The Tangy Condiment You Should Use To Caramelize Chicken

If you haven't tried caramelizing chicken yet, you're missing out on the delicious contrast that happens between a savory piece of meat and a rich, sweet glaze. Case in point: Korean fried chicken. With a coating made from a blend of soy sauce, honey, and sesame oil (plus some gochujang for a tasty kick), the delectable caramelization on crispy chicken skin immediately elevates a classic dish. 

In fact, various Asian cuisines use sugary sauces to transform otherwise ordinary plates. Vietnam's nước màu, for example, is an all-around caramel sauce made with just white sugar and water that's used to add an appetizing depth to braised meat and heighten its color. In Thai cuisine, chili, vinegar, sugar, fish sauce, and soy sauce are mixed and then reduced into a chili caramel sauce, perfect both as a glaze and a dip for chicken wings. 

The good news is, you probably already have the classic condiment in your pantry that will caramelize chicken perfectly: store-bought ketchup. Made with little else other than tomatoes, sugar, salt, and vinegar, ketchup caramelizes well due to the natural sugars in tomatoes, and the combined acidity of the fruit and vinegar balances the resulting sweetness. When reduced in a pan with some oil, aromatics, and spices, it takes on a more syrupy consistency so it can cover and sticks to the meat better. Simply stir it for a few minutes on medium-high heat, letting it bubble and turn darker. 

The sauce works great on other meats, too

Another thing that makes ketchup a great base for a caramel sauce is the amount of glutamates that can be found in tomatoes. Glutamates are naturally occurring amino acids that produce the fifth taste known as umami. This feature will enhance the chicken's meaty flavor, resulting in a balanced play on flavors. 

Aside from fried chicken, use your ketchup-based caramel sauce as a baste for grilled, baked, or classic roast chicken. You can also braise chicken in it, similar to the Vietnamese dish ga kho. Or, make it richer and more complex by mixing ketchup with soy, fish, or oyster sauce as well as honey and rice vinegar. Add some gochujang or go with a spicy ketchup variant if you want the sauce to have some heat to it, too (grated ginger is also good for adding an aromatic warmth).

There's another type of ketchup you can use to make caramel sauce. Banana ketchup is a condiment that's used to upgrade pork dishes in the Philippines and braise meat for Filipino adobo. It's sweeter than the tomato-based variant so you'll get a more honeyed glaze in your sauce, but it's still tangy enough from the vinegar so the sweetness is tempered. While it's not as packed with umami notes, banana ketchup can be mixed with soy sauce and seasoned with other umami-rich spices like garlic and onion powder. It's also a good substitute if you're allergic to tomatoes or are cooking for someone who is.