Red Pepper Jelly Ordeal

Posted by Dani on October 4, 2011

Thrilled to finally have an abundance of chili peppers this year, I decided to plunge into the world of preserving and try my hand at red pepper jelly. How hard could it be?

These words usually lead me down a frustrating and tortuous path, and this time was no exception since I broke some key rules of jelly making. In any case, after several adjustments and lots of google research I finally ended up with a delicious batch of red pepper jelly. Maybe you can learn from my mistakes!

Mistake #1: Picking The Wrong Recipe

I started out with Nigella Lawson’s recipe for chili jam and then found a recipe from Canadian Living for hot pepper jelly with tequila – yum! So I decided to make one large batch based on Nigella’s recipe and add tequila to half. The recipe called for a large quantity of vinegar, which I should have been cautious about since I wasn’t looking for a strong vinegar taste. I used the following quantities to start:

150 g chili peppers (about the number shown in the photo)
150 g red pepper (about ½ a large pepper)
900 g jam sugar (slightly more than 4 cups)
600 ml apple cider vinegar

Jam sugar is a combination of pectin and sugar in the correct ratio, which makes it easy to use. I wasn’t sure it would be easy to find, being a bit of a specialty product, but my local grocery store had a product by Lantic called Jam and Jelly Mix. The package contained 900g, so I used that quantity in the recipe rather than the 1 kg called for by Nigella. This was the first modification I made, despite reading that it is important to follow recipe proportions.

Mistake #2: Not Seeding The Chili Peppers

I also decided to make my life simpler by not seeding the chili peppers so that I could avoid using gloves (lazy!). I was hoping the jelly would not turn out too hot. I used a variety of different chilis, including Thai, Italian, and jalapeno, because that’s what I had available.

After washing them, I covered the jars with water in a pot and let them simmer for 10 minutes to sterilize. Not having a home canner, I used a pasta pot with a nested strainer, which worked fine. I placed the lids in boiling water to soften, washed all my utensils, and then I was ready to go.

I chopped the chili peppers into quarters, taking care not to touch the seeds, and the red peppers into pieces about the same size.

I chopped them up in the food processor, being careful to cover the opening since I could feel the sting of chili vapours in the air.

I dissolved the sugar in the vinegar in a pan over low heat without stirring, then added the pepper mixture and boiled at a rolling boil for 10 minutes.

Mistake #3: Making Up Your Own Recipe

I let the mixture cool in the pan, planning to the divide the batch and add tequila to half. But when a tasted it, I found both the vinegar taste and the heat a little too strong. Why not make another batch without vinegar or chili peppers and combine the two to achieve the perfect taste? Seemed like a great solution, but this is where I started to head down that frustrating and tortuous path.

I decided to make a batch of white grape red pepper jelly – a strange combination, but I thought the mild sweetness of the white grape would temper and balance the strong vinegar flavour. And using a sweet red pepper instead of chili peppers would cut the heat factor in half. Sounded great in theory. I used the following quantities for the second batch of jelly:

½ red pepper
5 cups of white grape juice
5 cups of sugar
1 pouch of liquid pectin

Easy, right? Not really. I learned the hard way that the ingredients in jam and jelly recipes carefully calculated to achieve the proper results, so adding red pepper to a grape jelly recipe was probably not the best idea. And in retrospect another mistake was substituting liquid pectin for the powdered pectin called for in the recipe, because apparently the two are not interchangeable. I made up this batch just like I did the previous one, but added the liquid pectin at the end and boiled for 1 additional minute. Despite breaking some key jelly-making rules, I stayed optimistic as I combined the 2 batches, placed them in the jars, and boiled the jars for 5 minutes.

The following morning, the jars were filled with pretty red liquid. The jelly would not set. Which leads to my next mistake:

Mistake #4: Don’t Combine Different Types of Pectin

After googling “my jelly won’t set” and calling the Certo Pectin Products Hotline (I’m serious, this exists), (link ) I knew I had a problem batch. Certo told me in no uncertain terms that different types of pectin wouldn’t work together and to throw the batch away. Unwilling to toss out my entire crop of chili peppers, I decided to try and save it. By experimenting with small quantities, I determined that some additional pectin could save the batch, which led me to recklessly use a third type of pectin. Powdered pectin was the only type available at the local supermarket, and I decided to go for it. I re-boiled the whole thing with a pouch of powdered pectin and crossed my fingers. Luckily (and against all odds according the nice lady at the Certo help desk), this worked and I had myself a nice batch of red pepper jelly with the perfect balance of sweet, sour and spicy. And my idea of adding about ¼ cup of tequila to half the batch worked well, giving it a nice little kick.

All in all, it was a lot of unnecessary work and frustration, but I did end up with a large batch of delicious red pepper jelly. We’ve been enjoying it with cheese and in sandwiches. But I’ve learned a few lessons, and will definitely take the easier way and follow instructions next time! How about you? Any experience with jams or jellies that you’d like to share?

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