In all the subgenres of food, none can hold a light to the cult status various condiments command. Like mayonnaise? You probably fall into the Hellmann’s or kewpie camp, eschewing any other mayo as inferior; a pale imitation of the one true emulsified egg, vinegar and oil king. Hot sauce is a whole other battleground – Tabasco, Sriracha, Cholula, Frank’s – each has their own army of devout followers ready to wax lyrical and sing praises on their beloved sauce. Ketchup – well, it’s got to be Heinz, hasn’t it?
Crispy chilli oil’s lip-tingling heat, addictive savouriness and endless variations (you can get it containing everything from peanuts and black beans to tofu and dried shrimp) provide an instant hit of flavour that almost smacks you around the face. We get though an embarrassing amount of the stuff.
The thing with shop-bought chilli crisp, however, is that it’s never quite tailored to your individual tastes. In terms of flavour, we like Lao Gan Ma – most certainly the top dog in the chilli crisp kingdom – but in terms of heat, it lacks the almost-too-hot-to-eat punch of Lee Kum Kee’s Chiu Chow chilli oil. The solution? Make it yourself, combining your favoured parameters of chilli, spice, crunch and seasoning, resulting in your own Goldilocks chilli crisp – just right.
Of course, what’s right for us probably isn’t right for you (some tend to go overboard with heat, black beans or Sichuan peppercorns), but the joy of homemade chilli crisp is that’s it’s very easy to make and tweak until you have your own version nailed. In just 24 hours you can be the proud owner of a homemade jar – here’s how to do it.
Even though it’s those crunchy ‘bits’ at the bottom of the jar we really crave, it’s important to give the oil in there the attention it deserves. It acts as a flavouring, cooking medium and preservative all at once, helping all the flavours to combine. There’s no point using a fancy oil – you’re going to be infusing a heap of bold, powerful flavours into it anyway – so keep the cold-pressed rapeseed oil at bay and stick with something neutral like vegetable or sunflower.
Chilli is, of course, essential, but the type of chilli you use will provide different levels of heat and flavour. I tend to stick with a base of gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), as these aren’t too hot, have a smoky fruitness to them and provide plenty of deep red colour to the oil. I can then tweak the amount of heat with regular chilli flakes (in my case, plenty) and add other chillies if I want to layer the hot flavours further. While they’re certainly not traditional, dried Mexican chillies are the easiest way to provide depth. Ancho adds raisin-like sweetness while chipotle adds bags of smoke, but there are literally hundreds of varieties from all over the world, each with their own flavour profile.
Next up are your fresh aromatics, of which garlic and shallots are the most important. These provide the majority of the ‘crisp’ along with the chilli flakes and ground spices. Beyond that there’s fresh ginger and – if you like – fresh chillies. These aren’t essential but will add a slightly brighter note to the final flavour. They – and any other fresh ingredients you’re adding apart from the garlic and onion – are both best used as larger pieces to infuse the oil before being discarded.
When it comes to dried aromatics and spices, it’s really up to you. The most common inclusions are Sichuan peppercorns for their floral flavour and numbing qualities, cinnamon for warmth, cardamom and star anise for aroma and dried bay leaves. I like a little fennel seed in mine to up the aniseed and a touch of paprika for extra colour and sweetness; other times I’ll add in something bolder, like chopped fermented black beans and peanuts or a crumbled chicken stock cube. This is where you can get really experimental.
Finally, you want to season your oil to help bring out all those infused flavours. A decent amount of salt and some sugar will dissolve nicely into the oil and ensure it’s at its best.
Throwing everything into a pan with the oil and heating it is the classic infusion method, but isn’t the best in this case – by the time your onions and garlic are crisp, the other aromatics will have burnt. A two-step approach works far better, separating fresh ingredients from dried. Begin with a pan of cold oil and add your garlic and shallots (plus anything else fresh). Gradually bring it up to temperature, keeping a close eye on it and using a slotted spoon to whip out the solids as soon as they turn golden. You’ve now got a lovely infused oil, plus a heap of fried, crunchy bits ready to bolster your crispy sediment.
The next part involves pouring very hot oil – so take care. Put the rest of your ingredients in a large heatproof container (metal or borosilicate glass are best). As you gradually pour the hot oil over them, the mixture will bubble up and instantly infuse, searing the spices as it does so to ensure a crispier sediment. This flash-infusion gets as much flavour out of the aromatics as possible.
Leave the oil to cool a little before adding the fried garlic and shallot back in (so they don’t burn), then give it a 24 hour rest to allow all those flavours to meld, infuse and combine. Fish out any larger whole spices and congratulations – you’re ready to drizzle and join the ever-growing chilli crisp cult.