I love a good hot sauce and the way it can make otherwise humdrum dishes sing. And I can empathize with the obsessives who bring their own personal bottle of Tabasco everywhere, or the zealots who insist that sriracha makes everything better. But let me say this: there is a time and a place for hot sauce. Sometimes, though, there are just better ways to amp up your food. If I had to nominate an all-purpose condiment for spicing up everything under the sun, it wouldn’t be a sauce. It would be chili oil, hands down.
Let me explain: hot sauce almost always contains a fair amount of vinegar and salt, which are necessary to preserve its fresh ingredients. Those tangy, salty elements are fine, even essential in many instances—for example, buffalo wings just wouldn’t be the same without that sour tang that cuts through the fat of the chicken and the butter in the sauce. But there are other instances when they just tend to get in the way—hot sauce can make soup unpleasantly astringent, or mask the flavor of delicate dishes in a cloying way. Chili oil, on the other hand, calls for infusing its base with dry ingredients, which lend their spice and aromatics without the aid of harsh preservatives.
It makes sense that you’ll find chili oil in cuisines known for their already liberal use of seasonings and contrasting tastes. The stuff has its place on tables throughout Asia, although Sichuan cuisine is where it comes in most prominently. Rather than butting heads with the heady flavors of, say, soy sauce or rice wine, it simply adds an accent that rests on top. You’ll also find it in places like Calabria, which is famous for its vibrant red chilis, or in Veracruz, where a thick salsa macha is made using local peppers.
You can pick up chili oil in Asian groceries or in the international section of many supermarkets. But it’s also pretty easy to make at home, and well worth it, too. Not only does it taste so much more vivid and vibrant, you can customize it with different spices and chilis. I, personally, like to keep on hand a version I make with gochugaru (Korean coarse chili flakes), which has helped me use up that sack I originally bought for seasoning kimchi.
Many of the following recipes include their own instructions for making an infused chili oil, if you’re looking for a place to start. So give one of them a try—you might end up with extras of your new favorite condiment that brings the spice.
1. Xian Famous Hot Rice Ribbons
Noodles from the western Chinese city of Xian are known for their signature balance of hot and sour. While a mixture of seasoned soy sauce and vinegar brings the tang, its the chili oil rife with cumin, coriander, star anise, and more that makes this dish leap into a wildly aromatic flavor dimension. Get the recipe here.
2. Dan Dan Noodles
Sichuan’s most famous noodle dish relies on an oil infused with chilis and peppercorns. In the true spirit of ma la, it’s part spicy and part numbing, with a wave of citrusy overtones. Get the recipe here.
3. Sichuan Wontons
Without a slick of vinegar and chili oil to swim around in, Sichuan wontons would be just a plain dish of pork wrapped in dough. Make sure to really lay on the condiments with this one. Get the recipe here.
4. Tomatoes in Chili-Fennel Oil
Tomatoes dressed in olive oil and sea salt are one of summer’s simple pleasures. But when you add chilis and spices into the mix, that combination suddenly gains a whole new profile that’s full of flaming intensity. Get the recipe here.
5. Steamed Grouper in Chili Oil
In the wrong hands, this delicate, Italian-style steamed fish could easily be overwhelmed by aggressive seasonings. An olive oil infused with Calabrian pepper ensures that it has the right amount of spice, however, without going too far over the top. Get the recipe here.
6. Creamy Eggs with Garlicky Greens, Avocado & Chili Oil
Need a pick me up for your morning eggs? Chili oil will deliver a tastebud-awakening fire that cuts through all that yolky richness. Get the recipe here.
7. Spicy Cinnamon-Sugar Popcorn
Using chili oil to flavor to your popcorn makes butter seem so basic. This recipe adds cinnamon and sugar to the equation, for an unexpected meeting of spicy and sweet. Get our Spicy Cinnamon-Sugar Popcorn recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.