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Chile Oil and Chili Vinegar

Two recipes for using dried chiles to make a condiment.

The restaurant critic for the New York Times, Pete Wells, announced on Twitter last week that his newspaper has changed their style guide’s spelling for hot peppers to “chile” from “chili”. I don’t always perfectly land the proper execution but the debates that involve spelling are catnip to me.

I’m just as keenly interested in using somewhat-scientific tests to compare two dishes or two ways of preparing a recipe to improve my understanding of why things taste a certain way.

In this case I found myself with a large Mason jar of dried peppers that I grew last summer, and smoke-dried in the wood-fired oven last autumn. They taste delicious and smell even better (it wasn’t until the middle of January that I finally broke the habit of opening the lid and sticking my nose in for a consuming, smoky whiff). I worry, though that we’re not eating them fast enough.

I’ve been pulling the stems off, shaking the seeds and most of the middle part back into the jar and crumbling the milder tips into stews and various egg recipes. Still it’s difficult to get just the right amount of capsaicin-heat this way. A liquid application seemed like the solution.

Most hot sauces use vinegar as a base; both Italian and Asian restaurants of a certain type feature jars of (semi-sanitary) chile oil on the tables for customers to use. I wondered (out loud, on Twitter) which–oil or vinegar–would do a better job of carrying chile flavour?

Responses varied but tended more towards the case (a good prima facie one at least) that fat’s culinary job is to carry flavour.

So, into each of two very clean 500ml Mason jars I put a handful of the dried peppers and added vinegar to one and oil to the other and left them for a couple weeks while we went on vacation. If you’d like a more formal recipe here you go.

Dried smoked chiles that I grew last summer, further preserved in oil and vinegar.

Dried smoked chiles that I grew last summer, further preserved in oil and vinegar.

Chile Oil

  • 300 ml oil of choice (I used standard olive oil)
  • one handful (maybe 15 small-medium) dried chiles, stems pulled off but seeds left in

Chile Vinegar

  • 300 ml vinegar of choice (apple cider for me)
  • one handful (maybe 15 small-medium) dried chiles, stems pulled off but seeds left in
  • Place the chiles in a very clean Mason jar. Heat the oil to 200°F 260°F (I’ve made this change to be absolutely safe on the botulism front. If the oil is at that temperature it will kill any nasty spores after three minutes in contact with the chiles.) or the vinegar to the point where it becomes quite fragrant and just barely starts to steam. Pour liquid into jar, over chiles. Cool at room temperature for a couple hours and then screw on plastic lid.
  • Let steep for a couple days before starting to use. The vinegar should be refrigerated and will last for at least a month there. The oil for just as long at room temperature.

This test is a bit more unscientific than usual because I used apple cider vinegar and olive oil. Sure, distilled white and a light vegetable oil would have given a more neutral testing ground but I was just as interested in using the result as in answering the question.

A bit to my surprise, it’s the vinegar that does the less subtle job. Just opening the lid releases a noticeable dose of smoky, chile aroma. It’s flavour is much hotter but also preserves the fruity and wood-flavoured characteristics.

I think the oil has a milder flavour because of fat’s other principal characteristic: It coats the tongue and interrupts our tastebuds’ ability to sense. The advantages it has over vinegar are that the flavour takes longer to build, changes subtly as you swallow, and lingers longer. Also, the oil will store longer and catches up flavour-wise when the food is hot–like pasta or toasted bread.

Both of these very simple condiments do just what I wanted by giving me access to the smoky chile flavour in small doses. And if you just can’t shake the impression that “chile” isn’t the right way to spell the pepper it’s probably because you’re under 40 and the band is still the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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  1. Eileen says:

    Hmm, a very interesting project. And what do you know–I have olive oil, vinegar, and a big bag of dried chiles just waiting around in my cupboard. Thanks for the great idea!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks, Eileen. I think it’s definitely worth a shot.

  3. Ayngelina says:

    I would have never thought to put chile into the vinegar instead. I like a punch of heat, this could be good.

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