April 11, 2021

A Tale of Two Chilis

Chili oil is the perfect condiment to enhance your food.

I’m a big fan of cooking with flavorful condiments. And chili oil is one of my favorites.

A delicious condiment can instantly enhance your food. You can make chili oil once and reap the rewards over and over again. A simple bowl of rice goes from bland to tasty. Scrambled eggs go from typical to special. A plate of pasta goes from a weeknight meal to restaurant-worthy. The trick to easy, flavorful food is to use flavorful ingredients.

The beauty of making your own chili oil is that it is a blank canvas. Not only will it be tastier than store-bought, making it yourself gives you control over the flavor and spice levels. Different cuisines all over the world have their own version. Some labor-intensive and others not. Let’s talk through two variations I like!

Simple Chili Oil

This one’s the easiest to whip up. Though I wouldn’t recommend actually whipping it. Flinging hot oil everywhere could be dangerous! 😉

Here’s how it goes. Start chili flakes and oil in a cold pan. Then turn up the heat to about medium and let the chili cook in the oil. The combination of the heat and fat will make the flavor of the chili bloom. It’s done when you start seeing a good amount of bubbles—which happens when the oil reaches about 200℉ (95℃). Then take the pan off the heat and let the oil cool for about 20 minutes before transferring to a jar. It’s that simple. And it will last at least a month in your fridge. But it’s unlikely since you’ll use it on everything.

Starting it in the cold pan reduces the chance the chili flakes or oil burns. Plus it gives more time for the flavor to infuse the oil.

How much oil vs chili flakes you use is a bit of personal preference. I’d start with a ratio of about 1 part chili flakes to 4 parts oil. And adjust from there based on your tastes. You can always add more chili flakes while the oil cools if you want more flavor or spice!

Side note. Are you curious about how you measure a red hot chili pepper? It’s simple. Give it a weigh, give it a weigh, give it a weigh, now. 😉

And what kind of oil and chili flakes?

Olive and sesame oil both add extra flavor but they have a lower smoke point. They burn easily so watch your pan closely. A neutral-ish oil like peanut, avocado, or grapeseed oil will really let the chili flavor shine. And they have higher smoke points which means a higher margin for error.

As for chili flakes, you can use whatever kind of chili flakes you like. The Italians use red pepper flakes. The Chinese use Sichuan chili flakes. The Koreans use gochugaru. Aleppo pepper is actually one of my favorites, and it isn’t spicy at all. I simply recommend getting high-quality chili flakes. The more flavorful the chili, the more flavorful the oil. You could also make chili flakes yourself with dried chile peppers. You could grab great chili flakes from an Asian market or a specialty spice shop. I love the spices from Burlap and Barrel. You could use their Red Jalapeño Chili Flakeslakes, the Black Urfa Chili, or the Silk Chili.

So-Much-Flavor-You-Won’t-Stop-Eating-It Chili Oil

This variation is a little more labor-intensive. But it’s a flavor bomb in a jar. 💣 And how do we make this flavor bomb? We add more flavor! Duh! 😉

Here’s how to go about it. You’ll want to grab whole spices because ground ones will burn if we add them at this stage. Think star anise, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, cinnamon sticks, Sichuan peppercorns, bay leaves (it’s an herb I know!), or whatever else you got! You should also grab some aromatic veggies. Think smashed garlic cloves (you can leave the skin on), a chunk of ginger (also smashed), a couple of whole shallots, green onions, or even whole dried chiles. You could add all the things I listed. Or you could add less. Or you could add more. The world is your oyster! 🦪

Put all your whole spices and aromatics into a cold pot. Then cover them with cold oil until everything is floating. 3-4 cups of oil will give you an amount that’s worth the effort. (You’ll definitely want to use a neutral oil with a higher smoke point for this chili oil.) The more spices and aromatics you use the more oil you’ll need.

Once it’s all in the pan, turn up the heat until the oil reaches about 200-225°F (105-110°C). You want the pot to stay there at that slight simmer for about an hour. As it cooks, if things turn dark (like your garlic), remove them so they don’t impart burnt flavors. Or if there’s a vigorous sizzle going on, turn down the heat. We’re going low and slow to extract all the flavor!

While the oil cooks, put your chili flakes in a large heat-proof bowl. For 3-4 cups of oil, you’ll want about 1 cup of chili flakes. Add a heavy pinch of salt. Mushroom powder or a touch of soy sauce also adds extra umami.

And here comes the fun part! After an hour has passed, crank up the heat on your oil. Bring it up to 300°F (150°C). Then grab a strainer and put it over your bowl of chili flakes. Lastly double-check you’ve got enough room in your bowl and that it’s heat-proof. Because things are about to get dangerous! ⚠️ You’re going to pour the HOT oil through the strainer and overtop the chili flake mixture. And it’s going to bubble like crazy! But it will also bloom the chili flakes and spices, bringing out all its amazing flavors.

And then you let it sit and come to room temperature. Once it’s cooled, pour it in jars and store it.

Did you notice how we didn’t add the chili flakes directly to the pan for this chili oil as we did in the first? Well, we had to heat up the oil pretty hot to infuse it with the flavor of the other aromatics and spices. So if we add the chili flakes directly to the hot pan, it increases the chance that they’ll burn.

Where I learned this:I’m no chili oil expert so I learned a lot from a lot of folks on this one: Fuchsia Dunlop and her book Every Grain of Rice, Christine Benlafguih on The Spruce Eats, Kaitlin on The Woks of Life, this fantastic video by Joshua Weissman, and Sue from My Korean Kitchen.