Chili sauce

Yesterday was chili sauce-making day for me. I like to have it on hand as much as possible, which means making a batch every year or two. (One “batch” gives me a little over 8 one-pint jars, which will keep for up to two years, if properly canned, though the colour starts to deteriorate after one.) I ran out at the beginning of the summer this year – sadly, as it’s my favourite condiment on grilled hot dogs – but decided to wait until local tomatoes were available to make more.

I’m not sure whether chili sauce is a strictly Canadian condiment, but it certainly is a predominantly Canadian one: every “old-fashioned” Canadian cookbook I have has a recipe, under the name “chili sauce” or “green tomato chow” (a specialty of the Maritimes) or “ketchup aux tomates rouges” (it’s a traditional condiment for tourtière; see also ketchup aux fruits). Many cookbooks indicate its role as a mainstay in Canadian homes: Jehane Benoit calls it a “‘Must’ in my pantry”, and Edna Staebler says “no Waterloo County housewife would be without it.”

The recipes are all nearly identical: tomatoes (red in most cases; green for green tomato chow), onions, cider vinegar, brown sugar, salt and spices. The spices are often ones that are traditionally associated with baking: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, or else just “pickling spice” is called for. Most also have red or green peppers, and celery in the form of stalks or seeds. The biggest divide seems to be over whether or not to include apples. On a certain level, it’s just a chunky ketchup, so it’s a good condiment on anything you would put ketchup on. I especially love it with scrambled eggs.

I’ve never understood why it’s called “chili sauce,” though, since few of the recipes I’ve seen call for chillis (as distinct from sweet peppers), unless they’re in the pickling spice. It’s certainly not even remotely related to “hot sauces,” as it’s a tangy and sweet condiment, not a spicy one. I can only assume it’s a historical name, much as the term “rye” is when used for Canadian whisky.

Chili sauce is also a testament to the wonderful powers of salt: in the recipe I use, the first step is to peel and slice the tomatoes and mince the onions, then mix them all with salt and let the mixture stand overnight. At first, I thought this might be to promote lactic fermentation, but I’ve since decided the real reason is a lot more prosaic: it’s to draw moisture out of the tomatoes, a process called “disgorging.” This reduces the amount of water you have to cook off and, along with the vinegar and sugar, inhibits bacterial growth. A good reminder of why condiments like this are called “preserves.”

Have you ever made chili sauce?

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3 Responses to “Chili sauce”

  1. My Mom made chili sauce, and all of her friends and relatives in S.W. Ontario. None used peppers, or made it hot with chili’s.
    I came to realize that chili sauce and pickles had little nutritional value, but supplied savory carbs to the bleak winter offerings.
    Who else puts chili on hot dogs? I think the Detroit dog fits the bill, but is probably more Mexican chili these days. It’s a great idea, especially since I got a supply of Nathan’s in the freezer.

    Are you ready to share your recipe? I’m wondering whether the liquid runoff off is discarded, or boiled down. And your use of peppers, which was foreign to WASP cooks.

  2. Interesting, James: the recipes I looked at in a variety of cookbooks were mixed on the question of peppers. I’m curious to know why you say they have “little nutritional value”, though. I realize some vitamins would break down with cooking and acidification, but I’m sure some would still stick around. Certainly they do add variety to, as you put it, “bleak winter offerings.” I forgot to mention it in the post, but the recipe I use is in Anita Stewart’s “The Flavours of Canada.” I follow it to the letter.

  3. I have Anita’s book, still packed away from my recent move back to S.W. Ontario.
    I gauge the nutritional value of pickles and sweet tomato-based chili by the labels of commercial products, like Willy’s Chili, because the ingredient lists are similar to Mom’s, and there are no retained vitamins on those labels. However, home processing is superior, and Vit. A and C from tomatoes and peppers should be better with hot water processing.