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May 10, 2005

Chile oils are a nice ingredient to have around the kitchen. They can be used in just about any recipe that you would use regular oils in… but chile oils add an extra kick of heat. You can buy commercial chile oils in many gourmet stores, but they tend to be very expensive and - quite honestly - not very hot or flavorful. But you can easily make your own chile infused oils which I suspect you'll be much more pleased with. All you need is oil, chiles, and a little bit of time.

So what kind of oil should you start with? There's a huge variety of oils available in any given supermarket: peanut oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil, olive oil and on and on and on... You'll find even more varieties if you go to a specialty market. But ultimately its all about what you personally prefer. If I'm going to be doing a lot of Asian cooking, I'll use either sesame oil or a light peanut oil. For other types of foods, canola and olive oils both work well. I personally recommend grapeseed oil if you can find it because its a fairly light and a bit healthier. Its all up to you and your tastes. But let me say: if you decide to use olive oil don't waste your money on the good stuff. Chile flavor and heat will assuredly overpower the subtle flavors usually associated with high end, first press extra virgin olive oil, so why pay for that subtle flavor if you're just going to steamroll right over it with chiles, right?

Next you'll need to decide what kind of chiles you want to use. Again, this is really a matter of personal taste. Straight up jalapenos? Fruity but nuclear hot habaneros? The garden fresh flavor of serranos? Naturally smoky pequins? Chose whichever chiles you enjoy. From an infused oil perspective the kind of chile you use makes no difference in the preparation method of chile oil. It’s all about what kind of flavor and heat you want to add to your food.

Before we get into preparation instructions, though, I'd like to make a comment about sterilizing your oil bottles. That comment would be: MAKE SURE YOU DO IT. Infused oils lose flavor and break down over time. Making sure your bottle is sterilized will keep your oil flavorful and usable for a longer period of time. The sterilization process is very simple: Fill a quart pot with water. Submerge your oil bottles in the water, making sure that all of the air bubbles have escaped from the bottles. Bring the pot to a rapid boil and let the bottles boil for 10-15 minutes. Remove the bottles with a pair of tongs, empty the water, and allow them to COMPLETELY air dry, as excess moisture in your oil will cause it to break down faster.

There are two methods for infusing oil with chiles: cold infusion and hot infusion. Basically, cold infusion uses dried or fresh chiles and takes longer to infuse, while hot infusion uses dried chiles and is ready to use sooner. Hot infusion also produces a hotter chile oil, in my opinion. Here are the details on the two methods, each using 2 cups of oil and ½ cup of chiles:

  • Cold infusion method: Place oil and fresh chiles in a blender and pulse until the chiles are minced. Pour the mixture into a non-plastic bowl (glass preferred) and cover with an airtight lid or Saran Wrap. Store in the refrigerator for 2-4 weeks, giving the bowl a shake or swirl once a day. The longer you leave the mixture steeping in the fridge, the hotter and more flavorful the oil will get. Sterilize your oil bottles. Strain your oil into your bottle(s) using either a fine sieve or, preferably, a wine strainer.

  • Hot infusion method: Break dried chiles into large pieces and put in a pan with 2 cups of oil. Heat the pan slowly over a low or medium-low heat until small bubbles start to rise up from the bottom of the pot. Turn off heat and allow to oil to come to room temperature. Pour the oil & chile mixture into a non-plastic bowl (glass preferred) and cover. Store in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. Sterilize your oil bottles. Strain your oil into your bottle(s) using either a fine sieve or, preferably, a wine strainer.

This oil should be usable for quite some time. Toss out when it starts to become cloudy, an indication that the organic materials from the chiles are breaking down. One final note: don’t put a decorative chile in the bottle with the chile oil. Seriously. A whole chile is going to immediately start breaking down your oil and may, in fact, start getting moldy in the bottle. And nobody wants that…

Finally, as an extra-added bonus, here’s a side dish recipe you can try with your freshly made chile oil:


2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons chile oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
3/4 teaspoon Anglesey sea salt
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
3 scallions, chopped (green ends only)

Place potatoes in a 4-quart saucepan and cover with water 3 inches over the top of the potatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until a fork slides easily out of a potato (about 12 to 14 minutes). Drain and spread on a large plate or baking sheet to cool.

In a large heavy skillet, heat chile oil over a medium heat until oil starts to shimmer (but before it starts smoking). Add garlic and stir around with a wooden spoon for one minute (this activates the garlic to release its flavor). Add potatoes and salt to skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and cooked through (about 15 to 20 minutes). Remove potatoes into a large bowl. Add cilantro and scallions and toss. Serve immediately.


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