Spicy Harissa Pickled Carrots

This is my favorite time of the year.  Some people look forward to snatching those last rays of warm summer sunshine and lazing around on a beach or dock. I prefer to hulk over a boiling vat of water, sweating and flitting from one cutting board to another, canning the ripest, juiciest, freshest summer fruits and vegetables that I can find.  A few weeks ago I entered into what I affectionately call my annual “extravaCANza”, and the 61 jars of pickles, chutneys, jams and poached fruits which are now stocking the pantry will keep me sated and happy for months to come.  It may seem ludicrous to hunker in front of a steaming pot in August, but I say that it is well worth the effort when you bite into a sweet, plump, juicy preserved peach on a cold February day and taste that little bit of summer.

Oh yes, and it’s not like I didn’t have help with the canning. There was at least one other member of this household who was eager to participate, invited or otherwise.

I’ll share a few of this year’s recipes with you, including lavender and honey poached peaches, a small batch of fig and rose jam and  blackberry balsamic vinegar. But first, I have to tell you about these carrots.  I love pickled carrots (well, frankly I love pickled anything), but these are something else.  These are something special.

We had a couple of friends over last Tuesday and, with nothing prepared, I scavenged through the kitchen to put on a paltry spread of warm spinach and artichoke dip (liberated from the freezer), fresh salsa (also part of extravaCANza), and an assortment of homemade pickles, including these spicy harissa carrots.  Our friend James, who is always game to try something new (bless his heart) took a small nibble and paused.  He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed slowly, and said, “So…I don’t know how to say this.”

uh oh.

“You said that these were pickled carrots?”

….Yes? Or should I say no? Crikey, I can’t say no.  What, am I going to pretend that they’re woody orange cucumbers or something? Might as well just go with it. You can’t please ’em all.

“It’s just that….well, I really like pickles, most pickles, in fact.  But, well, I’ve never had a pickled carrot before. So I don’t really know how to say this.  But…”


“….I think that this is the best pickled THING that I have ever eaten.”


“No, really. I’m not trying to blow smoke here or anything –“

although the carrots are spicy enough that he probably could have…..

” — but these are really, really…..they’re just REALLY good.”

Aw, shucks.  Over the last two weeks we have already eaten our way (with a little bit of help) through three jars of these crunchy beauties, and I dare say that I’ll have to make another batch before the summer is over.

Now then, if at this point you’re still scratching your head and wondering what the heck “harissa” is, I suppose we should start there.  I sometimes toss steamed carrots with a bit of olive oil and harissa (the inspiration for these gems), and each time Mike says, “So tell me again…what exactly is ‘harissa’?”  At which point I roll my eyes and mutter something about chili sauce. For you, however, since I haven’t explained it before:  Harissa is a Middle Eastern condiment made with a base of hot red chili peppers, garlic, a variety of key spices like cumin and caraway, occasionally some sugar and often a fair bit of salt for preservation.  Harissa can be dolloped as-is beside grilled meats or chicken, used in marinades or swirled into sauces and soups. If you haven’t had crispy skinned harissa grilled chicken, well, you haven’t lived.

Harissa is usually easy enough to find jarred or canned from a Middle Eastern grocery store, but for this recipe I recommend that you make your own. It really takes very little effort and you can control the amount of flavor from each element – chili, garlic and spices.  I have bought several brands of harissa before in the past (they’re nice to have on hand for convenience), but none of them had the earthy, spicy flavor of homemade.  In fact, more often than not, they either taste “hot” or “salty hot”.  You know that you can do better than that. 

Spicy Harissa Pickled Carrots

Makes 4-5 pints

  • 4 lb fresh, crunchy carrots
  • 10 – 20 dried chili peppers
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 1 tbsp coriander seed
  • 1 tbsp cumin seed
  • 2 tsp caraway seed
  • 6 cups pickling vinegar (5%)
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • 1.5 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup canning salt

Notes on the ingredients:  Rather than making you scroll through star (*) after star (*), why don’t I just lay it all out there?  Your carrots have to be fresh. I mean crunchy, recently unearthed, fresh and seasonal carrots.  An old carrot which is a bit bendy will be soft and have the texture of a mattress pad when it is processed.  As for the chili peppers, some like it hot and that’s the group that I fall into.  Ergo, 20 dried cayenne peppers it was!  If you want a bit of spice but like moderation, 10 cayenne peppers would be fine.  If you’re going to use another dried chili with less heat, adjust the number accordingly. I wouldn’t recommend using 10 small fiery dried Thai birds eye peppers instead of 20 cayenne, even though the heat might be equivalent, because your jars just wouldn’t look as pretty without little red scraps floating to and fro in the brine.  As for the brine, I used Heinz white pickling vinegar which has a 5% acetic acid measure.  If you’re using a more acidic pickling vinegar then decrease the amount just slightly and sub in water to tone down the sourness.  Filtered water and canning salt are preferred for a clean, clear product.  If you use iodized or kosher salt then the brine may be cloudy or unpleasant. Make sure that your canning jars and clean and sterilized with fresh lids and ring molds before you begin.

Call me paranoid, but I’m fairly certain that my local farmer’s market gets some of the produce from a sunny Southern US state and just dusts it with dirt so that it looks more authentic. These carrots, however, were sold to me by a local gal who had the fingernails to match, so I trust their authenticity.

Pour boiling water over the dried chilis in a shallow bowl and set them aside to rehydrate for 20-30 minutes. Again, the 20 cayenne that I used will make a pickle that is hot-hot-hot!  If you’re not a fan of the heat you can scale it back as you see fit.

Toast the spices in a dry skillet over medium high heat until they are popping, fragrant and just starting to brown (about 1-2 minutes).

Drain the water off the chili peppers and shake them dry.  Pluck off the stem ends but leave the seeds intact.  Peel the garlic and chop the cloves into several smaller pieces to help things along.  Using a small food processor, pulse together the chili peppers, garlic and toasted spices until they are combined but still a little bit chunky.

Peel the carrots and cut them into batons of roughly the same size, each about 1/3″ square by 4″ long.  In terms of length, they should be tall enough to come up to 3/4″ from the top of your canning jars.

Heat the vinegar, water, sugar and salt in a fairly large pot over medium heat until it is simmering and the salt/sugar are dissolved. Keep this mixture simmering as you get ready to pack the jars.

Layer about a tablespoon of harissa in the bottom of each clean and sterilized jar.  Pack the carrots in densely until your jars are evenly filled and then divide the remaining harissa over top.

Pour the vinegar brine over your carrots until it comes to 1/2″ away from the top of the jar.  Wipe the lip clean with a towel and seal with a fresh cap and ring mold.

Heat process the jars for 10 minutes. If you are a novice to canning, “heat processing” requires that you take a canner (or very, very large pot) with a canning rack on the bottom, fill it with water and bring it to a boil.  Nestle your sealed jars on the rack, being sure that they are covered with 1-2″ of boiling water.  You “process” them by boiling the jars for the specified time; in this case, 10 minutes.

Carefully remove the jars from the canner when ready and set them aside to cool.  After a few minutes you should hear that glorious characteristic “pop” that means your jars are vacuum sealed and ready to go on the shelf.  Do give the lids a final quick tighten before you do because sometimes they loosen during the boil.

Try  not to eat them all at once.  The first bite is garlicky, tangy but slightly sweet and earthy with spice. The aftertaste, however, is a fiery punch in the gums to remind you that these ain’t your grandma’s pickled carrots.  By the third or fourth carrot that you chow down on, which is inevitable after the first taste, you will be hooked.  Trust me.  Or rather, trust James because he knows a good pickle when he sees one.

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Terry Watson

    You know, I have to tell you, I really enjoy this blog and the insight from everyone who participates. I find it the recipe ideas to be refreshing and very informative as well as often delicious. Anyway, I felt it was about time I posted considering that I’m a long time reader and huge fan. Your apple and beet salad is one that I make all the time and I also eally enjoyed the braised short ribs and rutabaga puff. I am certain that after I make these on the weekend they will be my next go-to condiment to brighten up a tired pickle tray.

  • Alice

    Those look really good!

    Why do you use dried peppers though? Would fresh ones not be just as good (and then you’d skip the rehydration step)?

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Alice,
      So I read your question and thought about it, and thought about it. Then I thought about it some more. My first instinct was to scratch my head and think, “Why DO I use dried? Am I just a creature of habit?” The short answer is: yes. I use dried chilis because thats howI learned to make harissa, they are what I have always used, they have a better shelf life (and so does the salted harissa when it is covered in olive oil) and because a good assortment of fresh chilis is often very difficult to find where I live.

      Then I looked at the intrinsic differences between dried and fresh chilis, apart from shelf life. Dried chilis tend to be milder (on a fluctuating average, 2 dried chilis have the heat of 1 fresh) and have a sweeter, earthy quality that doesn’t always come out in fresh, especially if the peppers have been sundried. Fresh peppers, on the other hand, have a zing and refreshing vegetal flavor that really comes through. They’re plumper and prettier but take up a lot more volume in your jars.

      All this to say that if you have access to fresh chilis that you want to use up, by all means feel free!! Just mind the heat and make sure that they get roughly/coarsely minced instead of pureed or merely diced. Anyway, the jagged shards of chili just look prettier.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • Kate

    I once made from-scratch harissa with about half a pound of fresh red jalapeno peppers. It became the go to condiment for me, and my roommates as well. Now I have to convince my brother who has a canning setup to make these.

  • Ramona

    I could cozy up with a jar of these and eat them all night long! My first attempt at pickling but when I saw this recipe I just had to try. It was easier than I expected although when I stacked the carrots in jars it wasn’t as even or pretty as yours. Who cares though, they are fricking delicious. This recipe is SO. DAMN. GOOD.

    I may have to make another batch because I have already given 2 jars away to newly converted spicy pickled carrot converts!! Thank you for another great recipe.

  • Susan

    I made a batch of these today and can’t wait to dig in! My grandmother used to make dill carrots when I was a child that I absolutely loved, and I think these will be the grown-up replacement! I just have one question. I remember my grandmother’s carrots used to have to sit for a couple weeks after canning to allow the flavour to mull. Do you recommend the same with these, or do you just dive right in?

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Susan,
      How excited am I that you just made these? I swear, they are my absolute favorite from all the canning that we did this year, and considering that we have over 60 assorted jars on our shelves right now, that’s saying something!

      I would recommend letting the carrots sit and steep in the brine for at least a week before trying them, but I will also level with you: I can never wait that long to find out how a preserve turned out. Patience is not always a strong suit of mine. I think it was about 36 hours later that I couldn’t help myself any longer and I popped the lid on a jar. They were just fine. Over time, they will continue to get a deeper and spicier flavor, but they were certainly full bodied even after that short time. I say, wait a week or so if you must, but if you tuck in now then feel no guilt.

      Thank you again for the kind comment, and please let us know what you think of the carrots!

      • Susan

        OMG!!! They are *so* good!! I managed to wait almost a week (5 days is a week, right?) before I opened a jar! It’s now gone!

        This recipie is most definately going into the regular rotation. Although my husband didn’t like them, I just look at it as ‘I don’t have to share’!!

        Thank you so much for sharing this recipie Tina!


        • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

          Susan – sorry for the late reply! Just wanted to say thank you for coming back to let us know what you thought, and we are so very glad to hear that you enjoyed them!

      • Karik

        I wanted to spend a mniute to thank you for this. I made these carrots last weekend and they were to die for. SPICY! But so good. Thanks again!

  • Sarah

    Okay-so does the ‘a watched pot never boils’ thing apply here because I’ve been watching my freshly processed jars with my ears and no pops at all…how can I tell if these suckers are sealed or if I’m starting my own botulism farm?

    Also, I don’t know what it is about your posts but despite a deep dislike of carrots in general and never having canned anything without the mom by my side, I was so excited to give this a try I didn’t even think twice when I decided to do this at 8pm on a Monday.

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Sarah,

      It usually takes me a while to respond to comments, but lucky for us, tonight I happen to be lazing around watching pre-recorded episodes of Being Erica and drinking vodka. Woot!

      So here’s the deal on canning….there have been times that I have not heard a pop. It happens, and it doesn’t mean that the jars aren’t sealed or that you did anything wrong. However, the “pop” indicates that there is a vacuum seal on the jar, which is something that you definitely want. It is just the easiest way to check your process. When there isn’t any pop, I do two quick tests to the jar.
      1) run a finger lightly over the top. It should be dented and slightly concave (dipped down in the center)
      2) press firmly down on the center of the lid. If it popa up and down like the top of a ketchup bottle (Mike’s words, because he is reading over my shoulder right now) then the lid has not vacuum sealed and is not shelf safe.

      That said, don’t lose hope. If your jars haven’t sealed properly, keep them in the fridge where they will keep for MONTHS on end (and by “months” I mean up to a year). If you don’t have enough room in your fridge for all those jars, pawn one or two off on a friend and then casually suggest that they take them out for a nibble each and every time that you stop by for a visit. After all, you went to the work so you might as well enjoy them. Don’t try to heat process the jars again because the carrots will get overcooked, lose that crispness and become soggy/soft.

      So hey, in case you’re in this situation again, I totally call my Mom once in a while when I’m canning and a jam won’t set or a pickle seems suspicious. But because she’s not here all the time, I also try to keep a few things top of mind when I’m canning to make sure that I’ll get a good seal.
      – always change the lid. The ring can be reused if it isn’t rusted or dented, but use a fresh flat every time
      – clean the lip and top of the jar really well because any debris can prevent a seal
      – any cracks or chips out of the glass around the rim will prevent a seal
      – you need to have adequate head space for a good seal. If there is too much headspace there will be a problem. If there isn’t enough, that’s also a problem because you need a bit of air to create a vacuum.
      – sometimes the lids don’t pop for up to 48 hours. Such is life. Leave them sitting on the counter for a day or two, in an inconspicuous place where they will be completely undisturbed. If they still haven’t popped/dented down with a seal at that time, well, refrigeration it is.

      Please let us know how it goes! I am absolutely delighted that you were willing to try this recipe despite being a self-confessed carrot hater, so…thank you. That totally makes my day, and I hope you like them as much as we did 🙂

      – Tina

  • Sarah

    In the words of the immortal Harry Caray, “HOLY COW!!!”

    Consider me a reformed carrot hater who as an act of contrition will be canning a lot more of these suckers in the weeks to come.

    So thank you, not only for the fantastic recipe but for all the canning advice!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Sarah – sorry for the slow reply. Thank you so much for coming back to let us know what you thought! i am definitely not an expert canner, but any advice that I can give I am happy to share 🙂 Great news that you liked the carrots, that just makes me so chuffed!!

  • http://pinkladiesmealplanning.com Rosey

    My dad and I have been doing a bit of canning over the past couple of weekends (peaches and salsa — which my husband has dubbed “fire water”). Needless to say, I’m thinking that these lovely little darlings will be next on my list of canning delicacies! Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Rosey – we’re on the same page. Peaches and salsa were both on our agenda this year too. Your husband should consider himself lucky…..just think of the metabolism boost that fire water is giving him!

      Thanks for stopping by with a comment. If you do decide to make these, please let us know what you think….good, bad or otherwise 🙂

  • Kaylana

    That was great canning info in the comments and actually addressed many of my concerns!

    • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

      Hi Kalyana,
      Thank you for your comment! Glad that some of the canning info helped. It is so much fun to can your own pickles, jams and condiments, so if we can encourage just one other person to do it I feel like it is a win!