If you’ve ever dined in a Chinese restaurant, chances are you’ve come across Sichuan chili oil, a fiery pepper-infused oil which is dotted with vibrant red chili flakes.
Sichuan chili oil is a go-to condiment in Chinese cooking. It’s employed in dishes to give them a spicy kick, but it’s also a commonplace condiment on restaurant tables, allowing diners to choose their own spicy adventure. It’s typically always present on the table, just as ketchup would be at a burger restaurant or maple syrup at a breakfast establishment.
As complex as the flavor of this unique condiment can be, it’s easily attainable by the at-home chef. Here, we’ll guide you through making your own Sichuan chili oil, which can be stored and used whenever you like.
What is Sichuan chili oil? To understand the art of Sichuan chili oil, it’s important to know a little bit about where it comes from. Sichuan cuisine (also referred to as Szechwan cuisine, or Szechuan cuisine) is a particular sector of Chinese cuisine which hails from the southwestern province of Sichuan. It is characterized by its unapologetically bold, spicy, pungent flavors, which are primarily attained through spices, aromatics such as garlic, and the liberal use of Sichuan chili peppers.
Sichuan peppercorns are an interesting and signature ingredient in Sichuan cookery. Unlike the immediate pungency of black peppercorns, they have an initial citrus brightness. However, they also contain hydroxy alpha sanshool, which you don’t need to know much about other than it causes a numbing effect to the tongue, as famed food scientist Harold McGee says, it’s like a mild electrical current, not unlike “touching the terminals of a nine-volt battery to the tongue.”
Why make your own chili oil? Why make your own chili oil versus buying? There are a few advantages. To name a few:
- You have quality control. You can purchase fresh spices and use good quality oil, which will result in a superior end result.
- You can adjust the heat. You can adjust the quantity of peppercorns and chili flakes in the oil, making it more or less spicy, depending on your preference.
- You can flavor the chili oil to taste. This includes adjusting the spice ratios or adding more or less salt.
- Let’s be honest: bragging rights. You will impress all of your friends if you serve homemade chili oil at your next dinner party!
Making Sichuan chili oil: what you’ll need. Here’s a brief explanation of key ingredients and how to choose them.
- Oil: A mild-flavored oil such as vegetable or peanut oils work well; a mild olive oil will work, too, but it can “set” once the chili oil is refrigerated.
- Spices: Use the best quality spices you can get your hands on. For best results, buy your spices from a well-respected spice shop with high turnover (this means the spices are more likely to be fresh).
- Sichuan peppercorns: Do not substitute another type of peppercorn; the Sichuan peppercorn is key in giving the oil its unique flavor. A good quality spice shop should be stocked with authentic Sichuan peppercorn.
- Sichuan chili flakes: It can be difficult to find chili flakes labeled as such. If you can find Sichuan chili flakes, that is the best ingredient to use; however, a good quality red pepper flake will suffice.
How to make Sichuan chili oil: recipe. A simple, easy to follow recipe.
Adapted from The Woks of Life
- 1½ cups mild oil (see recipe note)
- 5 whole pieces star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick (you can substitute 1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
- ¾ cup Sichuan chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- a medium-sized heatproof bowl
- a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan
- a spoon, for stirring
- a fine mesh strainer
- an airtight jar or container, for storing the finished chili oil
- In a medium-sized heatproof bowl, combine the Sichuan chili flakes and the salt. Set to the side for the moment.
- In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the oil, star anise, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Heat over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the oil begins to bubble on the sides.
- Reduce heat to a simmer. Keep the mixture simmering, adjusting the heat up or down as needed, for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture every now and again; you want to prevent burning. Be careful of oil spatter.
- When you’re nearing the end of your 20 minutes, the mixture should have darkened in color, and should have a pronounced aroma, but not a burnt smell. Remove from heat, and set to the side for the moment.
- Once any bubbling has subsided, strain the oil mixture using a fine mesh strainer right on top of the chili flake and salt mixture. Stir to combine, and let the mixture sit, uncovered, until it has come to room temperature.
- Your chili is complete! While it’s fine to serve now, the flavors will really intensify if you let the mixture sit overnight or even for 2-3 days before using.
Storing your chili oil. Once your chili oil has cooled completely, transfer it to an airtight jar before storing in the refrigerator. The importance of an airtight jar cannot be overemphasized; if the chili oil is not sealed, it can impart an odor or flavor on other foods in your fridge. This might be fine if the food in question is chicken; not so great if it’s leftover birthday cake.
If the oil you use does set to a certain point, simply stir to break up the mixture a little bit before spooning out a small amount into a serving dish. At room temperature the oil should liquefy fairly quickly.
It’s also possible to extend the life of your chili oil by freezing it! Follow the same steps for freezing herbs in oil using your completed chili oil.
Conclusion: It’s important to understand and appreciate the heritage of our foods. Sichuan chili oil is a condiment with an interesting history which has traveled a long path to become commonplace on restaurant tables.
By taking the time to learn to make this unique condiment, you will not only be honoring a different culture, but creating a delicious spicy sauce which will add potency and fieriness to all of your cuisine.
Do you like spicy food?