I hadn’t heard of mushroom ketchup before visiting Colonial Williamsburg. It isn’t at all like tomato ketchup, which didn’t exist in the 18th century. Many people in England and North America still believed then that tomatoes were poisonous, and tomato ketchup wasn’t common until the mid-19th century. Until then, ketchups were prepared from mushrooms, walnuts, anchovies, or shellfish. (The word ketchup is thought to come from the Chinese ke-tsiap, or pickled fish sauce.)
Mushroom ketchup is made by chopping up mushrooms, seasoning them with salt, and letting the mixture sit overnight and macerate. Spices and vinegar are then added and the mixture is cooked. The liquid squeezed from this concoction is thinner and stronger in taste than modern-day ketchup — more like Worcestershire sauce, a fermented anchovy sauce dating to the 1830s that is essentially another early form of ketchup.
In colonial times, mushroom ketchup was used on roast meats and poultry as well as in pies and sauces. I tried a bottle of commercially made mushroom ketchup and it was decent, but I wanted to make my own. I was thrilled to find a youtube video on mushroom-ketchup preparation (what can’t you find on youtube?) by Jas. Townsend & Son, a purveyor of 18th- and 19th-century-style wares and clothing for re-enactors.
Even if you don’t make this ketchup, the video is fun to watch — part of Townsend & Son’s 18th-century cooking series, it’s an actual reenactment prepared over an open fire (you even get instructions for keeping “critters” out of the ketchup). And making this yourself is pretty fun, too, and worth the trouble. It tastes great with beef, lamb, cooked greens, and dishes like polenta. But if I do it again, I’ll be less frugal and use some exotic mushrooms in addition to baby bellas, for a more complex flavor.
Adapted from recipe by Jas. Townsend & Son
2 pounds fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons kosher or sea salt
2 bay leaves
1 large onion, chopped
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon grated horseradish
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1. Wipe the mushrooms clean and chop them or break them into small pieces. Combine the mushrooms, salt, and bay leaves in a large non-metallic bowl. Mash for a few minutes with a big spoon or masher. Cover and let sit overnight. (I mashed it a few more times during the night for good measure.) The mushroom mixture will reduce in size considerably.
2. Transfer the mixture to a Dutch oven or other big cooking pot and stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to low, and simmer the mixture for about 30 minutes, stirring often. The longer you cook it, the more concentrated the flavor will be.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the mixture to cool, then place it in a large piece of muslin-type cloth or a double layer of cheesecloth, and squeeze the cloth over a bowl to remove as much liquid as possible. (I put a sieve under the cheesecloth, just in case.)
4. When you’re done squeezing, you should have about 2 cups of liquid — your ketchup! Store it in a glass bottle with a cork or other stopper. According to the above video, the ketchup can be kept at room temperature for at least several weeks, because of its high salt content, but I’m keeping mine in the refrigerator. (Basically the longer you’ve cooked it, the safer your ketchup will be.)
5. Don’t throw out the wrung-out mushroom bits! Spread them on a baking sheet and dry thoroughly in a 200°F oven. This may take up to several hours, depending on how much liquid you managed to squeeze out. The mixture can be ground into a powder and used for seasoning or left as is and added to soups and other dishes.
If you’d like to make a thicker mushroom ketchup, the Chubby Vegetarian blog has a delicious-looking recipe using porcini salt and champagne vinegar. Or if mashing and squeezing mushrooms just doesn’t appeal to you, you can buy the commercial sauce, George Watkins Mushroom Ketchup, online at Williamsburg Marketplace or Amazon.