These days, my fridge and pantry stay stocked with powerful flavor weapons. Jars and bottles of condiments and ingredients that I can grab in a hurry (or when I’m a little inebriated) to quickly add to a sauce, stew, or braised meat situation that will immediately enhance flavor. Anchovies, capers, MSG, olives, miso, dijon mustard, soy sauce, vinegars (many vinegars), chili crisp, pepperoncini—loading up on these things is what being an adult cook is all about. That is, it’s important to have the foresight to buy things that you might not need immediately, but which will benefit your cooking down the road. And when it comes to stocking up on flavor bombs, there’s another one that I know about, that Italian-American chefs know about, that you should know about too: hot cherry peppers.
What are hot cherry peppers?
Hot cherry peppers (or “cherry bombs”) are simply cherry peppers pickled in vinegar. I usually buy this Cento brand, and you’ll find them in most Italian delis or grocers in Italian neighborhoods.
It should be vehemently stated that hot cherry peppers are not pimentos. Pimentos are sweeter and have more of a curved heart shape to them, while hot cherry peppers are spicy and spherical. They come in many varieties, but for the most part you’re getting something in the 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville range, so pretty comparable to a jalapeño. When pickled, they’re spicy, tangy, and slightly sweet. In short, they’re big on flavor.
You’ve definitely seen hot cherry peppers on an antipasto platter or at an Italian deli, usually stuffed with prosciutto or Parmesan and submerged in oil. Cherry pepper poppers are a legendary appetizer, something whose intensely fatty, vinegary, spicy taste I find myself craving often.
While I can’t speak for traditional Italian cooking, I do know that hot cherry peppers are paramount to Italian-American cooking. I personally became indoctrinated growing up eating them with crispy chicken thighs in a dish called Chiff Choff, but I haven’t really seen them used much outside of the aforementioned traditional preparations. One thing I’ve observed, though, is that hot cherry peppers seem to hold a similar place in the hearts of Italian-American chefs and food personalities everywhere.
The chefs who love to use hot cherry peppers
If you want to see the old-school appeal of hot cherry peppers demonstrated fully, search “hot cherry peppers” on YouTube and the first video to pop up is from this beautiful man, Chef Pasquale. For those who don’t know, Pasquale is very old, has over 600,000 subscribers, and his catchphrase is, “Oh yeah, baby!”
In this pork chop video, he basically sautés onion, garlic, and hot cherry peppers in olive oil and the brine from the peppers, then uses the mixture to place on top of seared pork chops. It’s simple, traditional, not all that exciting, but the cherry peppers are the outlier in an otherwise basic entree. They add spicy, tangy umami to a dish that can often taste bland.
More search results for hot cherry peppers yield the same phenomenon: old Italian-Americans cooking pork chops or chicken with hot cherry peppers. You can tell it’s a beloved condiment, a way to spruce up a weeknight dinner for those with an affinity to Italian ingredients and cooking methods.
Then there’s this Food Network video released a month ago, where chef Anne Burrell makes a simple hash with potatoes, onion, corned beef, eggs, and hot cherry peppers. “I love these things,” she says about the peppers. “I get cravings for them. Every time I even think about this, my mouth waters.”
Here, the hot cherry peppers replace bell peppers in corned beef hash. This video is purely a chef glowing up a basic breakfast dish they grew up on, as Burrell talks about how hash brings her back to her upstate New York roots. You can sense in her voice that she’s got a real adoration for this pickled ingredient, and if you’ve eaten hash a billion times like Burrell has, the peppers a great way to shake things up.
My only complaint about all of this so far is that hash and pork chops aren’t exactly haute cuisine, and it seems to be a lot of chefs and food personalities on the traditional side of the culinary world making use of this beloved ingredient. Hot cherry peppers are ready to bust out and have a moment; they could be used with much more diversity than what’s currently being presented. But, it’s going to take some younger chefs to bring that moment about, like Stephen Cusato of Not Another Cooking Show fame.
In Cusato’s kitchen, the hot cherry pepper is used in a chicken cacciatore. The recipe calls for multiple flavor bombs, including mushrooms, capers, Calabrian chiles, and Jeff’s Garden hot cherry peppers. Cusato describes this dish as having “maximum flavor,” and since he doesn’t like olives, he admits “these are my weapons of choice.” He uses some of the juice from the jar of cherry peppers (like Pasquale), which infuses some wonderful acidity into the chicken cacciatore.
The cherry peppers are also put to use in Cusato’s 7 minute spicy steak. It’s clear he absolutely craves the stuff, and I get it. When you cook and eat a lot, your palate gets brutalized over the years. It needs strong, bold flavors. Hot cherry peppers fit the bill.
Aside from the many, many videos online helmed by older Italian men cooking pork chops, Cusato is really the only young chef I see cooking with hot cherry peppers and making them seem appealing to a younger audience. It’s a serious oversight, as these peppers are relatively unknown but would absolutely be a hit with Gen Z, a generation that seems to crave spicier, tangier food.
I’ve been using jars of cherry peppers for adobo, chicken, steak, and pasta for years, and I’d love to see more popular chefs include them on their menus. Taste them and you’ll agree that they’re overdue for a renaissance.