The problem with condiments is that even if they're theoretically intended to enhance or complement the flavors of a given dish, too often they just swamp those other flavors instead. Take, for example, ketchup, the iconic condiment: It doesn't taste bad (and anyone who tells you it does is more interested in claiming cultural high ground than in telling the truth), so much as it tastes a lot. Vinegar and sugar and salt and tomato, all in wild abundance: You add it to anything more complex and subtly flavored than a friggin' French fry, and all you get is the taste of ketchup, and the horror of being set upon by 9,000 enraged, shrimp-fork-wielding foodie nitwits hell-bent upon achieving your grisly demise.
Even the best condiments (sriracha among them) suffer from this: Their intensity of flavor limits their potential uses. That's because they're all adding more than one thing at a time: sweetness, say, and tartness; or tartness and salt; or, as in the case of your basic hot sauce, piquancy and tartness and salt. What if a food doesn't need all that? What if, like most foods, it's perfectly tasty as-is, but could be a tad more fun if it were maybe a bit hotter?
This is what makes chili oil such a splendid and versatile condiment. It adds one thing only (piquant heat), and the thing it adds (uh, piquant heat, in case you missed that) is the most fun thing to add. OK, yeah, it may add a touch of oily smoothness to things, but in incredibly minor proportion to that piquant heat, or anyway shut up, I'm trying to make a case here.
Chili oil is what it sounds like: cooking oil that has been infused with hot chili peppers. Its simplicity is mitigated—reduced—a bit by the precautions you have to take when handling the hotter variants of chili pepper and cleaning up after yourself when you've done so, but even so, you can make it in your kitchen with a hell of a lot more ease than what goes into, say, whipping up a batch of ranch friggin' dressing, with the added benefits that, unlike ranch dressing, chili is not fucking disgusting, and its consumption will not cause your doctor to look at you as though you just walked into her office with a dirty syringe dangling out of your neck.
As for the bit about it being easy to make: Let's see for ourselves. Ready? Of course you are.
First, of course, you will need to acquire some dried hot chili peppers. A nice big ol' double-fistful of 'em. You have a few options for doing that:
(A) You could buy a little canister of crushed red pepper at the friggin' grocery store like a real sack of crap; or
(B) You could buy a bag of dried whole chili peppers and grind them yourself like a moderately adventurous person; or
(C) You could buy some fresh chili peppers, string them up into ristras, dry them, and crush them, like a goddamn hero; or, lastly,
(D) You could do all the stuff from (C), but with peppers you grew yourself, in which case, uh, let's make a date to revisit this topic in late July.
All have their merits and drawbacks, of course. (A), for example, can't be beaten for ease and convenience, but leaves you with virtually no control over what variety of pepper you're using or how fresh it is, and is just kind of a lazy, unadventurous sack-of-crap way to do things. (D), at the far other end, gives you the sense of pure accomplishment that comes from having ushered the project from seed to condiment entirely by yourself, and also gives you a summer without any chili oil, which sucks. Probably option (B) is the best: Your local supermarket or bodega likely stocks a good variety of dried, bagged chili peppers, which gives you room to choose your favorite, and you don't have to devote time to growing and/or drying them, which is great because, for real, what are the odds you were gonna remember to do any of that? (Zero. The odds are zero.)
As for those peppers, you can decide for yourself which particular variety or combination to go with, from the milder jalapeño to the terrifying and utterly ludicrous Trinidad moruga scorpion, which, if you choose it, man oh man that is a dumb choice.* Don't go any milder than the jalapeño, unless you're particularly in the mood for a chili oil that makes you feel like this was a waste of time; you're free to do as you please, but unless you're looking to produce a cruel YouTube prank in liquid form, don't go for anything hotter than the habanero or Scotch bonnet, either.
*Seriously, though: If you're intending to use chili peppers from the scary upper stratosphere of piquancy (e.g. the ghost pepper or the aforementioned Trinidad moruga scorpion or a few other varieties of really frightening bioweapons that you'll almost certainly have to purchase online), you will need to take safety precautions that will only be outlined broadly here. Don't use those peppers. Those are for lunatics and Trinidadians.
For aesthetic purposes, if you can, go for red or orange chili peppers: These will produce a fiery-orange-colored chili oil, which will look really cool and, somewhat less importantly, indicate its own piquancy for some purely hypothetical person who possesses the cerebral wherewithal to associate red-orange colors with piquant heat but who is also dumb enough to consider just popping open an unlabeled bottle of oil in someone else's kitchen and pouring some of it onto his or her tongue for some goddamn reason. (The suggestion of red or orange chili peppers doesn't rule out using the relatively gentle jalapeño, by the way; if you can't find red ones either fresh or dried in your supermarket or bodega of choice, buy some fresh green ones and let 'em sit in a well-lit spot for a couple of days, and they'll probably turn red on their own.) Cayenne peppers are a great choice for this; so are serrano peppers, and red or orange habaneros.
Whether you grew your peppers and dried them, or bought them fresh and dried them, or bought them dried (but not if you just bought a canister of crushed red pepper, you great big wet blanket), at some point you'll have dried chili peppers, and you will need to crush them. Hopefully you have access to a food processor (or, failing that, an automated spice- or coffee-grinder); if not, hopefully you have access to a mortar and pestle; if you don't even have that, hopefully you live near a well-adjusted person, and can take advantage of that person's sweet and trusting nature to score for yourself a free food processor (and/or just, y'know, borrow theirs).
The important thing to know here is that the action of grinding dried chili peppers, virtually however you do it, is going to produce some oh-so-very-noticeable quantity of piquant chili-vapor. You think this is no big deal, and in the cosmic sense, sure, that is true, but just you try to explain that to your mucous membranes when they are in full revolt and your head feels like it is being dissolved by acid. Your mucous membranes do not have ears to listen. They care nothing for your "cosmic sense." They care only for making you feel bad about exposing them to aerosolized capsaicin, and, oh man, they have black belts in that shit.
The point here is that you will want to try to keep your face away from the action. If you're crushing, say, habaneros, and you're using a mortar and pestle, and your pride will allow you to do this, you may even want to hie thee to the drugstore for one of those neat-o paper surgical masks that covers your lower face; it won't protect your eyes, but it'll protect your nose, and that's worth protecting. Hell, get some latex gloves while you're at it. Better to suffer the indignity of dressing up like an astronaut to crush some peppers than to go barehanded and then, a few hours later, go absentmindedly to scratch an itchy eye and ruin the next 12 hours of your life.
Also, whatever you're using to crush your peppers, it will need to be cleaned thoroughly, and probably repeatedly, before you use it to do anything else.
OK, so. However you did it, you did it, and now you have a bunch of crushed red pepper. Dump your crushed red pepper into a medium-sized saucepot and cover it with a few cups of oil. This should be a sturdy oil with a fairly mild flavor, like canola or vegetable or some such; olive oil burns at too low a temperature and is too olive-y for this. Also, if you have a choice in the matter, a stainless-steel pot is best for this. The light, neutral color of the metal will allow you to keep track of the color of your oil and of the crushed red pepper it contains, both of which can tell you things about the doneness of your chili oil.
Now, heat the pot of oil and crushed pepper over low-ish heat on your stovetop. You don't want the oil anywhere even in the outer remote vicinity of deep-frying heat here; if your stovetop burner is controlled by a little knob that goes up to 10, set it at, oh, three, or two-and-a-half, and leave it there.
This will take a few minutes, but stay close by and keep an eye on things. (If you're using intensely hot peppers for this, try not to take any deep breaths directly over the pot, which may emit some capsaicin vapors once its contents get hot.) Give the pot's contents a few slow, gentle stirs with a wooden spoon as time goes by, and keep the heat pretty low. As the oil warms up, it will begin to take on the fiery-red-orange color from a few paragraphs ago; the important thing is not to let the crushed pepper burn in the oil, or it will impart a nasty, bitter, burned taste to the finished product. If things get too hot, the oil will turn brown or the flakes of crushed red pepper will begin turning black, and that'll be the indicator that you ruined your chili oil before you even finished making it. Be patient, and keep the heat low.
After, oh, what, a few minutes, depending on your stove and your pot and how much stuff you put in it and how many times you spilled its contents across the floor while slam-dancing for no goddamn reason and had to start all over, the pot's contents will be a vivid orange color and you can go ahead and remove the pot from the heat. There. Chili oil.
Of course, a pot of scalding hot chili oil is not the same thing as a piquant condiment that you can put to actual use. If you'd like to deploy some of your chili oil right away, go ahead and ladle some of it—with some of the (hopefully) still-red flakes of crushed pepper—into a small bowl or ramekin or whatever. We'll get to what you can do with it in just a second.
If you'd like to preserve it for later use, though, you're going to have to strain and bottle your chili oil. For this you'll need some kind of fine metal sieve with a layer or two of cheesecloth laid over it, a funnel, a lidded or corked glass bottle (or bottles), and a dishwasher. You'll position the cheesecloth-lined sieve over the funnel, and the funnel over the open top of the glass bottle(s), and you'll pour the still-hot oil carefully through this setup so that it winds up captured in the bottle and not, say, melting your shoe. Screw a lid onto the bottle or cram a cork in there. The sieve and cheesecloth will remove most of the particulate matter (including the solid remains of the crushed red pepper) from the oil; the dishwasher comes into all this earlier, when you ran the sieve, funnel, and bottle through it on its hottest setting, to get them as close to sterilized as you can manage. These will help your chili oil last longer, which is only a hypothetical concern, since you're going to use it up very quickly.
Speaking of which, hey, let's do that.
So now you've got some fiery orange chili oil, and it looks mean and smells great and oh god no don't drink it noooooo—what will you put it on? Eventually, everything. But, for now, scatter a few drops of it on a slice of pizza. Add half a teaspoon of it to the oil in a pan or pot or wok before you sauté, sear, or stir-fry in it; drip a bit more onto whatever you sautéed or seared or stir-fried in there once it's on the plate. Whisk it into a homemade salad dressing. Serve oysters on the half-shell and garnish each one with a squeeze of citrus and a single angry drop of chili oil. Add some to the dipping sauce for a batch of steamed dumplings. Drizzle some into a big bowl of soup broth and let the steam taunt your nose. Sprinkle some gorgeous, glistening droplets of it around the perimeter of any old plate of dinner, to dare yourself to dredge bites through it on their way to your mouth.
How simply and easily your chili oil vivifies whatever damn thing you grace with it, or vivifies your palate to be more appreciative of that damn thing. Hot and exciting, and you sweat and fan yourself and smile, and pay closer attention, and eat more eagerly, and have more fun. It is bottled fun. Have fun with it.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find lots more Foodspin at foodspin.deadspin.com.
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