I made hot pepper jelly two years ago, and at that time, I had to buy the jalapenos from the local farm stand because I didn’t have any red ones. You can make hot pepper jelly from green peppers, but the color won’t be as pretty, and the heat will be a bit sharper, not quite as mellow and fruity as when ripe, red peppers are used. This year, I had an abundance of red peppers and none of my previous batch of jelly left, so it made sense to make some more this week with the peppers I’d let ripen.
I used a mix of ripe jalapeno and Serrano peppers. Serranos are just a bit hotter than jalapenos, but I knew from my previous experience that the heat of the peppers mellows into a nice, sustained warmth in the mouth after they’re cooked down with vinegar and sugar. Don’t be afraid of hot pepper jelly if you’ve never tried it before. This recipe isn’t hot. It won’t burn your mouth. I suppose if you used a really hot pepper, like a habanero or the very hot Thai chiles, it might. But, made with jalapenos or Serranos, this doesn’t.
Now, if you do want a hotter jelly for some unfathomable reason (some people just like to torture themselves, I guess!), don’t use more peppers in the recipe. Do use a hotter pepper, like a habanero, or whatever you prefer, and use the same amount as the recipe calls for. This is so you don’t upset the acid balance of the recipe and create something that could be dangerous when the jar is opened.
You can, of course, use commercial pectin to make hot pepper jelly. I’ve seen the recipe for it on the Sure-Jell instructions. (I make a batch of strawberry jam with Sure-Jell for Dennis every spring, because he likes everything sickly sweet.) I don’t make my hot pepper jelly that way, and everybody who’s tried my jelly has liked it because it isn’t too sweet. I’m able to reduce the sugar in the recipe because instead of commercial pectin, I use apple pectin stock that I make each year when I’m processing my apples, and then freeze in 1 cup measures, so I always have it on hand when I want to make a jam that needs more pectin than the fruit contains (like hot pepper jelly, green tomato marmalade, or peach jam). Of course, if you use commercial pectin, you’ll also be using roughly twice the amount of sugar. That’s why I love jams and jellies made with apple pectin stock. The natural pectin in the apples allows for concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit while the jam or jelly cooks down, and while some sugar is needed, it’s generally about half of what you need when commercial pectin is used.
You might think that the longer cooking time would produce an over-cooked tasting jam or jelly, but it doesn’t. Because there is less sugar used with this method, the taste is much fresher, and the flavor of the fruit comes through much stronger. I will never go back to making jam or jelly any other way (except of course for that batch of strawberry jam each year for my husband’s sweet tooth). I’ve linked the recipe for apple pectin stock. Scroll down on that post, past the other apple recipes, to find how to make it. This stuff lasts a long time in the freezer. I’ve had some carry-over from year to year, and I’ve used some that’s been in the freezer for two years. It is perfectly fine, so if you don’t use your stock up in a year, don’t throw it out.
Now, to the recipe!
Hot Pepper Jelly
(makes about 7 half-pints)
8 ounces (by weight) ripe, red hot peppers (Jalapeno, Serrano, or your choice–*see Notes)
2 large red bell peppers, cleaned of seeds, and roughly chopped (about 4 cups—*see Notes)
2 cups cranberries (fresh or frozen) or roughly chopped black, red, or purple plums (*see Notes)
2 large lemons, sliced (peel on, seeds don’t matter)
6 cups of vinegar (white or apple cider, but make sure it’s 5% acidity)
5-6 cups of sugar
2 cups water
3 cups apple pectin stock
Wearing gloves, slice the hot peppers in half and place them in a large (at least 6 quart) non-reactive pot (ceramic coated or stainless steel). If you want a milder jelly, remove the seeds and ribs of the peppers. (I leave them in.) Clean the bell peppers, removing seeds and membranes, and roughly chop (*see Notes). Add to pot. Add the cranberries or chopped plums, and the sliced lemons. Pour in the vinegar and add the water and apple pectin stock. Bring the pot to boiling over high heat. Reduce heat to medium high and continue to boil for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent solid pieces from sticking to the bottom. (Prepare yourself for fumes from the boiling vinegar and capsaicin released from the peppers. The vinegar keeps the capsaicin in check, but it’s pretty potent itself.)
Prepare to drain the liquid off the solids by lining a colander with several layers of cheesecloth or nylon tulle. (I prefer the tulle—smaller holes and easier to maneuver and wash.) Place the lined colander over a large bowl.
When all the peppers have softened, pour the contents of the pot into the lined colander to drain. Stir occasionally to release liquid from solids, but don’t press. You want to keep all the solids out of the liquid so the jelly will be clear. Let the colander drain for about 30 minutes, or until dripping slows or stops. In the meantime, wash out the big pot (there will be a sort of red scum on the sides that you don’t want in your jelly) and get ready to use it again. Now is a good time to prepare your water bath canner and jars, as well. Jars should be sterilized!
Pour off and measure the liquid in the bowl. You should have about 8 cups of liquid. If you don’t have enough liquid, return the solids to a pan, add as much water as you are missing from the 8 cups you should have (if it’s more than a cup, also add additional vinegar, ¼ cup for a cup of water, ½ cup for 2 cups of water), and cook again, on lower heat, for another 15 minutes. Be very careful to keep the solids from sticking and scorching at this point. Strain again, and measure liquid. You want 8 cups of liquid in total before you move on to the next step, which is boiling down your jelly. If you end up with a quarter cup more or less, that’s okay.
Pour the liquid into the clean pot. Add 5 cups of sugar, stir until dissolved, and bring to a boil on high heat. Let the mixture boil for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then taste it. I ended up using 5 2/3 cups of sugar in mine, and I added the additional sugar 1/3 cup at a time, until I got the combination of sweetness and heat I was looking for. Don’t worry if the liquid tastes a bit bitter at this time. That bitterness cooks out as the liquid comes up to the jellying point. Continue to boil and stir the liquid until it reaches the jellying point, between 20-30 minutes, depending on your altitude. (It takes about 40-45 minutes for me, and I live at about 4500 feet.)
You can use a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, which will tell you when the jellying point has been reached at 220 degrees. I have one. I don’t use it. Because of my altitude, I prefer to use the cold plate method. Place a small ceramic or china plate in the freezer when you strain off the liquid. It should chill for about 30 min. before you start using it to test your set. I start testing at about 20-30 minutes cooking time, when I can see that the jelly liquid has reduced by about half. I place about half a teaspoon of the liquid on the cold plate, put it back in the freezer for 1 minute, and then push at the dab with my finger. If the dab wrinkles, the jelly will set. If it doesn’t, it’ll be syrup. I continue to test every five minutes until I get a good wrinkle on the plate. At that point, it’s ready to go in the jars. I pull the jelly off that burner and put it on the front one, on low, to keep it at a very low simmer, just barely a bubble breaking the surface, while I get it in the jars. This is very important, because if you over-cook the jelly, it will become gummy and set too hard. But you want the jelly very, very hot when it goes into the jars. (As you ladle in the jelly, you may notice that as it cools, it starts to string a bit and stick to the sides of the pan. That’s a good sign you’re going to get a good set, but keep the temperature low so that it doesn’t cook any further.)
The jars should have been sterilized in a boiling water bath canner for ten minutes before you pour in the jelly. Ladle the jelly into one jar at a time, cap it with flat and ring, and place it in the boiling water bath canner to stay hot while you fill the rest of the jars. Process the jars in the boiling water bath canner for 5 minutes, adjusting for your altitude (I have to add 5 minutes to all my processing times because of my altitude). Remove the jars after processing and allow to completely cool before removing rings and cleaning jars, if necessary. Always test the seal on the jars before storing. Any jar that doesn’t seal can be stored in the fridge and used first.
*8 ounces is about 16 jalapenos or 20 Serranos. I mixed mine and weighed them so I wouldn’t disturb the acid balance. If you use a hotter pepper, please be sure to weigh them so you aren’t guessing on the acid needed.
*I chopped my red bell peppers in the food processor this time, and then I remembered why I wasn’t supposed to do that. It chops them too finely. You want the pieces larger so that no pulp strains through when you drain it. This is to keep your jelly nice and clear. I used 4 layers of tulle when I strained, so I was okay. Whew!
*Cranberries vs. plums: These fruits are added primarily to naturally color the jelly, which tends to be a bit pale without them. However, they also add pectin from their skins, and I find it helpful to achieve a good set. If I didn’t have any plums or cranberries, I would add another cup of apple pectin stock and reduce the water by a cup, and just enjoy a paler pepper jelly. The original of this recipe, from Liana Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation (I highly recommend this book—it’s taught me so much), says that “a handful of papery red onion skins” can also be used to color the jelly. I have not tried this and don’t think I ever will. While you can’t taste the plums or cranberries (I’ve used both), I like the color they give along with the added pectin. I used frozen cranberries this year and got a beautiful color and good set.
I love this hot pepper jelly on a cracker with cream cheese, on a cracker with bear liver pate, on a cracker with cream cheese and fresh crab (coming, hopefully, in November!). You see the theme? If you’re working on game day finger goods, it’s nice to have a jar of this delicious, spicy jelly on hand. The guys really seem to love it. This jelly is also great on hot, buttered cornbread as an accompaniment to various mild soups, like potato, bean, or a fish chowder—and as a glaze for roast pork loin, it’s killer! Now that I’ve replenished my stock, I’m looking forward to finding new ways to use this wonderful condiment.