Tomato jam, updated (aka the best ketchup)

It’s almost Memorial Day here in the US, and that means the start of barbecue season. For our crowd, that means burgers. Lots and lots of burgers. And for me, a burger just isn’t a burger without a big splodge of ketchup.

But, after a lot of pretending that everything was fine between me and ketchup, I’ve had to admit defeat. As usual, onion is the culprit. The classic American ketchup (rhymes with “Shmeinz”) contains onion powder, and even such a small amount is apparently enough to rumble my stomach. It’s also sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t an issue for me but causes trouble for some of my friends.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. I first made tomato jam years ago, and loved it, and then more or less forgot about it. When I started bellyaching to Sam about my new ketchup-less life, he suggested that tomato jam might be worth a revisit. And he was right. This stuff is basically ketchup 2.0: thicker, sweeter, spicier, with a more interesting texture and intense tomatoey flavor. It’s the best thing that ever happened to a burger. And it’s lovely on a sandwich, with cheese and crackers, or alongside whatever configuration of eggs and potatoes you like for breakfast.

For this go-around I turned to Food in Jars, which is my favorite online resource for canning and preserving recipes. (Marisa also commented on a blog post here once, so that basically makes us friends.) This recipe is explicitly designed for water-bath canning, meaning you can put up a batch during tomato season and portion it out throughout the year. If processing the jam for shelf storage feels too daunting, though, it’s just fine as a fridge or freezer jam.

tomato jam jars

You can make this jam with any tomatoes you can get your hands on, as long as they’re fresh, ripe, and fragrant. Roma or plum tomatoes are particularly nice, since their meaty flesh holds up well to long simmering. Dice the tomatoes for a chunky jam, or pulse them in the food processor for something a bit smoother. Either way, you’ll end up with bits of tomato skin and seeds in the finished jam, which I think add a nice varied texture and a bit of bitterness to counteract all the sugar.

The basic building blocks of this jam are tomatoes, sugar, and bottled lime juice. Particularly if you’re water-bath canning this jam for shelf storage, it’s important to keep those three elements in proportion as per the recipe. When it comes to the spices, though, this is very much a to-taste situation. I’ve included the quantities that I think taste most ketchup-y, but your mileage will obviously vary. For example, feel free to dial up the smoked paprika and cut back the chile flakes for a gentler and smokier kick.

tomato jam spoon

Tomato Jam (makes about 3 pints)

Adapted slightly from Food in Jars

Note: The exact yield will vary depending on how long you cook the jam and how much liquid was in your tomatoes to start with. I usually sterilize 7 or 8 half-pint jars, just to give myself some wiggle room.

5 lb ripe tomatoes, stemmed (if needed) and diced or pureed

3 1/2 cups (700 g) granulated sugar

1/2 cup (8 tbsp) bottled lime juice

1 tbsp (6 g) kosher salt or coarse sea salt

1 tbsp minced or finely grated fresh ginger, or to taste

1 tbsp dried red chile flakes, or to taste

2 tsp smoked paprika, or to taste

1 tsp ground cinnamon, or to taste

1/2 tsp ground cloves, or to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot (the wider, the better). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the mixture at a steady simmer. Simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and jammy; on my stove, in my canning pot, this takes about 2 hours.

To test whether the jam is done to your liking, put a small plate into the freezer when you start making the jam. To test the set, dribble a bit of jam onto the plate and let it sit for a minute or two; if it firms up to the consistency you want, then it’s ready. If you have an instant-read thermometer, the jam will fully set when it reaches 220º F.

Canning instructions: While the marmalade cooks, sterilize jars, rings, and a canning funnel, and heat lids in simmering water. Funnel the hot jam into the hot jars, leaving about 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe rims with a damp paper towel, and apply lids and rings. Process the jars in boiling water for 20 minutes, then remove from the pot and allow to cool. Sealed jars will keep for up to a year in a cool, dark place. Transfer open or unsealed jars to the fridge and use within 1 month. (If you’re new to canning, there are detailed instructions here.)

Refrigerator/freezer instructions: Let the jam cool for about 5 minutes, then transfer to clean jars, leaving about 1/4 inch of headspace. Let cool completely on the counter, then wipe the rims and close the jars tightly. Store the jam in the refrigerator for up to 1 month, or in the freezer for up to 6 months. Thaw freezer jam overnight in the refrigerator before using; once a jar is opened, refrigerate it and use it within 1 month.

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