods so that I could feed my family and teach others.

It turns out that many of the techniques and ingredients were incorrect from these two books. I know this is going to upset some of you and if you find what you are doing works for you than continue on. I am not trying to point fingers or start a fight with you. BUT if you find that your gut is not happy with your ferments and your body’s response to your fermented food is negative or perhaps is not providing the results you were looking for, then please consider the rest of this article.

Fast forward a few years. I discovered that most ferments need to be prepared in an ANAEROBIC environment where no air can get in during the process of fermentation.  Air kills off the good bacteria and yeasts we are trying to cultivate.  There are serious problems with mason jars and open crocks.   No matter how tightly you twist the lid of a mason jar air seeps in. There are a few exceptions of ferments that do need air or are AEROBIC: kombucha, vinegar and natto.

Deep breath…it was time to find a proper vessel for fermentation.  Thank goodness for the Internet.  It was through hours of searching that I discovered a brilliant system: the Probiotic Jar.  After one or two great ferments, my mason jars went into ferment retirement.  Then, I began the process of adjusting my old recipes and trying new ones.

Among the many new tricks I was learning was that using vinegar, whey or even a previous brine in an attempt to kick start a new ferment, were also incorrect. Whey is a dairy culture, which is not useful or necessary for vegetable ferments. These three additions (whey, vinegar and/or previous brine) actually interfere with the natural stages that lactic-acid bacteria (LABs) need to reach the correct pH and nutrient development as well as the breakdown of anti-nutrients. The LABs at the of end of a ferment are not the same critters and pH than the ones that develop in the beginning stages.

Sigh…another adjustment.

Is nothing sacred? Even my choice of salt needed a bit of tweaking. The moist Celtic sea salt that is so highly revered in much of the current fermenting culture (no pun intended) is not the ideal choice since it can harbor mold. Another consideration is that our oceans are no longer pristine and the toxins that are harbored can impact the sea salt. So I changed to a pure unrefined dry Himalayan salt.

This journey to discover the joy and science of fermenting has been challenging and one that I sometimes resisted. I thought I knew it all.  But I didn’t, and I still don’t. And I am still learning more and more.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to find nerdy detailed science-based books and articles with the correct information to geek out with.

Finally I settled in to organize all this information into some sort of handbook/cookbook. I was checking each recipe carefully to be sure that it reflected the most current information and science that I knew to be accurate.  Then I got to the chapter with ketchup.

Sigh… something was amiss… I had replaced the vinegar with lemon juice, replaced the salt and adjusted to the correct salinity, deleted the whey, but still something was missing… mantra that “ferments are LIVING foods” haunted me.

I pondered this.  A crucial ingredient was tomato paste, which is cooked, not alive. I asked my fermenting cohorts. I searched the Internet. No traditional ketchup was fermented from cooked paste. Finally I realized and accepted what I already intuitively knew was right – you cannot ferment a dead food. Ferments are LIVING foods.

What I had been making was certainly an improvement over store-bought ketchup but it is not a true lactoferment. There is not enough live substrate for lactic acid bacteria to establish in the correct ratio to thrive and dominate the ketchup.

So, there you have it. Practically any recipe you have seen for cultured ketchup is incorrect in my opinion.

Don’t despair. If you are really bent on making lactofermented ketchup, it is possible. It does require a bit more effort.

You need to dehydrate the tomatoes at a temperature low enough to preserve the enzymes and bacteria needed for LAB fermentation. Next step is to make a paste and follow the recipe for spices, salt, duration, etc. that I detail in my book.

Please don’t shoot the messenger.

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