The first time I ate jalapeño poppers, things went very wrong. It was many years ago and I had just gotten my tongue pierced on a whim. When I left the piercing shop, they sent me off with an instructional aftercare sheet on how to treat the fresh piercing. One of the tips was to avoid spicy foods for the first several days.
Fast forward a few short hours, and I was sitting in a restaurant with friends. One of them ordered jalapeño poppers, and a plate of the golden fried snack arrived at the table. I was so hungry, and they looked soooo good, filled with that irresistible melted cheese. How much could it hurt? I asked myself. Just one little popper, that's all I need.
I took a bite, breaking through the crisp crust to that gooey cheese. The heat of the jalalpeño slowly worked its way through my mouth. My piercing began to tingle, then burn. The pain kept growing, unchecked. Within minutes, I was having trouble talking—my tongue had started to swell, and soon was so big that it was being constricted by the piercing barbell itself.
Lish-tehrine, I croaked. Ah need Lishtehrine. I was supposed to rinse with Listerine after each meal to keep things clean, but I hadn't gone to a store to buy it yet. I raced out of the restaurant to the nearest drug store, my tongue throbbing, then dumped half a bottle into my mouth, rinsing and spitting.
Slowly, the pain started to recede, the swelling reversed, and I recovered. There's only one moral of this story: don't eat jalapeño poppers right after having your tongue pierced. It's a really bad idea.
Any other time, though, is a good time for jalapeño poppers, especially Super Bowl Sunday.
To work on my own recipe, I started by looking at some of the highest rated recipes online. I tried one of them, cutting whole jalapeños open with surgical precision, stuffing them with a mixture of cream cheese and shredded cheddar, and coating them in a simple breading, first a dip in milk, then breadcrumbs.
The results were a total disaster: the breading sloughed off in the oil and the cheese boiled out, leaving hollow, greasy jalapeños behind. Here's another moral: Don't always trust highly rated recipes on the internet.
With now two jalapeño popper disasters behind me, I was resolved to make things right. After rounds of testing, I now have a method that won't lead you astray.
The original jalapeño poppers are made with halved jalapeños, each like a little boat that's stuffed with cheese, breaded, and fried. That works well in more industrial settings, where companies have the buying power to get jalapeños of only one specific size. In real life, that's not as easy: Go to any store, and you're likely to find a range of jalapeño sizes, from little ones to huge ones. Just take a look at the variety I got in a single shopping trip.
Since there's no way to guarantee the size of the jalapeños you'll find, I decided not to make a recipe that called for whole or halved jalapeños—it's just too likely that you'll sometimes end up with ones that are awkwardly large.
After trying a few different cuts, I settled on cross sections. By slicing the jalapeños into 1-inch rings, we can control for variations in their size and end up with much more consistent jalapeño pieces. I like this cut too, because it creates truly bite-size poppers—you know, poppers you can actually pop into your mouth.
One word of warning when working with chilies like jalapeños: wear gloves. I sometimes forget, or think it won't be such a big deal, and inevitably rub my eyes hours later, as I did after one of my early tests for this recipe. It hurts...a lot. In fact, I'm adding that to my list of jalapeño-popper disasters that I want to help you avoid.
To make the rings, I start by trimming off the top and bottom ends of each jalapeño.
Then I remove the seeds and white inner ribs. A small melon baller works very well for this.
The original jalapeño popper is made with a cream-cheese filling, and after lots of testing, I've decided that's the best—and most foolproof—way to go. I spent a bit of time trying to work out another cheese filling, and played with cheddar several different ways.
I had high hopes for the gooey cheese filling you see above. I used Kenji's recipe for cheese that you can mold into slices and then re-melt. I was able to successfully pipe the molten cheese into each jalapeño ring, then let it cool until set. But what I found is that a cheddar cheese filling expands and releases steam more than cream cheese when heated, blowing out and flooding into the oil.
You end up with what you see above. (And some seriously fouled-up oil that's desperately in need of filtering if you want to reuse it.) To help you head off yet another disaster (are we up to number four now?), I decided that it's best to avoid this approach.
Cream cheese, meanwhile, melts beautifully all by itself. But pure cream cheese doesn't mean it has to be plain cream cheese. To get more flavor, I mixed in some ground cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, and lime juice. You can be creative here with whatever add-ins and spices appeal to you (smoked paprika and lime would be a fun one).
I fill each ring with my seasoned cream cheese...
...making sure to fill each one completely, pressing out air bubbles and smoothing the surface on both sides (air bubbles can expand and cause the breading to rupture).
Once they're all filled, it's time to get started on the breading process.
Jalapeños are not the easiest vegetables in the world to bread for frying. The culprit is their glossy skins, which repel water, making it hard to develop a good coating. I started by using a standard egg-then-breadcrumb breading, but found that for things this size, you just end up with a little too much breading. I wanted a much thinner coat so that the snack is really all about the jalapeño and the filling.
A milk-based breading it is. But it's not so easy to get it to stick.
Just take a look at how the milk beads on the surface of the jalapeño in the photo above. A lot of recipes I found make the mistake of breading the jalapeño poppers with just a dip in milk followed by breadcrumbs, but it's hard to get a good single coat because liquids fail to stick to the pepper skin.
To solve this, I do a double layer of dredging, first soaking the poppers in milk followed by flour.
I let the floured poppers sit for several minutes, then return them to the milk bath.
Some of the flour will wash off in the milk, but there should be enough to form a pasty coating that won't run off the jalapeño skins too quickly.
Then I drop the poppers into fine breadcrumbs, tossing and pressing to coat. That first coating with flour helps the breadcrumbs stick—and stay on—much better.
The finished poppers should have a nice, solid coating on them that's neither too thick nor too thin.
I drop the poppers into 350°F oil and fry them, turning from time to time, until golden.
Note how these have held together, the breading intact, the cheese still inside.
Paper towels help absorb any excess oil. Be sure to salt them when they're still hot.
Let them cool for a few minutes before serving—you want these to be jalapeño poppers, not jalapeño mouth-burners. Count that as yet one more disaster best avoided.