Here’s a list of resources for chili oil. As a whole, it’s pretty remarkable how much more sophisticated the Chinese videos are for chili oil. They tend to have a lot more thought around infusion and chili processing. Most of the Western videos are quite terrible and similar. Only a few really bother to add spices, put good quality peppers, and do some careful infusion.
1: An interesting take by a Chinese chef. Uses the multiple infusion technique where a hot first infusion “is for spice”, and then subsequent infusions are for flavor. Uses a combination of chili flakes, chili powder, and hand ground chilies. The video does claim that adding spices or aromatics lessens the chili flavor, which I’m not sure about.
2: Probably one of the best Chinese videos on chili oil by Chef Wang Gang. Similar technique to above with an interesting wrinkle of adding baijiu, supposedly to avoid burning the chilies. I wonder if it adds to flavor extraction too. Also lots of interesting spices and herbs added.
3: Another Wang Gang video. I don’t like douchi in chili oil, but this one is interesting for the step where the spices are soaked in baijiu to extract flavor.
4: Still my go-to recipe for a chili crisp. Sohla does a great job of adding a balance of flavors with additions like mushroom powder, MSG, sugar, and a whole bunch of spices. The single hot flash does the trick and the sugar offsets any potential bitterness. Fantastic recipe.
5: This is a really interesting idea of using clarified butter to make an oil with a fairly standard slow infusion process, then blending it with toasted milk powder to make essentially brown butter. Kathy seems to blend all of the aromatics too (I think?) which is interesting. She then whips it up into a compound butter, kinda close to beef fat hot pot base. I’d love to try this although the clarified butter does make a more expensive oil.
6: An okay video, mostly good for the spices.
I’m fairly sold on the multiple hot flashes for infusion. You start with a very hot flash at 375F (190C) with some of the oil, then add the remainder of the oil at 280F (140C). It helps to do the hot flash with only half the chilies and then mix in the rest. I suppose you could also try mixing a hot flash and a slow infusion, but that seems like more work.
A really key insight that I learned was to add the sichuan peppercorns last when the oil is at 212F (100C). Turns out their flavor doesn’t stand up to the heat. I have noticed that the tingly flavor was lacking in my earlier batches, so this is a good tip.
I got around to getting a sous vide machine again, so I’ll do an experiment with that. I bet that could add a really nice layered effect.
In the videos I watched, I noticed that they were using a combination of chili powder and chili flakes. This goes against my coffee metaphor, but likely that’s an issue with my metaphor and not with their technique. I made a batch of oil with this combo of gochugaru and chili flakes. It turned out pretty fantastic, so I’ll have to do more experiments here. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the flavor is coming from the powder since it’s so fine. I do think a key here is that they carefully control the temperatures and only add a tiny bit of the really hot oil to prevent the chilies from burning.
I do wonder if you could split infusion temps by chili size. Maybe the powder is at a higher risk of burning?
The Chinese videos explicitly state that a 1 to 4 ratio of chilies to oil is ideal, with a maximum of 1 to 5. I’ll have to test that myself, but that seems about right.
I did another comparison experiment of 40g of gochugaru to 160g of oil. I’m not sure if the ratio stated in the video is of weight or of volume, I’d guess volume though. I made one batch sous vide at 154F for 4 hours. Someone on Hacker News claimed this approximate recipe is in Modernist Cuisine. I don’t have the space or the money to spend 600 bucks on a print copy of Modernist Cuisine so I can confirm this, so I’ll take them at their word. I might see if I can get a copy at the library.
I made another batch as a slow infusion at 200-220F, and a final batch as a hot flash at 375F.
Tasting them, the hot flash batch was horribly bitter and clearly burnt. It smelled amazing, like a really nice tadka or almost like popcorn, but tasted absolutely terrible. This does seem to answer the question of whether particle size can cause burning. The coarse chili flakes tasted semi-burnt with a hot flash at 375F, but the fine gochugaru tasted extremely burnt.
The slow infusion tasted decent. A little bit of that roasted, slightly bitter flavor (interesting, hadn’t noticed that in the coarse chili flakes), but overall quite solid.
As for the sous vide, it was very mild, but perhaps with some subtle aromatics? I wonder if it could have gone a little longer in the bath.
If I’m honest, the main conclusion I’ve found is that I might not love gochugaru as the sole chili in an oil. It’s very fine and therefore too easy to burn.
To follow up, I also tried infusing sichuan peppercorns, since they seem to extract better at lower temperatures. It didn’t seem to accomplish much either.
I’d also be curious to know if you could use the microwave to do chili oil infusion.
One funny note, in a lot of the Chinese videos, they mention that the different temperatures produce different flavors. The 375F flash mostly produces spiciness and not much flavor. The lower temperature flashes produce flavor and color. I hadn’t put much stock into that, but having done more experiments, I suspect they’re not far off! The high temperature infusions just don’t have the same aroma.
I tried making an Indian style chili oil, basically by infusing a bunch of spices like coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, cardamom, curry leaves, fenugreek, black pepper, chilies, cinnamon, hing, turmeric.
It smelled fantastic but it was slightly disappointing at the end. I was debating whether to keep it like a tadka and not add too much chili, or make it a proper chili oil with spices. I ended up straining it, which left me with an aromatic oil, but not something very impressive. Next time I’ll make it into a proper chili oil with flakes.
Also some spices dominated too much. I might omit the fenugreek and hing or dial it down a lot.
One thing I love about Indian food are the whole spices that give you a little bit of crunch and pop. Next time I’ll keep the mustard seeds and cumin seeds in for that.
Indian snacks are great for their crunch, I wonder if I could add some to the oil to make a chili crisp. Hopefully they’d stay intact.
I’m attempting to combine recipes to make my perfect chili crisp recipe. For that, I’m taking the approximate ratios and techniques of the first video and combining them with the seasonings and crispy additions of Sohla’s chili crisp.
First impressions: the first video makes a lot of oil. If the translation is correct, it’s 1 liter of oil and 250g of chilies. 250 grams is a lot of chilies! That basically exhausted my chili supply. Also, that meant that I had to use more Xiao Mi La chilies than I’d like, which made the oil spicy. I think going forward, I’m gonna use a lot more mild chilies with an aromatic flavor.
I also put a lot of sichuan peppercorns which I also ground finely, which made the tingly flavor really intense. I kind of like that though! I might keep the intensity ther
I added crispy shallots, peanuts, salt, pepper, sugar, mushroom powder and MSG, per Sohla’s recipe. I had to double the seasonings because the oil was about twice the chili crisp recipe’s batch size. It ended up being way too much solids versus oil. Perhaps I can reduce the shallots and add some more oil. That will dilute the chili flavor but that’s fine since it’s pretty damn intense right now.
There are a few other experiments I’d like to conduct.
First, I’d love to do one on chili flavors. I use a lot of different chilies and I have a general sense of their flavor but I’d love to do a blind taste test. I’d probably try to do it by grinding up the chilies, then infusing them in oil at 250-280F. That seems to be the most reproducible experiment.
Second, I want to do a follow up alcohol experiment with spices. From watching Wang Gang, he soaks the spices and really cooks out the alcohol, which probably removes the gross alcohol flavor I got with the chii experiment. I could also try doing a slow infusion at 250F, since that will cook out the alcohol fully too.