Top 5 Condiments You Should Make at Home

Why would you ever pay Kraft to do this for you?
Why would you ever pay Kraft to do this for you?
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

My wife is a recovering ketchup junkie. When we first got married, she would break my heart every night around 6 p.m. As soon as dinner hit the table, it was doused in ketchup. Wild mushroom risotto? Ketchup. Red beans and rice? Ketchup. Meatloaf with a ketchup glaze? Actually, she ate that with applesauce. Weird.

She's gotten better about it over the years, although it's arguable that Sriracha has ousted ketchup from its throne. One thing we've always been able to agree on, ketchup-wise, is the futility of the "house-made" or, God forbid, "artisan" stuff. For better or for worse, there really is no improving on ketchup. Heinz has that one tied down tighter than if Archie Bell were a dominatrix.

So if ketchup is out, how do we decide which condiments deserve a home-spun reboot? To me, there are only a few reasons to bother making your own condiments. None of which applies to ketchup:

  • You can make it better than you can buy it;
  • It's difficult to find premade;
  • It's ridiculously simple to make;
  • With ingredients you probably have on hand;
  • In less time than it would take you to get it from the store.

Okay, so those last three are really one; I was getting sick of futzing around with formatting.

At any rate, in the list below are my top picks for condiments (perhaps a bit loosely defined) you should make at home:

5. Vadouvan I suppose, technically, you could call this a spice. Depending on how you make and use it, though, it easily falls into condiment territory. I first encountered vadouvan at a pop-up dinner from Oxheart chef Justin Yu where a cucumber was roasted in the curry-like blend of spices and alliums. I've used mine in a sort of pan-cultural spin on Yu's roasted cucurbit, mixed with the Korean dish nasu dengaku, eggplant broiled with a miso glaze. I mixed a bunch of my homemade vadouvan into the glaze, allowing the dusky and earthy flavors to add further depth to the sweet and savory topping. I've never seen my kids eat zucchini that fast.

Though vadouvan is not particularly difficult to prepare, it is time-consuming. This is an instance in which items one and two from the list above apply. Real, quality vadouvan can be a bit difficult to find in stores, and nothing beats a freshly made batch. Plus, making it at home gives you the option to keep it coarse or grind it to a fine paste, as well as control over the moisture content of the finished product. Set aside a weekend, buy all the onions and shallots you can find, and make vadouvan. I'm doing it regularly these days, if only to stave off the inevitable fever dreams that accompanied the vadouvan withdrawal I suffered after that first taste. Chefs are pushers, I swear.

4. Yuzu Kosho This is another example of reasons one and two. I first started hearing about kosho a few years back, at around the same time I started noticing mention of vadouvan on cooking blogs like Ideas in Food and Studio Kitchen. I had no idea what it was. I've still only just begun experimenting with the stuff, and I'm already hooked. Basically, it's a combination of chiles and citrus zest, cured in salt. It's intensely aromatic, bitterly pungent and prickly with chile heat. It is far more than the sum of its parts, and it only gets better with time. When I made my first batch, the first day found it pleasant but unbalanced. After a few days in the fridge, it sparked and popped like fireworks, and I found myself eating it on, and in, everything. It's absolutely insane as a topping for grilled fish, and works wonders when tossed into a bunch of simply steamed vegetables.

I've never seen kosho in the store, but I've never really looked too hard for it. I'd be a bit surprised if it isn't available at one of Houston's many Asian markets. I have had a premade version of it, once, a gift from a kindhearted Houston chef (more on that later), and can testify that it can't hold a candle to the fresh stuff. In jarred form, it's like an overly aggressive yet somehow muted ghost of itself, focusing on salt and garlic for its punch, and not something I can see using as a straight topping. It's not bad, it's just different. If you're going to try kosho, do it right from the start. 

3. Mayonnaise This one's great, as it meets all of the requirements for homemade condiments. Flavorwise, real mayonnaise vs. the jarred stuff is like the difference between carob and chocolate. You can kind of see what people are thinking when they substitute one for the other, but nobody is really able to fool themselves into thinking that the substitution is acceptable. Unless, of course, they haven't had real mayonnaise. Which many people haven't. Which is why you should make it.

Aside from the vast flavor differences, and the fact that you can't get real-deal mayonnaise in the store, mayonnaise is both simple and magical. Three ingredients (four if you count salt), three minutes (less if you use an immersion blender) and amazing results. If you want to get fancy, add finely chopped herbs and garlic for aioli. Make it today. Hell, make it right now. Slather it on your sandwiches (scrambled egg being a favorite of mine), spoon it over grilled fish, eat it out of a bowl with steamed vegetables.

2. Whipped Cream This entry almost got booted by compound butter (soften butter, fold in flavoring -- try vadouvan -- mold into a cylinder using plastic wrap, refrigerate, slice to use), but won out for the sheer ridiculousness of Cool Whip. For starters, non-dairy whipped topping (and its nominal-dairy ilk) is disgusting. It's a textural nightmare, tastes like plastic and is overly sweet. I don't usually get so serious about food (not intended as a joke), but I actually take slight offense at a tub of Cool Whip accompanying the pies on a Thanksgiving buffet. It's just such a sad and careless food product.

The kicker is that actual whipped cream, and its pedantically sweet sister chantilly cream, are ridiculously easy to make. Put cream in a bowl. Beat it. Not too long, or you'll have butter. Which inadvertently reminds me of another positive of real whipped cream: if you screw it up, you get butter! Don't screw it up, and you have one of the best simple pleasures on the planet. True whipped cream is light and fragrant, with a subtle and pleasing sweetness even before you add sugar. It is worlds away from the tub stuff, and amazingly delicious. Sweetened, maybe with a bit of bourbon whipped in, it turns perfectly ripe fruit into a decadent dessert, while still managing to seem somewhat wholesome.

1. Salad Dressing If you regularly buy bottled salad dressing, you're dead to me. Do you have oil? Of course you do. Vinegar (or pretty much any other acidic liquid)? Come on, now. Put them in a mason jar in a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, screw the lid on and shake the crap out of it. Make your kids do it for you. It's fun. Throw in a pinch of salt and pepper, a handful of herbs, maybe a minced shallot. Sometimes, I make mine in a tall pitcher, using an immersion blender. I throw in huge handfuls of herbs, no need to chop, and buzz the whole thing up in a minute flat. I've recently made both kosho and vadouvan vinaigrette, and they were amazing. I can't remember the last time I bought salad dressing, but it's been awhile. I think you'll find the same is true for you.

What are your favorite condiments to make at home?

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