Whether it’s lace curtains, water aerobics, or Alan Alda’s best dramatic performance, chances are I’d have something to chat with your grandma about. That includes pepper jelly—an antebellum classic, enjoyed by pearl-wearing grand old dames at country clubs. Draped over cream cheese and slathered on water crackers, great pepper jelly is punchy-hot (not slap-you-in-the-face hot) and devilishly sweet. My pepper jelly, I decided, would be ruby red—the same color as the most famous shoes ever, if you need a visual.
The basic procedure is as follows: chop red peppers and habaneros (red, red, red!), break them down further using the food processor, boil with white vinegar and enough sugar to make Willy Wonka swoon, add pectin, and simmer to the right temperature.
While the vinegar, sugar, and pepper amounts were easy enough to suss out, there was one ingredient I had some trouble with: the pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance in many fruits that acts as a gelling agent. For jellies and jams in which low-pectin fruit or veggies are used, another solution has to come into play—be it a second, higher-pectin ingredient (green apple or citrus peel are common) or commercial pectin (which can be purchased at most supermarkets or online). A bit of research into the various kinds of pectin made me think it was right up there with daylight savings time and the electoral college—things good for the general public that can lead to serious confusion when over-analyzed. The recipe I was working with (appropriately enough, a recipe from my grandmother) called for liquid pectin, so that’s where I started. It took several tests to determine that I was using too much of the stuff—my jelly was way too stiff. (Um, yeah, it sounds obvious now.) Cutting the pectin in half gave me jelly that set perfectly every time and was precisely the consistency I was after.
First things first: Roughly chop the peppers. I like to start with the red bells so I can feel accomplished, before moving on to the smaller habaneros. Lay the bells on their sides and lop off the tops; then pull out the stems and seeds and discard them.
Next, slice down the side of each pepper and open it up like a book (pressing down on the opened-up pepper helps to flatten it), and then pull out the white ribs. Then you can cut it into long strips; after turning the strips so they’re perpendicular, cut them into smaller pieces.
Very important: Before moving onto the habaneros, put on latex gloves. The seeds and ribs of the habaneros release oils that burn, so it’s a very bad idea to prep these without gloves on. I reach for my gloves and snap them on like I’m on ER. Prepping the habanero peppers is the same as the bells: lop off the top, open up the pepper, remove the stem, seeds, and ribs, and roughly chop the remaining pepper.
Now load all the chopped peppers into the food processor and pulse about 12 times until the peppers are broken down into tiny pieces and have released their juice. I do this instead of finely chopping the peppers by hand because (a) it saves time, (b) the food processor is way more effective than I am, and (c) it helps pull the liquid from the pepper pieces (and that liquid needs to be drained off before cooking, anyway). When done pulsing, the pieces are about this small, and there’s a liquidy, shredded-pepper mixture at the bottom of the work bowl.
Get out a large bowl and set a bar towel or cheesecloth over it. Dump the entire contents of the food processor into the towel, then gather up the corners of the towel into a neat little bundle.
Now squeeze the bundle with all your life (several times). This is to drain all the liquid from the peppers. It’s important to do this over a sink because it looks like a bloody mess (think Halloween 12: The Reaping of the Peppers).
Very carefully, dump the contents of the towel into a large Dutch oven. Then wash your hands with warm, soapy water to rinse away the oils from the peppers. (Or latex gloves can be worn for the bundle-squeezing step.)
Next, add the vinegar and sugar to the pot, stir well, and bring the pot to a boil. The point here is to dissolve all the sugar and to begin the breakdown of the peppers.
After the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is boiling hard, stir in 3 ounces of liquid pectin, making sure it’s evenly distributed throughout the pot. Keep the heat to high or medium-high and the contents at a very hard boil—and a very close eye on the pot because it can very easily and quickly boil over.
Here’s a close-up. This is one sticky messy to clean up, so it’s imperative it doesn’t boil over. But the mixture does need to stay at a hard boil, so here’s my advice when you get to this step: stay focused, stop texting, and mind your stovetop. Keep close tabs on the rising temperature of the peppers. When you hit 221 degrees (after about 10 or 15 minutes), you’re golden—turn off the heat and let the peppers sit for a minute or two in the pot.
Very carefully, ladle the jelly into clean jars. I usually start by holding the jars, but once they’re halfway full, I have to put them down because the jars are way too hot to hold. The jelly won’t quite look like jelly yet, but it won’t be as watery/liquidy as when you started. And little bits might gel up on the ladle or around the insides of the pot.
Before screwing on all the lids, wipe the rim and sides of the jars so they’re not sticky. Pop on all the lids and secure them tightly. At this point, the jars are too hot to move to the fridge—they’d give off so much heat that the other foodstuffs would start to warm up—so let them cool off a bit (maybe 30 to 45 minutes) before refrigerating.
To ensure that the pepper pieces are evenly distributed throughout the jelly, turn the jars upside down. When the jelly has set up in the fridge (which may take a few hours), the jars can be turned back right-side up. Note: This jelly needs to be stored in the fridge, and it’ll keep for up to a month. It can be served over cream cheese with crackers, on bagels, or with cornbread. It can also be used to marinate chicken or pork.