After I posted my recipe for the Eggplant & Goat Cheese Tart I began to wonder if I had ever written a "basics" post on how to roast and peel peppers. In looking back, I saw that I had not. Since most of my recipes that use roasted peppers are written like the tart recipe (simply calling for "roasted peppers" without an explanation of how to produce them), this is an unfortunate omission. Everyone who enjoys roasted peppers should know how to make them. They are of course widely available in jars. But if you have only tasted the preserved variety, you are missing out. Roasted peppers in jars cannot hold a candle to their fresh counterparts—they are watery and flavorless in comparison. Since we are in the middle of pepper season right now, this seems like a perfect time for this "how-to" post.
Any kind of pepper may be roasted and peeled. Sweet and hot peppers alike benefit from this treatment that softens them, rids them of their (frequently) tough skins and imbues them with a subtle smoky-ness. The actual "roasting" may be done in any number of different ways. The method you choose will depend on your available equipment and your desired result.
If your goal is a meltingly soft pepper (appropriate even for puréeing) you might want to use a hot oven (400° or more). In the ambient heat of the oven the skin doesn't really blister and separate from the flesh, but by the time the flesh is cooked it is an easy thing to pull the tough skin away and discard it. It is not necessary to rotate or turn the pepper as it cooks. It is done when the pepper has collapsed and the skin is wrinkled. For pictures of a pepper cooked in this way, look at the pictures at the bottom of my post on Escalivada.
If you want a pepper that still has a lot texture and has just begun to cook, a direct flame—such as a gas burner on a gas range—is a good choice (simply lay the pepper directly on the grate over the flame turned up to high). This method will quickly char the skin before the flesh has an opportunity to cook through.
A more middle of the road approach—and the one I use the most—is to grill (gas, electric or charcoal) or broil the peppers. This method effectively chars the skin so that it is easily removed and produces tender flesh that still has some texture. If using a grill, place the pepper directly on the grill. If using a broiler, place the pepper in a pan directly under and as close to your heat source as your oven will allow.
When you purchase your peppers, if you know that you will be roasting them keep a couple of things in mind when choosing them. Peppers with thick walls are the best for roasting since there is a high ratio of flesh to skin. Also try to choose peppers with flat sides. Curled and puckered peppers (while just as tasty as flat sided peppers) are difficult to char evenly and will make roasting and peeling a bit more tedious.
To prepare a pepper for roasting, wash and dry it and rub it with a thin film of oil (it should not be dripping or sitting in excess oil).
I always use olive oil, but there is nothing wrong with using some other kind of cooking oil. Place the pepper over or under the heat source. As the pepper chars, turn it using a pair of tongs. Continue until all the surfaces are blackened and blistered.
I would love to be able to tell you how long this will take, but the fact is, the amount of time is dependent upon too many things to be able to estimate how long it will take given your set of conditions. But, because I was curious how long it took using my broiler (I have never paid attention before), I timed the pepper I was roasting for the pictures in this post. I was a bit surprised that the pepper took more than 8 minutes to blister and char on the first side.
After the first side though, each of the four sides took successively less time. It took just under 16 minutes to obtain a totally blackened pepper. However, I would never assume that this is how long it would take using another broiler or grill. My experience cooking in private homes has taught me that few things vary more than the strength and intensity of the heat produced by different broilers, grills and gas stovetops. The best advice I can give is to watch and then to react to what is going on in your oven or on your grill.
Many recipes will tell you that the next step is to put the pepper into a bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap (or into some other type of covered container). This is supposed to encourage the skin to release itself from the flesh. I have never found this to be necessary. Simply set the peppers aside until they are cool enough to handle. The cooking process alone should have been sufficient to separate the skins from the flesh.
Some recipes will tell you to rinse the peppers to rid them of their skins. This makes the peeling and seeding process pretty easy, but easy is not always best and I have to say I'm not a fan of this method. The cooked peppers are loaded with flavorful juices and oils. Placing them in a bowl of water or under a running tap will rinse all of this flavor away. Personally I would prefer a roasted pepper that has a few remaining bits of skin to one that has had all of its flavor rinsed away.
When I peel and seed bell peppers, I always place a sieve in a bowl and work over the bowl so that all of the juices will be strained and collected. Sweet peppers tend to produce a fair amount of juice and it is nice to be able to add this to a sauce, vegetable ragout (like ratatouille) or salad. In my experience chili peppers (poblanos, jalepeños, etc.) don't produce too much liquid—but my experience in this area is limited. In any case, working over a strainer set over a bowl is a good habit.
Remove the skins by rubbing and pulling them away with your fingers. Keep a paper towel or a bowl of water handy for cleaning off your fingers in case you find that bits of skin are sticking to your fingers and then being deposited back on the peppers as you work. Remove as much of the skin from the peppers in this way as you can. Most of the time all of the skin will come off, but sometimes a few stubborn spots will remain. Don't worry too much about this—you can take a fresh stab at it after removing the seeds.
After you have removed as much of the skin as you can, still holding the pepper over the bowl and working from the bottom or the pepper, tear open the pepper. The pepper will most likely separate into three or four sections. (If there is a lot of juice, this is most likely when it will be released.) Tear the sections away from the stem and the core. It works well for me to gently run each section in between two fingers to scrape away any seeds that are attached to the flesh and did not come away with the core. Any skin and seeds that remain at this point can be easily removed by placing each section of pepper flat on a cutting board and gently scraping with the back side of a chef's knife.
The peeled and seeded pepper sections can be placed in the bowl with the reserved liquid and kept covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.
As always when I write a "basics" post, I feel I need to say that when written out in great detail, it sounds much more complicated and difficult than it is. It is actually an easy and relatively fast process (once you know how to do it)—it takes much more time to describe it than it does to do it. So please don't be put off by the lengthy description.
To give you a recipe that will use a roasted pepper, I'm sharing one of my very favorite summer pizza recipes that I have adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. It features the delicious combination of roasted peppers and potatoes. The sweet peppers and bland potatoes are complimented nicely by the salty capers and olives and a rich Fontina. Goat cheese would be nice too, if you happened to have some on hand. Enjoy!
Potato & Roasted Red Pepper Pizza
8 oz. New or small Yukon potatoes, well-scrubbed
3 to 4 t. Olive oil
1 large red bell pepper (about 8 oz.), roasted & peeled and cut into a large dice
1 clove of garlic, finely minced
1 T. chopped fresh thyme
1 T. capers, rinsed
pinch of red pepper flakes
4 to 5 oz. coarsely grated Fontina cheese
15 large black or green olives (1/3 c.), pitted and halved
Pizza dough for one pizza (see below)
Place the potatoes in a small saucepan and cover with salted water. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.
In a medium-sized bowl, combine the peppers, garlic, thyme, capers & pepper flakes. Drizzle with a teaspoon or so of olive oil and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt & pepper—be careful, the olives and capers are salty.
Peel the potatoes and either thinly slice, or crumble coarsely.
Roll out the pizza dough into a 12- to 14-inch round and transfer to a floured baking sheet or pizza pan. Brush the dough round with 2 to 3 t. olive oil. Scatter a third of the cheese over the dough. Scatter the potatoes over the cheese,
followed by the pepper mixture, the olives and the remaining cheese.
If using a pizza pan or baking sheet, place the pizza in the pan on a pre-heated pizza stone in a pre-heated 500° oven. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling, about 12 to 15 minutes. To insure a crisp crust, slide the pizza off of the pan and onto the pizza stone as soon as the crust is set (after 4 or 5 minutes).
If using a peel, slide the pizza directly onto the preheated baking stone. Bake until the crust is golden brown on the bottom and the cheese is bubbling—about 8 to 12 minutes.
When the pizza is done, transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges and serve.
(Recipe adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison)
1/2 cup warm water (100º-110º)
1 1/8 t. (1/2 package) active dry yeast
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 T. olive oil
1/2 t. salt
Combine the water, yeast, and 3/4 cup of the flour in a large bowl. Whisk until smooth. Add the oil, salt and another half cup of the flour. Stir with a wooden spoon to form a soft dough that holds its shape. Sprinkle some of the remaining quarter cup of flour on a smooth surface. Scrape the dough out of the bowl and sprinkle with a bit more flour. Knead the dough, adding just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking, until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed lightly with a finger—about 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise until it has doubled in size—about 1 hour. Punch down the dough. At this point you may use the dough immediately or cover the bowl again with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 12 to 24 hours. Pull the dough out of the refrigerator. to let it warm up a bit, about an hour before baking the pizza.
When ready to make the pizza, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough into a ball. Cover with a towel and let rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The dough is now ready to be shaped, topped and baked.
Variation for a Whole Wheat Crust: Instead of unbleached all-purpose flour, use 3/4 c. bread flour and 1/2 to 3/4 c. whole wheat flour (I prefer the new “white” whole wheat flour).
(Crust adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)