Growing up near Pittsburgh, you’re led to believe that Hunt’s ketchup is blasphemous. Choosing it over hometown Heinz is a good way to alienate yourself in the Steel City—that’s because Heinz isn’t just synonymous with Western Pennsylvania, it’s synonymous with the very concept of ketchup nationwide.
Hell, for a few decades the name of Pittsburgh’s football stadium was Heinz Field. The Steelers even had a wide receiver named Heinz Ward. Heinz is Pittsburgh, full stop.
But I recently tasted Hunt’s, and—Western Pennsylvanian roots be damned—I’m a Bible thumping, door-to-door Hunt’s guy now.
We’re all pretty much told from birth that Heinz is the superior ketchup, no matter what it’s being measured against. But is it? Can one processed ketchup be that much better than its competitor?
For the past year, I had a job professionally tasting food for the good folks over at Sporked, and one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that there are incredible nuances to processed, packaged food products that I’m not sure everybody is aware of. When I told a friend that I was doing a ketchup tasting earlier this year, he said, “Doesn’t all ketchup taste the same?”
A year ago, I would have said the same thing. But, now I say: Excuse me, sir, it most definitely does not. After tasting a dozen ketchups side by side, I kept going back to Hunt’s. Here’s why.
Processed ketchup is less about tomato flavor and more about sugar and vinegar. Heinz has a wonderful balance of both sugar and vinegar: It’s delightfully smooth, tangy, and even kind of buttery. Put a little Heinz on your finger (stay with me) and it does this thing where it forms stiff peaks almost like a fresh whipped cream. That texture matches the flavor; there’s something about Heinz that feels like dessert, and its most notable quality is its sweetness.
Tomato, though listed as the first ingredient in both Heinz and Hunt’s, is purely in the background of most processed ketchups. And quite frankly, that’s where it should be. I don’t want to get started about homemade ketchup, but in short, you can cram it (and your $19 burger) up your ass.
Hunt’s, by comparison, has more mouth-smacking acidity and less sweetness. It is Heinz’s bright and outgoing sibling (or evil, murderous twin, depending on how you feel about Heinz). There is a splendid piquancy to Hunt’s, a sharpness that keeps my battle-tested palate coming back.
Compare the two ketchups in terms of sugar: Per each one-tablespoon serving, Heinz has 4 grams of total sugars and 4 grams of added sugars. Hunt’s, by contrast, has 3 grams of sugar per tablespoon. So, the flavor of Hunt’s isn’t only due to more vinegar, but also less sweetener.
Both products also feature the same amount of sodium. The difference in the ketchups isn’t the quality of tomatoes (both use tomato concentrate), or even the vinegar and spices. It purely comes down to the sugar content. Heinz also uses a combination of high fructose corn syrup and regular corn syrup, whereas Hunt’s simply lists high fructose corn syrup.
Even Heinz’s Simply Tomato Ketchup, which replaces corn syrup with cane sugar, suspiciously features the same 4 grams of sugar. Regardless, after taste testing several different ketchups, the prominent attribute of Heinz is its cloying, consistent sweetness.
About that sweetness: I’m not into it. When I taste Heinz, my palate simply craves something more. That’s in part due to getting older and having a change of preferred taste. Hunt’s, by contrast, has an aggressiveness to it that I adore. It shines bright, perks me up, and makes my eyes wide. Twelve-year-old Danny living in Pennsylvania wouldn’t want it; as a kid, something so tart is a tough sell. Sweet, saccharine flavors are sought after when you’re a child in America. The older I get, though, the more my sweet tooth wanes, and today I’m more attracted to an assertive ketchup.
When it comes to great French fry condiments, something peppery or acidic is key—sweetness just doesn’t do all that much to lift the flavor of the humble fry. Dipping fries in a Wendy’s Frosty is a bizarre tradition I’ll never fully understand. Hunt’s has the required tanginess needed to cut through not just French fries, but other fatty, savory foods too. (I won’t mention hot dogs, but know that I’m thinking about hot dogs here as well.)
Because Hunt’s has such brightness to it, I now find myself using it to make burger sauce. What better way to tame the tang than by mixing it with big, fatty gobs of mayonnaise? Side note: Though I’m a Hellmann’s guy through and through, I have been finding wonderful success combining Hunt’s and Blue Plate mayonnaise for burger sauce—they both have such a lovely amount of zip. For those reasons, Hunt’s plays off of ground beef impeccably. Heck, it’s only a dash of Worcestershire and pepper away from being a steak sauce. Ketchup on steak? Absolutely not. But... maybe Hunt’s?
Maybe my palate has just been brutalized over the years, rendering Heinz too familiar now, too boring. I also live in Los Angeles, a place where acid and brightness are integral to pretty much all styles of cooking. I mean, I recently ate chimichurri too many days in a row and could feel it eroding the enamel on my teeth. I crave Filipino food for its acidity. I want coconut vinegar, fresh limes, and ceviche because I grew up never eating spicy, bright foods. A preference for Hunt’s isn’t so much about Heinz being awful, it’s about our tastes evolving beyond the simple and sweet.
I have long heard that Hunt’s is inferior to Heinz, that it’s some off-brand, low-rent version of ketchup, but that’s a lie. I don’t know that I can confidently say whether or not I think Hunt’s is a better product than the iconic Heinz. At the end of the day, they’re both processed ketchup. But Hunt’s slander is misplaced, and there’s an argument that, for those who crave pungency, it’s the best ketchup one can buy.