Making Hong You (Chili Oil)

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 Facing Heaven in a Bowl of Chili Oil~~

Chili oil is a must-have ingredient for Sichuan cooking, and particularly for sauces that go on “cold dishes,” such as noodles and chicken, that are some of the cuisine’s most loved snacks and starters. It doesn’t make sense to buy your everyday chili oil (and for my family it is every day) when you can so easily make it yourself and control the type of oil, the quality and heat of chili flakes and the freshness. Just do a taste test compared to the store-bought version and you’ll know the effort’s worth it.

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Chili flakes from super coarse to super fine at the Chengdu spice market

The most important component of hong you (literally, red oil) is, of course, chili flakes. I urge you to look for chili flakes from Sichuan. I realize this is easier said than done, but you do see Sichuan chilies and flakes in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. on a more regular basis nowadays. We also carry Sichuan chili flakes in our SHOP.

In these photos, taken before we opened the shop, I am using flakes I got in Chengdu on my last visit. I bought a kilo of super-red, medium-coarse flakes from the Chengdu spice market, which, kept in the freezer, lasted me a long while. I don’t know for sure what kind they were. I simply asked the spice merchant for “the best.” Sichuan cooks use different types of chilies and flakes depending on whether they want to accentuate the heat, the color or the aroma.

I have also used whole red chilies from Sichuan and elsewhere in China. These I toasted until medium brown in a wok then processed to flakes in a small food processor. They make toasty and delicious oil, but it is quite a bit hotter than it is if you use pre-ground flakes, which have fewer seeds. And Sichuan chili oil is not meant to be super hot, because it is meant to be used in abundance.

chili oil

Korean red pepper powder makes a good substitute for Sichuan’s.

Instead of Sichuanese flakes, a very good and easy alternative is Korean hot pepper powder or flakes, which is abundantly available in the U.S. seeing as how it is a necessity in many types of kimchee. It has a similar bright-red color and moderate heat level as the chili flakes/powder you get in Sichuan. Make sure to use the coarse-ground flakes and not the fine powder.

chili oil

All you need is quality chili flakes, oil and a heat-proof glass container

As for oil, in Sichuan they would probably use unrefined canola (rapeseed) oil, which has a stronger taste than Western refined canola. You can use canola or, for a stronger taste, peanut oil, preferably one made in  China or Taiwan.

And as for the proportion of chilies to oil, this is pretty much up to you. I’ve seen recipes that call for five parts oil to one part chili flakes and those that use a direct 1:1 ratio. I like a lot of flakes in my oil, so I generally use two or three parts oil to one part flakes.

The hallmark of a Sichuan chili oil is not searing heat (like Thai chili oil) but a complex toasted chili taste, so it’s important to get the oil to just the right temperature to toast but not burn the flakes.

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Use proportions to your own liking; I like lots of flakes

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The reddest flakes make the reddest oil

After you’ve mastered the basics, you might also try my recipe for crispy shallot chili oil or black bean chili oil (published on Food52).

Updated December 2016

Hong You (Chili Oil)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
  • Makes two cups:
  • ½ cup coarse chili flakes (Sichuan or Korean)
  • 1 inch ginger, peeled and smashed (optional)
  • 1½ cups peanut or canola oil (or a mix of the two)
  • ¼ cup toasted sesame oil
Instructions
  1. Put chili flakes in a sealable, heat-proof, glass jar.
  2. Pour oil into a small saucepan, add ginger and heat to 275°F, or 135°C. Remove the ginger.
  3. Test a small amount of oil on the flakes to make sure they sizzle but not burn. Pour the remaining oil over the flakes and watch them sizzle. The oil should be hot enough to toast the flakes but not so hot that it burns them.
  4. Stir the mixture up well, then allow chili oil to cool to room temperature. When cool, add the sesame oil. Mix well. Store in refrigerator for maximum shelf life.

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16 Responses

  1. Joan K says:

    How hot (degree-wise) do you think the oil is when you’re pouring it into the glass jar? I know I want the pepper to sizzle, but do I have to worry about it being so hot that it’ll shatter? Maybe put a metal knife in there to draw away some of the heat while I’m pouring…or is that an old wives’ tale???

  2. Taylor Holliday says:

    Hi Joan,
    I have to admit I don’t use thermometers very often, having success with the smoke-and-wait method. But expert Fuchsia Dunlop says the oil should cool down to 225-250° F before you pour it over the flakes. That definitely won’t crack the glass. Thanks for asking!

  3. Joan k says:

    Thanks! Using my recent power failure as an excuse to clear out some of the older bottles and jars in the fridge, I’m also going to toss the aged spices and whatnot from the cabinet. I’m putting my list together and will hit up one or more of the DC area Asian markets this weekend!

  4. Joan K says:

    I forgot to report back on this—I was able to pick up everything—except the roasted peanut oil, at my local asian mega grocery. They had regular peanut oil in mega sizes, but none roasted. That said, harris teeter did–but I forgot to buy it, so I used canola. It was fine–but I later tried a batch with roasted peanut oil and I preferred the taste.
    I’ve found the easiest way to make sure I’m buying pure sichuan chile flakes (or exactly what you suggest for any recipe) is to snap a picture from the blog and match the characters–unless the label has pinyin. But I’m pretty lucky–the dc metro has so many mega markets and I can usually find whatever I’m looking for.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I love it! Thanks for reporting back, Joan. If real Sichuan products are available here in Nashville, then they have to be in the DC area. They’re amazingly easy to find nowadays. As for the oils, Asian peanut oil often has that real peanuty taste even if it isn’t roasted. I think it’s because it’s unrefined, whereas our oils are refined to remove the taste. I had this discussion on Twitter with Bon Appetit’s Matt Gross, who challenged me about using the roasted peanut oil. I told him it was because Sichuan’s canola oil is unrefined and has a much stronger taste than ours and I was trying to replicate that.

  5. sub says:

    If you toast them in the microwave , the oil is even more fragrant !

    http://img11.hostingpics.net/pics/396329703.jpg

  6. Pat says:

    Great blog! I Just made a batch of Sichuan pepper oil, any suggestions for dishes it should be used with?

  7. Acorn says:

    Hi Taylor,

    I am really enjoying your blog and have been shopping for ingredients to try out your delicious-sounding recipes. I did find Sichuan pepper flakes in one of the Asian groceries in the Raleigh, NC metro area, but I was so excited about putting them in oil that I forgot to look at the recipe. I didn’t heat the oil before I put the two together. Should I heat the oil to a lower temp to toast, but not burn the flakes or will it be okay as is?

    Thanks for all the inspiration!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Acorn,
      So glad you’re inspired to try some things!

      The whole point of a Sichuan chili oil is to have a toasted chili taste, so toasting the flakes is pretty important. I happen to pour hot oil on the flakes, but I think some people heat the oil and flakes together, so you could definitely try that.

      Then again, if it tastes good to you the way it is, you can try it next time.

      (I found good-looking Sichuan chili flakes this week too! It’s a rarity, but hopefully they’ll continue to be imported.)

  8. Evan says:

    Thanks so much for this recipe! I spent my first two months in China in Kunming (not in Sichuan, but very close, flavor-wise) and I’ve struggled for years to find an equivalent to their chili oil for eating with my dumplings. I’m not a cook, so I tried the plain chili flakes first, then a couple of store-bought things. This is super-helpful; now I just have to find some decent quality malt vinegar, so that I can do the chili oil and vinegar dipping sauce for the dumplings. Any recommendations?

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi, Evan. I’m not sure what vinegar they use in Kunming, as every region seems to make their own. Sichuan uses a black rice vinegar called Baoning, for example. And I know northern Chinese use Shandong vinegar with dumplings. My favorite is Zhenjiang (Chinkiang), which is easily found in the West.

      I hope this chili oil turns out to be what you were looking for!

  9. Mandy says:

    How long will the chili oil keep in the refrigerator? Is there a risk of botulism contaminating the chili oil? I made a batch last night and now I’m worried….

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Mandy,

      I don’t think you have to worry too much about that. Many people don’t even refrigerate chili oil, though I have started to do so lately just to keep the oil fresher tasting. I’m not a scientist, but I think because you start with thoroughly dried chili flakes, there’s little chance of bacteria growing. It will last at least a couple months.

  1. August 19, 2016

    […] needs some special ingredients to make it authentic like the zha cai, black salted turnip and the Szechuan style chili oil. Though I don’t have two of them I will just adjust the recipe so it’s easier to prepare from […]

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