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.
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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.
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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.
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 Xian Famous Hot Rice Ribbons recipe.
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 Dan Dan Noodles recipe.
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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 Sichuan Wontons recipe.
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 Tomatoes in Chili-Fennel Oil recipe.
Related Reading: Why Are Heirloom Tomatoes So Expensive (And So Good)?
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 Steamed Grouper in Chili Oil recipe.
Need a pick me up for your morning eggs? Chili oil will deliver a tastebud-awakening fire that cuts through all that yolky richness. Great with fried eggs and steamed rice, or if you like your eggs scrambled, try this Creamy Eggs with Garlicky Greens, Avocado & Chili Oil recipe.
Using chili oil to flavor 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.
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A quick chili-infused olive oil gets drizzled over this crisp, smoky grilled pizza, but you can easily spoon over your favorite packaged chili oil instead. The spicy burn is nicely balanced by the savory, salty sausage, melty cheese, and sweet roasted bell peppers. Get our Grilled Pizza with Peppers and Sausage recipe.
Sriracha is great and all, but a little dab of chili oil is a nice change of pace for spicing up your sushi (which is easier to make at home than you might think, not to mention fun). Get our Spicy Tuna Maki recipe.
Related Video: Turn Leftover Sriracha Into Chili Oil
Header image courtesy of Hana Asbrink