A Kiss of Heat: Cooking with Chile-Infused Oils

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  by Julie O’Hara

A Kiss of Heat:Cooking with Chile
Infused Oils
We all love a juicy hit of searing heat from our favorite chile pepper mixed into salsa or scattered over a salad. But, what about those times when a gentle kiss of heat is all you really crave? By learning a simple method for making infused oils, you can add the excitement and flavor of chiles to your cooking in a whole new way. You might even discover that some dishes are better with only a subtle infusion of chile flavor.

Add Chiles to Everything

I want to add chiles to everything, and a good number of you probably feel the same. From the smoky chipotle to the fresh and mild poblano, chiles add unique flavor and heat that grabs you by the tip of the tongue and sets your mouth ablaze. Most of the time, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Salsas, ceviches and curries would be incomplete without the unrelenting kick of jalapenos, habaneros or fiery little Thai chiles.

Then there are the dishes that are not so well suited to a powerful chile embrace. What about garlicky Italian pastas, grilled fish and cool summer salads? Their delicate flavors run the risk of being completely overcome if you slice and dice your chiles into the mix with reckless abandon.

So what is a well-meaning chile lover to do? By making your own fresh, chile-infused oils, you can add a kiss of heat to just about anything you cook without overpowering the flavor or sending people running from your table with their mouths on fire. It is also a sneaky way to share your beloved chiles with folks who cannot handle the heat of the real thing. With infused oils, you just might make believers out of them after all.

Give a Kiss of Heat to Any Food, Anytime!
Chile-Infused Oils

The method for making chile-infused oils could not be simpler, and the finished product is incredibly versatile. Chile peppers get their flavor and aroma from essential oils. If you tried to infuse chile flavor into a cup of water, you wouldn’t get very far because oil and water do not mix. Infusing canola or olive oil with chile peppers on the other hand, is the perfect strategy. All the flavor of the chile, plus a mellowed level of heat, will transfer from the pepper to the oil when you infuse it in your oven.

You can make infused oil with any chile pepper you like, from the scorching Scotch bonnet to the mild poblano. Dried chile peppers work just as well as fresh, so you can create new infused oils all year round. My favorite chile-infused oil is made with the intensely warm and smoky dried chipotle. This oil has a medium heat level, but fills your whole mouth with irresistible chipotle flavor. It adds an intriguing element of taste when drizzled over grilled vegetables, scrambled eggs or pasta. Toss it with potato wedges, season with salt and pepper and roast for a side dish with fire and flair. For an easy meal in the colors of the Italian flag, use it in the Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Chipotle Oil that I created for this story.

Habanero-infused oil will be a treat to anyone who cannot tolerate this fiery chile as is. The often intense habanero makes an infused oil that tastes light and clean at first, then envelops the back of your throat in a pleasant cloak of soft heat. The lingering warmth will please a chile-lover, but lacks the scorching effect that is too harsh for tender palates. Use this full-bodied oil anywhere you would use plain vegetable oil, such as for sauteing and in marinades. It acts as a vivid base for the bold chimichurri sauce that I make to spoon over grilled swordfish in the recipe that follows.

While I enjoy the deep smokiness of the chipotle-infused oil and the warmth of the habanero oil, milder chiles also create interesting infusions. Poblano-infused oil has a very low heat level, but the light, grassy flavor makes a unique addition to fruit salsas, cold salads or sandwiches in place of the usual mayonnaise. One of the best ways to use all these oils is as a condiment for fresh bread, the way olive oil is used instead of butter at Italian restaurants. Make three or four different infused oils, slice up a loaf of crusty bread and have your friends try to guess which chiles you used.

Follow These Tips for Great (and Safe!) Results

You need a couple of hours to create a chile-infused oil, but most of that time will be spent relaxing while your oven does the work for you. Although the process could not be simpler, there are some food safety tips that you absolutely must follow when making infused oils at home.

Use only the quantities specified in the following recipe: 2 to 4 tablespoons of fresh or dried chiles with 1 cup of oil. Never double the recipe or use a greater amount of oil, as this would drastically change the processing time.

The best container for making infused oils is a glass, 2-cup measuring cup, such as Pyrex.

Use a deep fry or candy thermometer to make sure the oil reaches a temperature of 250 degrees F before removing it from the oven.

Use a coffee filter to strain the solids from the cooled oil before storing. It is important that no fresh chiles or herbs are added back into the oil because this would introduce the risk of the food borne illness, botulism.

–Store your infused oil in glass jars with tight-fitting lids in the refrigerator for up to one month. Label the jars with a “born on” date and discard any leftovers you do not use in that time.

Short on Time? You Can Find These Infused Oils Online or at Your Supermarket

Infusing your own oils lets you control the heat and flavor, and keeps the oil all natural. Commercial infused oils contain acidifying agents that inhibit growth of harmful bacteria, so they do not need to be refrigerated. If you are pressed for time, the following brands are tasty alternatives.


–Giani Calogiuri Extra Virgin Olive Oil with Chili Pepper (www.igourmet.com)


–Olivado Chili & Bell Pepper Infused Avocado Oil (www.olivado.com)

–La Piana Chilli Pepper Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil (www.amazon.com)

Chile-Infused Oil

Canola oil is the best choice for creating chile-infused oil because it has a neutral flavor and contains very little saturated fat. Any oil with a smoke point over 250 degrees F. can also be used. Olive oil is another good pick, and you can experiment with how the chiles complement its mild flavor. Use 2 to 4 tablespoons of any chopped chile you like. Recommended quantities for some of my favorite chiles are below, but have fun creating oil that gives the perfect kiss of heat to suit your tastes. The food borne illness, botulism, is a risk if food safety practices are not observed, so extra precautions are taken in this recipe. Please follow it as written.

1 cup canola oil
2 to 4 tablespoons dried or fresh chopped chiles, with or without seeds

Recommended Quantities:

Dried Chipotle-Infused Oil

3 tablespoons chopped dried chipotle chiles, with seeds

Habanero-Infused Oil

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped habanero chiles, with or without seeds, depending on desired heat level

Poblano-Infused Oil

4 tablespoons chopped poblano chiles, with seeds

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Pour the canola oil into a 2-cup size glass measuring cup. Add the chopped chiles. Place the measuring cup on a pie plate or baking dish in the center of the oven. Leave the oil to infuse for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Using a candy or deep fry thermometer, check the temperature of the oil. If it reaches 250 degrees F, put the measuring cup on a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes. If the oil does not reach 250 degrees F, return to the oven for an additional 20 minutes and test again.

Place a coffee filter over a clean and completely dry glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Slowly pour a small amount of the oil into the filter, letting it drain into the jar before pouring more oil. If the oil appears cloudy or separates into layers after straining, moisture is still present in the oil. If this happens, return it to the oven until it is clear. You may also refrigerate the cloudy oil right away and use it within a week. If the oil is clear, cover the jar, label with the type of oil and the date and refrigerate for up to a month. If you do not use all the oil within a month, discard any leftovers.

Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

Yield: 1 cup oil
Heat Scale: Varies
Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Chipotle Oil

Like the famous Pizza Margarita, this pasta dish is dressed up in the colors of the Italian flag. Native to Rome, Spaghetti alla Carbonara gets its creamy sauce from the addition of beaten eggs that are cooked by tossing with the hot pasta. Traditionally made with bacon or pancetta, this recipe is simplified by substituting prosciutto so you can have this flavorful dish on the table in under 20 minutes. Timing is everything here, so add your garlic to the smoky chipotle oil when the pasta is just a minute from being finished.

Salt to taste
1 pound spaghetti
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving
1 tablespoon cream or milk
Black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons dried chipotle chile-infused oil
3 finely chopped cloves garlic
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
3 cups firmly packed arugula
4 thin slices prosciutto, cut into bite size pieces

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Season with salt, then add the spaghetti and cook according to package directions.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs in a small bowl and stir in the cheese, cream, a pinch of salt and black pepper to taste. Set aside.

Preheat the chipotle oil in a large, nonstick skillet over low heat. When the spaghetti is about one minute from being cooked, add the garlic to the hot skillet. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the tomatoes and arugula, season with pepper and stir to coat with the oil. Drain the pasta in a colander, then add it to the skillet and gently toss to coat with the vegetables and chipotle oil. Add the prosciutto and toss to combine.

Remove the skillet from the heat and immediately pour the egg mixture all over the pasta in the skillet. Toss until all the pasta is coated and the egg mixture is slightly thickened. Divide the Spaghetti alla Carbonara among four plates and serve immediately, passing extra Parmesan cheese at the table.

Yield: 4 main dish servings
Heat Level: Mild


Smoky Corn Salad with Chipotle Oil

Fresh corn on the cob will take on the most flavor when cooked on a charcoal grill, but it is also delicious and easy when cooked under your oven’s broiler. Queso cotija is a firm, slightly salty Mexican cheese that you can find in Latin markets and many supermarkets. Feta is a good substitute. This colorful salad is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled fish or meat. Bring it to a potluck supper and see if anyone can guess how you added so much warm, smoky flavor to this simple dish.

4 cobs corn, husks removed
4 tablespoons chipotle-infused oil, divided
1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, chopped
1/3 cup roughly chopped, loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
3/4 cup crumbled queso cotija or feta
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat a grill or broiler. Rub the corncobs with 2 tablespoons of the chipotle-infused oil. Cook on the grill until some of the kernels start to turn golden or place on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally until golden.

Holding the top of one corncob so it is standing vertically on a cutting board, slowly run a knife down the sides of the cob to remove the kernels. Repeat with remaining corncobs and add the kernels to a large serving bowl. Add the tomatoes, red onion and cilantro to the bowl. Stir the salad gently to combine. Add the lime juice and the remaining 2 tablespoons of chipotle oil and stir to combine. Fold in the queso cotija and try a bite of the salad. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Level: Mild
Swordfish with Habanero
Chimichurri Sauce

Chimichurri is a fresh Argentinean sauce that is served with all kinds of grilled meats and fish. Olive oil is used traditionally, but the habanero-infused oil in this recipe imparts a bright flavor and subtle heat that acts as a background for the garlic and tangy red wine vinegar. The large, flat Italian parsley is an essential ingredient, but oregano or another leafy green herb may be substituted for the cilantro. The firm, meaty texture of the swordfish makes it a good choice for this bold sauce, though other white fish like flounder or tilapia also works well.

For the fish:

4 (6-8 ounce) swordfish steaks
2 tablespoons habanero-infused oil
Salt and pepper to taste

For the chimichurri:

1 1/2 cups packed Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup packed cilantro leaves
2 to 3 peeled cloves garlic
2 small, peeled shallots
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup habanero-infused oil

Preheat a grill or oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the oil over the swordfish steaks and season with salt and pepper. Grill or bake on a foil-lined baking sheet until fish feels firm to the touch and is opaque throughout.

Meanwhile, add the parsley, cilantro, garlic, shallots, red wine vinegar and salt and pepper to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for 5 to 10 seconds or until the herbs and garlic are roughly chopped. Switch the processor to “on,” and pour the oil through the feed tube in a slow, steady stream, then turn off the processor. The ingredients should be finely minced, but not turned into a completely smooth puree.

Put one swordfish steak on each of four plates and spoon equal amounts of the chimichurri sauce over the fish. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings
Heat Level: Mild
Chunky Peach Salsa
with Poblano Oil

This light and fresh salsa is a colorful addition to any dish. Spoon it over grilled salmon or mix it into a shredded chicken salad.

1 large tomato, seeded and chopped
1 1/2 firm peaches, pitted and chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 small red onion, chopped
Juice of half a lime
2 tablespoons poblano-infused oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the tomato, peaches, jalapeno peppers and red onion in a medium bowl. Add the lime juice, poblano oil and salt and pepper. Stir gently to combine. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for several hours.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Level: Mild

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