People have been making pepper jellies for a long time. Some claim they’re Southern in origin, with roots in Texas and an official Pepper Jelly Festival in Alabama. They vary widely in color (from green to golden to red), spiciness (from sweet to jalapeno to habanero), and texture (from smooth jelly to marmalade-like spreads flecked with pepper pieces). But to ensure they store well on the shelf and in the fridge, all contain a lot of vinegar and sugar.
Although many recipes focus on the heat of chilies, I prefer a sweet bell pepper base with just a bit of heat mixed in. Many pepper jelly recipes also use commercial pectin and distilled vinegar, both of which are neutral in flavor. I prefer the depth added by fruit pectins and vinegars, so as with other savory spreads, I turn to tart apples to help the jelly set. Fresh lemon adds even more flavor and pectin.
Sweet Pepper Jelly
5 red chilies
6 pounds underripe or tart apples
1 large lemon
1-1/2 ounces gingerroot
1/4 cup or more papery red onion skins
4-1/2 cups water
2-1/2 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
2 cups white wine vinegar (5% acidity)
4-1/2 cups granulated sugar
Coarsely chop the peppers and fruit, retaining the peels, cores, and seeds, and add them into a wide, 8-quart or larger pot; chop the ginger, and add it and the onion skins to the pot. Pour in the water and vinegar. Bring the mixture to a boil over heat, lower to medium-high, and cover the pot loosely. Let the mixture cook for about 30 minutes, or until the apples have broken down and the peels have separated from the pulp. Stir occasionally to prevent burning.
Set a fine-mesh colander, or one lined with cheesecloth, over a large bowl, and pour the hot mixture into it; let the juice drain for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally but not pressing down on the pulp. Set the colander on a plate and measure out 6 cups of juice. If you come up short, return the colander to the bowl, stir in some hot water, and let the solids drain until you have the desired amount of liquid.
Clean the pot; pour in the juice and sugar. Boil over high heat, stirring often, until the jelly is 8°F above the boiling point of water at your altitude and sets when tested; this will take about 20 minutes.
Tips & Tricks
- Sweet pepper jelly can taste one-dimensional if you don’t add some heat. A few chilies and the bite of ginger popular in chutneys (see below) balance nicely without overwhelming the bell pepper flavor.
- If you want more heat in the jar, it’s safer to use peppers with a higher Scoville heat unit than to increase the volume of peppers in the mix.
- Many pepper “jelly” recipes keep all of the pulp, producing something closer to jam or fruit butter, and some even squeeze the pulp for maximum liquid. Strain gently if you want a jewel-bright jelly, or even a marmalade with a few suspended pieces of pepper.
- If you come up with more than 6 cups of juice, you can still process all of it. For every additional 1/4 cup of juice, add 3 tablespoons of sugar and prepare enough additional 4-ounce or half-pint jars.
- Getting jellies up to full heat on the final boil is key to ensuring they set up properly, particularly when you’re relying on fresh fruit for pectin instead of a commercially packaged form. It only has to stay at a hard boil (past the stage at which it simply produces bubbles to the point at which they can’t be stirred down and produce foam) for a minute, but it will take time to get it there. If your jelly doesn’t set, it will still taste delicious as a glaze or sauce.
- Like all savory spreads, pepper jelly is delicious layered with a spreadable cheese on bread—I prefer sourdough, of course. But it also works well as a glaze for everything from shrimp to tofu. Or you can mix it with fresh fruit for a salsa to layer in Grilled Fish Tacos.
Twice as Tasty
Although I love Indian food, I tend to skip many of the little sides and pickles and chutneys when making it at home for just two people. But I’ve found that many home-canning authors are using preserved chutneys for a wider variety of meals, with recipes that use more vinegar and less sugar. These suit my palate so well that I began testing all sorts of chutney recipes.
Although people may thing of mango and other tropical flavors as traditional bases for chutney, these fruits won’t grow in my garden. The folks at Serious Eats argue that preserved chutneys are more British than Indian, so I feel no qualms about relying on the fruits I do grow, like green tomatoes, apples, and plums. My first plum chutney, made with golden plums and lavender collected from a friend’s garden, was so delicious I decided I needed a recipe for the dense Italian prune-plums that grow where I garden.
Italian Plum–Apple Chutney
1 pound apples
6 ounces onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped gingerroot
2 cloves garlic, minced or thinly sliced
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried chili
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1-1/4 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Split the plums in half, remove the pits, and chop the flesh. Peel and core the apples, and then chop. Peel and then finely chop the onion, ginger, and garlic. Add all these ingredients to a wide, 8-quart or larger pot. Stir in the sugar, salt, chili, mustard seeds, and vinegar. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce the heat and boil gently, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and the mixture is thick enough to mound on a spoon. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and mint.
Tips & Tricks
- Chutney is more forgiving than Sweet Pepper Jelly: You cook it down over time to get it to thicken and “set” instead of relying on the pectin, acid, and heat to make juice more solid than liquid.
- If you bite into an oblong, purple Italian prune-plum, sometimes called a blue plum, you’ll instantly notice it isn’t as juicy as a round red, golden, or purple plum. This is part of why I love it in chutney: the mouthfeel is more like a jam, with flecks of skin replacing the texture of dried raisins and other dried fruits often added to chutneys. If you have different plums, go ahead and use them but be prepared to cook them longer.
- Chutneys taste tart and sweet, thanks to the vinegar and sugar balance. This makes them quite versatile, acting as a stand-in for cranberry sauce, veg or meat glaze, sandwich spread, cheese plate condiment, and of course Indian meals.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- Although you can get away with a plate test or guessing when a soft-set jam has gelled, you’ll have the most consistent result with jellies if you take their temperature. My dial thermometer is great for cheese making but tops out at 220°F, so I rely on my digital one for making jellies.
- Hot-cooking spreads like jellies and long-cooking ones like chutneys can be messy. You need to stir them often, but a splatter shield can help contain the bursting bubbles if you step away for a moment. This one lives in my kitchen.
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