Although I work hard at preserving our harvest, chances are you won’t find much canning on my shelves. That’s because anything that requires sugar for preservation is on our “Do Not Eat” list. However, I do make one small exception. Because charming red crab apples are still hanging on their branches months after all the other fruit has fallen, I cannot resist making a batch or two of glistening crab apple and hot pepper jelly for festive winter occasions like a birthday high tea or appetizers on Christmas Eve.
Luscious hot pepper jelly is simple to make and my method is inexpensive, which pleases me when I look at the price of a jar at a gourmet market. The hot peppers come from Jim’s prolific pepper patch with a myriad of varieties to mix and match. The pectin is provided by foraged crab apples, abundant at this time of year and going to waste if I don’t rescue at least some of them.
Since this jelly does not use commercial pectin, the instructions are more of a template than an exact formula. It’s easy to make, but it does take time – the joy of the craft.
How to Make Crab Apple Hot Pepper Jelly
- crab apples
- hot peppers
- apple cider vinegar
- organic sugar
Gather about a quart and a half of crab apples from a clean source, not close to a road or where pesticides might have been sprayed. Collect your hot peppers – eight to ten based on your preference for heat. Many people use jalapeños but ours aren’t plentiful, so I use Hot Hungarian peppers, and one or two Sugar Rush Peach hot peppers for added zing.
Prepare and cook the fruit
Wash the crab apples and cut them in half. There is no need to core them, but I generally wipe off the spent blossoms and remove most of the stems. I have also made this jelly successfully without cutting the apples so the choice is yours.
Fill a large stainless steel stock pot with the cut crab apples until two-thirds full. Add enough filtered water to come to about an inch and a half below the top layer of apples. Use slightly less water if your pot is very full of crab apples or slightly more water if your pot is only a third full. In any case, the water should be lower than the top layer of apples. Like I said, it’s not an exact science. Turn the burner to high.
Meanwhile, slice the hot peppers and add them to the pot. You can include the seeds to make the jelly hotter.
When the water begins to boil, reduce the heat a little to keep the pot from boiling over, and cook for thirty minutes, more or less, stirring often to prevent the mixture from burning. Depending on the maturity of the apples, you may need to adjust the cooking time. Remember that you are trying to extract pectin so the cooked apples should be nowhere near as hard as when you first put them in the pot. I like to shut off the heat after the cooking period and let the mixture sit for another hour until I think they are soft enough.
Put a stainless steel colander in a large, heat-proof bowl (or another giant pot if you have one) on a trivet in the sink. Cut some cheesecloth, wet it, squeeze out the excess water, then use it to line the colander. Pour the crab apple mixture into the colander and leave it to drain into the bowl overnight. Don’t give in to the temptation to poke or squeeze it; that will make your juice cloudy.
Use the juice to make the jelly
Next morning, sterilize 8-ounce canning jars. As a guideline, prepare one jar for every cup of juice. You probably won’t use them all, but it’s better to have more than you need. Sterilize the lids separately. Drain and set them on a heatproof board to dry.
Discard the fruit pulp and measure the juice. In your large stainless steel pot, use this ratio:
- for every 2 cups of crab apple and hot pepper juice
- add 5/8 cup of apple cider vinegar
- and 1¼ cups of organic cane sugar
You can add a finely minced hot pepper, including the seeds but not the pith, after the first five minutes of cooking. This is mainly an aesthetic choice. I like the look of the jelly with a little added texture. Jim prefers his smooth.
Bring the liquid and sugar to a brisk boil, then turn the heat down slightly but keep it boiling for about fifteen minutes. Watch it carefully and stir often with a wooden spoon. Stir down the foam as it forms. After fifteen minutes you can start trying your gel test. I found that I cooked my first batch too long waiting for sheeting to happen. Turkish delight, anyone? My jelly was actually ready when testing yielded two drops. An easier method to test the gel is to put a pot lid in your fridge freezer. When you think the jelly might be ready, drop a spoonful onto the cold lid and put it back in the freezer for ten seconds. Test the gel by poking it. If it wrinkles or otherwise seems to be the right consistency, take the pot off the heat.
When the jelly is ready, pour it into your jars. Using a metal canning funnel helps keep the rims of the jars clean. Screw on the two-piece lids until finger tight. Put them on back on the board to set. As they cool, you’ll hear the satisfying pop that tells you your jars are sealing.
I store my jars of jelly in the fridge since I only make a small batch every year. I don’t expect it to last past New Year’s Day.