My cooking soul-mate, Jessicat, once made something while I was visiting that totally shocked me in its deliciousness. It is, in my estimation, the perfect jalapeno popper filling, and nothing I create will ever surpass it. So, I have taken it upon myself to humbly forge the rest of the perfect jalapeno popper recipe–the perfect pepper consistency, cheese ratio, breading etc. Together, she and I can overcome any obstacle. You know, as long as it relates to food.
Jump to the recipe, or read on!
The first thing to note for poppers is, when you’re choosing your jalapenos, the size and shape matter. Thin peppers will both be harder to stuff without destroying, and have less room inside them for cream cheese (and let’s be serious, that is the most important part of the popper). Don’t get huge peppers expecting to be able to cut them to size, either–that doesn’t work. So, look for shorter, wider peppers. Interestingly, the agriculture program at New Mexico State University recently bred a variety of jalapenos SPECIFICALLY FOR POPPERS. They are perfectly fat, mildly spicy, and not available at my grocery store apparently because they are jerks.
The second thing to note is that the breading will cook much faster than the pepper itself, which is why most homemade poppers arrive on your plate with the pepper almost raw and fairly firm. Practically speaking, this means you bite in, the breading crumbles off, and molten cheese shoots all over your face. To avoid this scenario, you have to do something to soften the peppers before using them. I have two separate methods for this–one quick, one slow.
Freezing the peppers.
Normal freezers are actually kind of slow at their job, and this is an instance where that works in your favor. Vegetables–particularly ones that are fairly watery like peppers–get soft when you freeze them in a conventional freezer. When water freezes slowly (so at higher temperatures) the ice crystals that form are bigger and sharper than those created during a rapid freezing process. Paired with the fact that plant cell walls (unlike animal cells walls) are rigid, the cells resist the crystals instead of accommodating them and are ultimately punctured for their insolence. Once a plant cell has been punctured, it’s less structurally sound and loses some of the rigidity that contributed to the overall firmness/crispness of the vegetable. Peppers frozen in a conventional freezer are softened, but not completely turned mushy, because they have more resilient cell walls (and less water) than some other vegetables and so hold up better post-defrost.
Boiling the peppers. Carefully and briefly.
This is the most obvious and quick solution, which is why I initially tried it. But, it comes with a caveat in the form of a cautionary tale about me macing myself four different ways.
To be fair, I was used to getting frustratingly mild jalapenos in the Northwest, which is why I was caught off guard when I tried this. I do accept full responsibility for not wising up after macing number one, though: if your hands, eyes, and lungs burn from cutting the peppers, boiling them should probably be done with the utmost caution. Maybe a gas mask. Otherwise, you will mace yourself a second time when you take the lid off the boiling peppers to check on them and are flooded with capsaicin-laced steam. Then, if you are being virtuous and bake those same peppers, you might open the oven door and mace yourself a third time with more capsaicin steam, because why would you have learned at this point? Irritated and alone, you will then go to clean your cutting board, and your wiping motions will kick up the capsaicin left from cutting the peppers, and you will be maced again. You know, in this entirely hypothetical scenario.
So, before you start boiling the peppers, I would just like to remind you to be careful. And wash your hands a lot before touching things. Nobody likes spicy genitals.
Once your peppers are cut and cleaned (remove the seeds and white membranes), boil them for 3-5 minutes, drop them in cold water, and you’re ready to go.
As for which way to cut your peppers, there are a lot of different theories. The best method will depend on whether or not you have a pastry bag with a firm tip. If you do, any slicing method will probably work well. If you don’t, avoid styles 2 and 3 from the picture. You’re trying to balance optimal fullness and cleanedness with not having the damn things fall apart or cook out their filling. I prefer the La Forge method (pepper 4 in the drawing), and using a butter knife to pack it. The Canoe method should generally be reserved for baked poppers.
And now, THE RECIPE. FINALLY.
This is an imprecise filling, but should give you an idea so that you can fiddle with it yourself. For the record, it is delicious on everything, not just peppers, so don’t worry about leftovers. How many peppers this fills depends on their size, but let’s say 6-8.
- ~ half a tub Tofutti cream cheese (not Trader Joe’s kind)
- a green onion, white and green parts, minced very tiny
- a garlic, crushed
- a small amount of faux-chicken bouillon (not broth)
- a small amount of smoked sweet paprika (probably no more than 1/16 tsp)
- salt to taste
- fake cheese, if you want
Have the mixture room temperature when filling, and then refrigerate/freeze the peppers until cool before cooking: warm cheese is easier to get into the pepper, cold cheese will take longer to get out during cooking. This prevents cheese from oozing into your hot oil and splattering all over you, which I’m pretty sure is how Two Face happened.
To bread you’ll need a liquid and some floury stuff. There are a lot of options for the liquid (milk + cornstarch, flax, egg replacer, or nothing), but my favorite is a little egg replacer in milk (maybe 1 tbsp egg replacer to 2 c unsweetened, unflavored milk).
Like every other step in this interminable post, there are a lot of theories about how best to bread poppers. The general consensus, though, is that if you’re having trouble getting it to stick, let the poppers rest/dry in between breadings.
Considerable experimentation has led me to believe that this is the best (albeit most time consuming) approach:
Score/scrape/peel some of the pepper’s skin, dunk in wet, dredge in salt/pepper flour, rest, then wet, breading, rest, wet, breading. Letting it rest discourages the liquid from getting goopy, too, because less flour gets mixed in.
The breading itself should be:
- 1 c flour
- 1 c breadcrumbs
- 1/4 tsp salt and pepper
Throw in a little garlic powder, onion powder, and nooch if you’re feeling fancy.
If you fry them, which is worth it, 370 F/ 185 C oil is the consensus on heat. If you don’t have a food thermometer, ball up a little breading and liquid and drop it in your heated oil. If it bubbles a bunch and pops back up to the surface within a few seconds, you’re good. If it doesn’t, wait. If the oil isn’t hot enough, it will soak into the breading and make it fall off.
If you stuck your peppers in the fridge like I recommended, they’re going to cool the oil down faster just by being in it, which means you should cook fewer at a time (I’d say no more than two or three).
If you bake them, go for around 400 F / 205 C, and do everything possible arrange their seams up. Otherwise, the filling will melt out and you will be left with a disappointing mess, especially since you just maced yourself repeatedly with the peppers.
Alright, that’s it. Now, stand on the shoulders of giants and make these poppers.