Chili oil is one of those ingredients that turns good dishes into great ones. From the fiery, mouth-numbing Mala sauce used in Szechuan cooking and spicy hot pots, to the rich soy sauce mix of many Jiaozi dumpling dips, chili oil adds a big bark to any good, delicious bite.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of those ingredients which costs an arm and a leg at most grocery stores, for something that’s really not that complicated (or anywhere near as expensive) to make.
There are two kinds of chili oil, in general, depending on whether you leave the solids that you use to flavor the oil in it or not. With the chili flakes left in it, you’ll see it used for dipping sauces. For broths, the clearer, pre-strained version is often preferred. Here, we will make a few cups of it in its clear, strained version – we’ll revisit it for the dipping-sauce version next week.
- 3 cups canola, peanut, or olive oil (regular olive oil, not extra-virgin)
- 60-70 dried red or Sichuan peppers
- ⅓ c. Sichuan peppercorns
- 6 cloves garlic (optional)
- Crush the Sichuan peppercorns briefly in a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle until they are coarsely ground. (The main goal here is to crack the larger peppercorns; there is no need to grind them into a fine powder or anything like that.)
- Crack the dried peppers in half, squeezing each half to help some (but not all) of the seeds escape. The more seeds you leave in, the more fiery the oil will be.
- In a food processor or blender, briefly pulverize the dried peppers until they turn into small pepper flakes, roughly ⅛ – ¼” wide (3-6 mm).
- Slice the garlic into large, thin slices.
- Heat the oil in a saucepan until it begins to smoke. For olive oil, this will be a much lower temperature than for either peanut or canola oil. Once smoking, remove immediately from heat and use a candy thermometer to watch its temperature drop until roughly 250 F (125 C).
- Mix the pepper flakes, peppercorns, and garlic slices in a heat-tolerant bowl, and pour the hot oil over the mixture, stirring it with a wooden spoon briefly until the oil coats all of the solids. Cover and let cool for up to 8 hours.
- Once cool, strain the larger solids out through a mesh strainer, and set them aside for future use, if desired.
- Strain the smaller solids through a mesh strainer lined with a paper or cloth towel, in order to get a clear, bright orange chili oil, which will keep for several months if refrigerated!
A small tip: you might want to do this in a well-ventilated room, as the first few minutes after the oil is poured over the peppers and peppercorns can make the air in the room quite potently cough-inducing (even if it smells FANTASTIC.)
I added half a teaspoon of this to my lunch bowl of homemade pho today, instead of my usual tablespoon of red chili paste, and the results were excellent!