Homemade Chili Crisp

published Feb 2, 2022
Chili Crisp Recipe

This savory, spicy, and wonderfully textured chili sauce is the condiment your kitchen needs.

Makes4 cups

Prep1 hour

Cook50 minutes

Jump to Recipe
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A homemade Chili Crisp (a crispy and spicy condiment, a type of hot sauce, made with fried chili pepper and other aromatics infused in oil, sometimes with other ingredients) in a clear jar
Credit: Zoe Yang

If you’re reading this, you likely know and love chili crisp as the savory, spicy, wonderfully textured chili sauce from China. Perhaps you already have a favorite brand out of the wall of red. Does the world need another version? Maybe, maybe not. I’m here to explain the building blocks of a chili crisp so that you can play around. Because while chili crisp is a condiment from Sichuan, to say that there is one true Sichuanese chili crisp is like saying there’s one true ragù in Italy.

Chili crisp, or 油辣子, is a highly personal and specific thing: Each chef, whether in the restaurant or the home kitchen, has their own version (or versions), often tweaked for the dishes it’ll be topping that week, that day. In China, I once apprenticed with two master Sichuanese chefs — each had his own secret recipe, passed down by their respective mentors and containing dozens of medicinal herbs, and would make fresh batches every week. They argued over whose was better, yet each would be the first to tell you (as they did me) that neither recipe was the end-all be-all, and moreover that half the ingredients they used were simply unnecessary and unreasonable for a home cook. 

Ultimately, what you find to be worth doing and including is up to you. Here I take you on the longish way, and point out the shortcuts. Tinker it until you have something you like, then keep tinkering — I never make the same chili crisp twice! I hope you land on a version that makes you want to argue with other cooks because that’s half the fun. 

How I Make Chili Crisp (Arguments Welcome)

You may have seen chili crisp recipes calling for the pour-over method, in which oil, sometimes infused with aromatics, is heated up and poured over chili flakes, sesame seeds, and powdered seasonings. This method is popular because it’s fast and fun. When the oil meets the chili, it creates a roiling lake of spice and sizzle and is extremely dramatic. It also tends to produce a toastier flavor and darker color. But I find that it also produces slightly uneven results. (The bits the oil touches first are the most toasted). It can also be risky if you don’t have an extremely accurate thermometer, as chilies go from toasty to burnt within a couple degrees.

The method I use here is closer to what high-end restaurants (and most commercial brands) use to coax out maximum subtlety. Whole chilies are first steamed to deepen their color, then the chili flakes are quickly simmered in low-temperature oil to create a controlled infusion. This method is most suitable when you have high-quality, very fresh dried chilies, and you want to capture all their fruity complexity. 

What Makes Up a Chili Crisp?

Think of chili crisp as having three separate components. In its simplest form, the chili and the oil base make up “the foundation.” Then, there are the spices and herbs you can use to infuse the oil, adding layers of fragrance and umami; these are “the aromatics.” Lastly, there’s all the fun stuff that can be added to provide embellishing texture, or “the crispy bits.” Within each category, you’ll find many options.

Credit: Zoe Yang

The Foundation

Chilies: Chili crisp is made with dried chilies, and the most commonly used in Sichuan are 二荆条 er jin tiao and 朝天椒 chaotianjiao (also sometimes sold as its sub-variety 子弹头zidantou). The common dried Asian chile sold, often unnamed, in the U.S. is the tientsin chile, or japones, from Eastern China, and they are often not fresh. Good dried chiles, regardless of the variety, are vibrant red, as dried chilies become pale over time. The very best ones are still semi-pliable rather than being dried husks. I use whole chilies in this recipe for maximum flavor and freshness, but you can also substitute packaged Sichuanese chili flakes. I encourage you to find your own blend of chilies based on their unique qualities.

  • Erjingtiao tends to form the base of Sichuanese chili crisp because it’s so flavorful and mild. To me, it smells a little bit like spiced beef jerky, red wine reduction, and dark cocoa all mixed together, and its taste is chocolatey and sweet. 
  • Chaotianjiao (or zidantou) is higher up the Scoville scale but still very complex, with a warm, berrylike acidity in the aroma — almost like a high-quality salsa. Its spiciness can be potent but comes on slowly

Oil: I love traditional Sichuanese rapeseed oil, as it has a singular fragrance. If you cannot find it, peanut oil or canola oil are good substitutes

Salt & MSG: A lot of chili crisp recipes do not call for salt, and I think it’s a matter of usage and preference. If you’re the kind of person who likes to spoon chili crisp out of the jar, add salt! If you’re using it more as an ingredient rather than a condiment, omit or decrease the salt. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with MSG, but if you’d rather leave it out, your chili crisp will not suffer greatly.

In the quantities written, this recipe produces a chili crisp that’s about 70% crisp, 30% oil. If you like a higher ratio of solids to liquids, increase the amount of chilies and crispy bits below. 

The Aromatics

The most time-consuming element of this recipe is slowly infusing the oil over low heat with whole spices and herbs. I think it’s worth it, but it’s also perfectly fine to skip this step altogether, in which case I’d suggest adding powdered spices such as Sichuan pepper, cumin, and either five spice or 13 spice to your foundation. 

The whole spices and herbs I call for here can be found in the spice aisle of good Chinese supermarkets or online. I cannot tell you exactly what else my mentors in China used, but TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) chef and nutritionist Zoey Gong tells me that most chili crisp aromatics, as well as the chilies themselves, are medicinal ingredients that have warming properties, which makes sense in Sichuan’s cold and arid climate. Quantities of spices and herbs may vary with personal taste, and I’ll point out that I’ve called for a fairly modest amount of Sichuan peppercorn here. I prefer a chili crisp that’s more umami than ma, and for any recipes where I truly want my face to go numb, I prefer to add fresh-ground Sichuan peppercorn separately, as the numbing properties fade quickly in oil.

The Crispy Bits

Perhaps the most fun part of building a chili crisp is deciding what delicious little nibs you want. It’s kind of like picking swirl-ins for soft serve. For me, garlic is a must, and usually both crunchy peanuts or soybeans are too. Because I use both scallion and red onion in the aromatics, I don’t include crunchy shallots here (it’s not a common vegetable in Sichuan), but you could — either by slicing them thinly, adding them before the soybeans and letting all the water cook out, or simply mixing in pre-fried shallots at the end. Another popular ingredient I omit is 豆豉 fermented soybean. It tends to darken the oil (an aesthetic gripe, I admit), and I find the flavor too overpowering for the delicate style I prefer. I fry all the crispy bits myself, but of course, you could skip the frying and mix in roasted peanuts, roast soybeans, and garlic chips at the very end.  

Chili Crisp Recipe

This savory, spicy, and wonderfully textured chili sauce is the condiment your kitchen needs.

Prep time 1 hour

Cook time 50 minutes

Makes 4 cups

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the foundation:

  • 1 1/2 ounces

    dried erjingtiao chilies (see Recipe Note)

  • 1 1/2 ounces

    dried chaotianjiao chilies (see Recipe Note)

  • 3 cups

    rapeseed, peanut, or canola oil

  • 2 tablespoons

    white sesame seeds

  • 2 tablespoons

    kosher salt, plus more as needed

  • 1 teaspoon

    MSG (optional)

For the aromatics:

For the crispy bits:

  • 1/3 cup

    roasted soybeans (optional)

  • 1/2 cup

    skinless peanuts (optional)

  • 10 cloves

    garlic

Instructions

  1. Prepare a steamer for steaming. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, while wearing gloves, pinch off the stems from 1 1/2 ounces dried erjingtiao chilies and 1 1/2 ounces dried chaotianjiao chilies and shake out the seeds. Rinse the chilies. Cut any longer erjingtiao chilies into smaller pieces.

  2. Place the chilies in a single layer in the steamer basket (steam in batches if needed). Cover and steam until the chiliies are plumper in texture but not wet, about 3 minutes. Remove the steamer basket from the steamer and let the chilies cool completely, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the aromatics.

  3. Place 2 whole star anise, 2 tsaoko pods, 2 bay leaves, 2 pieces dried orange peel, 2 pieces Chinese liquorice, 2 pieces of cassia bark or 1 cinnamon stick, 5 whole cloves, 1 teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorns, 1 teaspoon cumin seeds, and 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds in a small bowl. Slice a 1-inch piece of ginger. (No need to peel.) Trim and coarsely chop 2 medium scallions and 1 small red or yellow red onion. Thinly slice 10 garlic cloves.

  4. Transfer the cooled chilies to a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Process into chili flakes, scraping down the sides occasionally, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons kosher salt, and 1 teaspoon MSG, if using.

  5. Heat 3 cups rapeseed oil in a wok or wide sauté pan over medium-low heat until 240 and 250°F. (You can test the oil by adding a piece of ginger, which should bubble immediately, but gently.) Add the spices, ginger, scallions, and onion. Let the aromatics slowly fry and release their water content, infusing the oil. Keep an eye on the bubbling, which should always be gentle, and use a spatula to move things around to prevent burning, removing any burned bits immediately with a strainer. After 20 to 35 minutes, the onion and scallions should look shriveled and may be slightly toasted and the oil should be very fragrant. Scoop out and discard all the aromatics with a heatproof fine-mesh strainer.

  6. Maintaining a temperature of 240 to 250°F, add 1/3 cup roasted soybeans if using to the oil. They will sink, so use a spatula to move them around, making sure they don’t burn, and cook for 3 minutes. Ad1/2 cup skinless peanuts if using, and fry for 1 minute, moving everything constantly. The peanuts should not be rapidly browning — if they are, lower the heat.

  7. Add the garlic. Once the garlic starts taking on the barest golden hue, after about 5 minutes, add the chili flake mixture. Turn the heat off and continue to stir constantly down to the bottom of the pan for 2 to 3 minutes more. The crispy bits will finish toasting in the residual heat and the oil will turn red. Taste and season with more salt, powdered Sichuan peppercorn, MSG, or sugar as needed. Let cool completely, then spoon into jars.

Recipe Notes

Chilies: If you want to only use 1 type of dried chili pepper, go with erijingtiao chilies, which are more aromatic. Or substitute 3 ounces packaged Sichuanese chili flakes for the chilies. Just skip to Step 3 to combine the chili flakes with the sesame seeds, salt, and MSG, if using.

Storage: The chili crisp can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a year.