Chili oil: A hot sauce or not sauce?

Hot sauces and spicy condiments are getting produced, manufactured, and sold all across the globe more than they ever have. Some are new ideas in sauce creations and food pairings and others are hot sauces that have been around for a while but are just getting discovered. Chili oil is a spicy condiment that originally came from China and is now getting popularized and enjoyed by consumers on a wide variety of foods.

Chinese chili oil is a condiment that combines red peppers in the form of flakes, and also uses the flavors from Sichuan peppercorns, spices such as ginger, and toasted sesame seeds. Other spices are used and strained over the top of red pepper flakes using hot oil and left to steep. Chili oil or chili crisp is enjoyed with traditional foods such as dumplings and noodles or can also be consumed with hot sauce favorites like mac and cheese.

What is chili oil?

Chili oil or spicy chili crisp are terms used interchangeably to be a similar spicy and oil-based condiment that originated in China. Chili oil started to become increasingly popular in the United States after 2005 when the Sichuan peppers used to make it were no longer banned from import, and it has been gaining popularity ever since.

What is the difference between chili crisp and chili oil?

Traditional chili oil will be clear and have a pinkish hue to it whereas a chili crisp will have red pepper flakes and other spices that will crunch throughout the sauce with every bite. With a chili crisp, the oil will separate from the spice but because of the bright red of the oil, it is still very appealing.

The first ingredient in most brands of chili oil is…oil of course. Different brands will use different oils as well as different ingredients much like the variety of ingredients in gourmet hot sauces. Soybean oil, vegetable oil, or sesame oil are the most common oils for chili crisp although sunflower and corn oil can also be found in some popular brands. A chili crisp using rapeseed oil would follow a traditional recipe. What is referred to now as chili oil is infused with spice but also contains red pepper flakes and has a consistency of a paste. The oil separates from the paste and is sometimes strained for different uses.

Unlike many traditional or classic hot sauces chili oil can be high in calories and usually is not as high on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) scale. Its use is as varied as a hot sauce and has also become as popular but has still not reached the status of hot sauce brands such as Sriracha and Tabasco.

Why is chili oil popular?

Chili oils and chili crisps are becoming more popular because consumers desire to try new and spicy creations. The desire for the hot sauce demographic to consume chili oil is backed by the Asian cuisine being introduced and popularized into mainstream culture and by the increasing Asian population. For decades new and interesting foods from Asia have been imported with their acceptance.

It tastes good

Another reason why chili oil or chili crisp has become so popular is that it tastes good. Chili oil or chili crisp taste great by itself unlike many other condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustards that are used to complement foods. I would never eat it as a stand-alone dish because it, like other condiments, is meant to enhance food.

What is it made with?

Er jing tiao pepper

Although not inclusive of chili oil the Er Jing Tiao pepper has a heat level of 50,000 – 70,000 SHU. I like to compare all spices that I consume to the common jalapeno that I use frequently, which has a heat level of 5,000 SHU. I can tolerate a jalapeno quite well, so it works for gauging different levels of heat for me. To compare the Er Jing Tiao pepper to common hot peppers used in sauce download the 25 Most Common Peppers in Hot Sauce.

The deep rich red or burgundy coloring of the Er Jing Tiao is what is responsible for the bright red color of a chili crisp or the red hue of chili oil. Like the Er Jing Tiao, the Tribute also has a bright red color to it that is represented in the finished color of the chili oil as well.

Tribute pepper (Gong Jiao)

The province of Sichuan China is the ideal climate for growing peppers, which is where the Tribute pepper comes from. These small red peppers have a cool citrus flavor to them as well as spice but not all chili oil recipes use the Er Jing Tiao or the Gong Jiao peppers. Most recipes, especially homemade chili oil will use dried and crushed Sichuan pepper. This is what gives a chili crisp its texture.


Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cinnamon, and bay leaves as well as garlic, shallots, and ginger are common ingredients used to make chili oil and chili crisp. Many of these spices are infused within the chili oil as part of the process. One drawback to many hot sauces and chili oils is the high level of sodium because of the addition of salt.

High sodium

Aside from high caloric contents, a chili crisp can also be high in sodium, unlike a true chili oil without pepper flakes which will often have zero sodium content. However, it is not uncommon for many hot sauces and related condiments to be high in sodium.

How it’s made

Chili oil and chili crisp is made much differently than a hot sauce that blends hot peppers with other ingredients. Aromatics are used to infuse the oil with flavor as it is brought to a boil with these ingredients in it. The hot oil is then strained from the aromatics and poured over the chili flakes. These steps are as important as some of the complex processes of making hot sauce.

What food is Chinese Chili oil good with?

A chili oil, paste, or hot sauce are all condiments intended to spice up a variety of foods from traditional cuisine to new snacks and desserts. Condiments are intended to be eaten with other foods so if you have never tried it before stick to the traditional foods it was intended to be consumed with.

Traditional foods

Noodles are a traditional favorite in Asian cuisine. Dumplings, wontons, and rice, like noodles, are all traditional foods that pair well with chili oil. It is also used as a marinade or dipping sauce for meat and seafood. I have seen it advertised as a topping for ice cream…but honestly have not tried it.

Nontraditional foods

Like hot sauce, many nontraditional foods go great with chili oil, and some of the same foods are great with hot sauces as well. Chicken wings, mac & cheese, and fried eggs (or any method of cooking eggs) are all complimented with a couple of servings of chili oil or chili crisp. A chili crisp sauce will add a great texture to tofu and offer a very flavorful vegan meal.

Why is Chinese chili oil not a hot sauce?

Some hot sauce enthusiasts don’t consider chili oil to be a hot sauce because it is more of a paste. Spice comes in many forms and flavors. A hot sauce is a blended, liquid form of a hot pepper mixed with other ingredients to form a thin consistency. A chili oil has flavors infused into it as pepper flakes are added, not blended, for spiciness.

Compared to other hot sauces

Compared to hot sauces a chili oil will not be as acidic and will have a much higher pH value closer to the alkaline side of the scale. This is due to the high oil content and lack of acidic ingredients such as vinegar. You also won’t find it ranging past a SHU of 10,000.

This has been an accepted spicy product that has gain popularity due to the increase in the hot sauce market. Whereas avid hot sauce consumers crave and demand sauces of extreme heat, chili oil has not yet reached the heat level of some of these extreme sauces.

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