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Recipes and Stories

10 August 2015: Pepper Vinegar

In the foreground, traditional Pepper Vinegar (Pickled Peppers), made with cayenne and cider vinegar, in the center, Pepper Vinegar made with Bird Peppers and wine vinegar, and at the back in the stately cruet is Pepper Sherry. Photography by John Carrington from my Savannah Cookbook

Pickled peppers and the vinegar in which they are cured are important fixtures in a Southern kitchen, both in cooking, where they are used as a flavoring in countless vegetable and meat dishes, and at the table, where they are a condiment that accompanies everything from turnip greens to baked chicken. When a recipe calls for pepper vinegar, it means the vinegar from this, and not hot sauce, so don’t substitute the latter for it, but use a few drops of hot sauce diluted in cider or wine vinegar.

In the South, pickled peppers can be found in most markets, either in the pickle or bottled-sauce sections. Elsewhere, they can sometimes be found in West Indian or specialty markets. Or you can make your own; it isn’t difficult.

Pepper Vinegar

This differs from Pepper Sherry (see 10 August 2015: Bird Peppers and Pepper Sherry), in two distinct ways. First the vinegar is of course more pungent and it’s heated, while pepper sherry is a simple cold infusion. The flavors are distinctly different from one another.
Makes 1 Pint

6 ounces whole fresh hot peppers (see note)
About 1 cup cider vinegar

1. Sterilize a pint jar by boiling it in a water bath for 10 minutes. Wash the peppers well and dry them. Making sure that your hands are very clean, pack the peppers in the jar.

2. Bring the vinegar to a boil in a stainless steel or enameled pan over medium heat. While it is still boiling hot, pour it over the peppers until they are completely covered. Seal the jar, let it cool, and store it in a cool, dark place (the fridge is okay) for 2 to 4 weeks before using. Use the peppers within 2 months.

3. For more prolonged storage, process the jar in using the water bath method for 10 minutes. Place the jar on a folded cloth so that it doesn’t touch anything, and let it cool completely. If it doesn’t seal, reprocess it. If it still doesn’t seal, refrigerate it and use it up within 2 months.

Note: You can use any green or red hot peppers. Cayenne, tiny round bird peppers, and jalapeños are the most popular in the South. Each has its own distinct character, and some are much hotter than others, so take this into account when you are adding the peppers to the infusion or the resulting vinegar to a recipe.

Some Southern cooks put their pickled peppers up in condiment bottles so that they are convenient to use at the table. If you like, you can use an old commercial catsup or Worcestershire sauce bottle, but make sure it is thoroughly cleaned and sterilized first. Also, never use a commercial bottle for canning purposes, since they’re not designed for the home canning process.

Recipe and text adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches (2nd Edition, Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved

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