Jelly used to be the sweet stuff you put on toast in the morning, but in gourmet shops and even supermarkets these days, there are all sorts of savoury-style herbed and flavoured jellies. Perhaps the most popular and versatile is hot pepper jelly. At six to 20 dollars a jar, it’s a tasty treat, but you can make pepper jelly at home for a fraction of the cost. And when you make it yourself, you can adjust the flavour and heat to suit your taste. Make up a batch in pretty four-ounce mason jars and you’ll have a pantryful of tasty jelly to enjoy – and to share as gifts!

The rule of thumb is that for every cup of peppers (ground in the food processor) you will need 1½ cups of vinegar, 6 cups of sugar and 1 pouch of liquid pectin. The ratio of all the ingredients (particularly between the acid, sugar and pectin) must stay the same in order for the jelly to set, but you can customize the flavour and colour of your jelly to your preference. For burn-your-lips-off hot jelly, use a full cup of ground hot peppers. For milder jelly with a hint of heat, use ¾ cup of bell peppers and ¼ cup of hot. You may use red, yellow, green or orange peppers. We were even able to make some purple hot pepper jelly with beautiful little peppers from the Organic Farm in Portugal Cove last fall. Keep in mind the heat of the pepper you choose, too. Habanero and scotch bonnet peppers are extremely hot with a slightly floral nuance. Jalapeños can be very mild and fruity. And the small long red Thai chillies are somewhere in between. It’s a good idea to touch a little slice of the hot pepper to your tongue to gauge the heat. I have been disappointed by jalapeños that have had hardly any heat at all. You want to start out with the right pepper so you achieve the jelly you like. You can use different vinegars, too. For a sweeter, more aromatic jelly, try cider vinegar. Or use red wine vinegar with red peppers to intensify the colour. I would not substitute balsamic vinegar for the entire portion because of the sweetness, but you could certainly replace a few tablespoons of the white vinegar with balsamic; the jelly will be a darker, more opaque colour. You could add a little garlic or herbs that you like while puréeing your peppers for additional flavour. Your imagination is your only limit – and maintaining the sugar-acid-pectin ratio, of course.

You can adjust the heat of hot peppers a little by how you clean them. To reduce the heat, slice them in half lengthwise and with the point of a paring knife or tip of a small spoon, scrape out the ribs, veins and seeds, using only the outer flesh wall of the pepper. It’s a nice way to include the wonderful floral flavour of such peppers as habaneros and scotch bonnets, for example, while reducing the heat a little.

Pepper Jelly
3 medium-sized sweet bell peppers (yields about ¾ cups ground)
4-8 peppers, depending on size (yields about ¼ cup ground)
1½ cups white vinegar
6 cups white sugar
1 tsp salt
170 ml (6-oz) pouch of liquid fruit pectin (such as Certo)

Remove the stem, ribs and seeds from the bell peppers and roughly chop. Remove the stem and roughly chop hot peppers, leaving the seeds in for hotter jelly or removing seeds, ribs and veins for milder jelly, as you wish. Pulse all peppers in a food processor until very finely chopped. Transfer to a large saucepan and add vinegar, sugar and salt and bring to a hard boil. Boil 1 minute, then add liquid fruit pectin (squeeze in entire contents of pouch). Return to a boil and boil another minute. Skim off any foam that forms. Ladle into hot sterilized jars. (Using a canning funnel and a ladle makes this job easy.) Wipe rims of jars with a clean, wet cloth to ensure a good seal. Fit with flat seals and screw on rings finger tight. Process in a water bath (in a large pot of boiling water, covering the jars) for 10 minutes. Using canning tongs, remove and stand upright on counter until they cool completely and you hear the lids “pop” or “ping.” (Don’t stack yet.) You can tell if the jars have sealed properly by pressing down in the middle of the lid. It should be tight and not give to pressure. If any jars don’t seal properly, simply store in the fridge and use soon. Store sealed jars in the pantry. Refrigerate once opened.

Important tips!
• Use freshly sterilized, hot mason jars. Fresh out of a hot dishwasher is great, or place clean jars in a 225°F oven for 10 minutes prior to use.
• You may reuse clean, undamaged canning rings, but the flat seals must be new.
• Place rings and seals in boiled water and keep there until ready to use.
• Process the sealed jars in a water bath for 10 minutes. Then they will be shelf stable (refrigerate after opening). Any large pot can be used for this.
• Wear gloves when handling hot peppers, and be sure not to touch your eyes or face. Wash hands well afterward.
• Canning tongs for lifting hot jars in and out of the waterbath, and a canning funnel for filling the jars are great inexpensive tools to have. They are available at most department stores.

Delicious uses for pepper jelly:
• For delicious snacks or hors d’oeuvres, spread a little cream cheese or soft cheese such as camembert, brie or young goat cheese on a cracker, and top with a little dab of jelly.
• For warm hors d’oeuvres, place squares of puff pastry in muffin cups, add a cube of your choice of cheese and a dab of jelly and bake at 375°F for 10-15 minutes until puffed and golden. Serve!
• Add to a sandwich or burger for a nice sweet spike of flavour.
• Whisk to dissolve a teaspoon (or more) of jelly in vinegar, wine or lemon juice as you begin to make a salad dressing or marinade. The jelly adds a delicious flavour and thicker texture.
• Melt with tomato sauce, ketchup or mustard as a quick sauce for poultry, meatloaf, pork, ham, sausages, etc.