Make your own condiments

Our trusty taste adventurer says you really can create condiments on your own.

Ketchup and mustard — staples in most pantries and table icons in casual dining venues — are America’s choice condiments. Reaching for the ubiquitous red or yellow bottles at mealtime is an almost unconscious action. Standards of the commonplace, we rarely even think about them: ketchup goes on our burgers and fries; mustard goes on hot dogs or ham and Swiss on rye.

Perhaps we have become too used to the standard, the usual red and yellow? Step away from the ordinary by making your own condiments. The results easily can exceed anything you squirt out of a store-bought bottle or squeeze from a foil packet.

Ketchup (or catsup) has historical antecedents in the Chinese ke-tsiap, a pickled fish sauce. The word, and the condiment, made its way to Malaysia where it became “kechap” and “ketjap” in Indonesia. English sailors in the 17th century discovered the Chinese condiment and brought it west, where it was first mentioned in print around 1690.

The original Asian potation, a concoction of pickled fish and spices, was more like a soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce — very thin, sharp, dark, and unsweetened. Some versions may have been brewed from tomato juice, but many were based on mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies, or oysters. A more familiar, tomato-based version did not appear until about a century later. 

By 1801, an American ketchup recipe called for tomatoes — even though many people considered tomatoes poisonous — seasoned with mace, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper.

Mustard’s history is equally extensive. 

A member of the Brassica family of plants, its name comes from a contraction of the Latin “mustum ardens” meaning “burning must,” a reference to the spicy heat and the French practice of mixing ground mustard seeds with “must,” the young, unfermented juice of wine grapes.

Of the 40 species of mustard plants, seeds from three species are used to make mustard. White mustard originated in the Mediterranean and is the antecedent of the bright yellow hot dog mustard. Brown mustard, the Chinese restaurant mustard, is the base for most European and American mustards and comes from the Himalayas. Black mustard, the hottest variety, originated in the Middle East and Asia Minor.

Prepared mustard dates back to the early Romans, and was popular in Europe before the Asian spice trade. The Romans took the mustard seed to Gaul, where it was planted in vineyards along with the grapes. French monasteries cultivated and sold mustard as early as the ninth century, and in the 1770s, Maurice Grey and Antoine Poupon introduced the world to Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.

Making mustard can be as simple as grinding the seeds and adding water. Grinding or crushing the seeds and exposing them to a liquid creates a reaction that results in the spicy hot taste. Using cold liquids results in a hotter taste, and adding vinegar or another acid preserves the spiciness.

Basic Tomato Ketchup

5 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

2 medium onions, sliced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1/4 cup packed brown or turbinado sugar

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1 2-inch stick of cinnamon

3/4 teaspoons coarsely crushed allspice

3/4 teaspoons coarsely crushed whole cloves

3/4teaspoons ground mace

3/4 teaspoons celery seeds

1/2 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic, peeled

Combine tomatoes, onions, and red bell pepper in a large non-reactive pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until very soft. Puree through the medium blade of a food mill or process in a blender until pureed, then return to the pot. 

Stir in brown sugar, dry mustard, and apple cider vinegar. Tie remaining ingredients in a moist square of cloth or place in a small cotton bag and add to the tomato mixture.

Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, then reduce to a simmer. Continue to cook, stirring often, until the sauce is reduced by half, or to the desired thickness. (I sometimes use an immersion blender to smooth out the texture as the sauce cooks.)

Remove and discard the spice bag. Add kosher salt and ground red pepper (optional) to taste. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Basic Mustard

2 tablespoons whole brown or black mustard seeds 

1/4 cup ground mustard seeds 

1/4 cup cold water

4 teaspoons apple cider or white wine vinegar

3/4 tablespoons salt

Grind the seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle until they are lightly crushed. Combine the slightly crushed seeds, mustard powder, and salt in a small bowl. Stir to mix the dry ingredients, then mix in the wet ingredients. 

The mustard will thicken as the seeds and powder absorb the liquids. Cover and store at room temperature for 2 days before using; freshly made mustard has a harsh, bitter taste that will mellow as the mustard ages. After aging, mustard will keep in the refrigerator for at least 4 months.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit or email questions and comments to

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