The best chili crisp brands and how to use them

I was shocked when I received emails and comments like “What is Chili Crisp?” after my corn soup recipe using the ingredient was posted. I first encountered it about four years ago, first trying it while traveling abroad, and loved the crunchy, umami-filled, slightly hot seasoning. That same year, food writer Cathy Erway wrote “The Cult of Spicy Chile Crisp Is Real” for Taste, and my experience shows this to be true, as it has since permeated my social media feeds and food culture in general.

Corn Chowder with Chili Crisp is a sweet and tangy feel-good bowl

“When a cult forms around a food item, it can seem like it’s going to hit the whole world at once,” Erway wrote. “But this oily, speckled concoction of fried spices with a not-so-subtle boost of MSG has been around China’s Guizhou province since Lao Gan Ma started making and selling chili chips in 1997.” Beyond that, the spice was itself a staple in Chinese cooking long before it could be bought on the shelf. “Don’t call it a trend. It is the largest chili sauce in China, the country with the largest population.”

What is Chili Crisp and how do I use it?

Chili crisp is a condiment consisting of oil infused with paprika and other spicy, often crunchy, crunchy ingredients. It’s also sometimes referred to as “chili crunch,” “chili oil, and “chili sauce,” with crunches and chips tending to have a higher ratio of crunchy bits to oil (though not always). Flavor and texture vary widely between the recipes you’ll find online and in the jars available for purchase, and while spice is often the main flavor, umami tends to come second.

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Perhaps most important to the heat is the amount and type of peppers used. Some chips are relatively mild, with just a hint of spice. Others can pack a shot into a fraction of a teaspoon, often thanks to the Sichuan peppercorns, which bring not only heat but a tingly, numbing feeling. Other ingredients you can find include various alliums (onions, garlic, and shallots), peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans, black beans, mushroom powder, seaweed, MSG, anchovies, crystallized ginger, and sugar — in addition to the mysterious “spices” that are not spelled out on some ingredient labels, which may include cumin, red cardamom, and star anise.

There are no limits when it comes to uses, be it as a seasoning for ready meals or as an ingredient used during the cooking process. Drizzle on scrambled eggs, pizza, or fried chicken. “I’ve added the mildly hot sauce to stir-fries and dumpling dipping sauces, stirred it in rice, tossed it with sautéed eggplant, squash and broccoli, and rubbed it into shrimp before frying,” wrote recipe editor Ann Maloney. You can use it as a marinade for meat, fish or tofu, or as a flavor enhancer in mayonnaise, dips and dressings. “I often combine softened butter and chili crisp and apply it to fried chicken for fantastic results. I add a spoonful of chilli oil in water to make a quick broth for the soup. And I mix and match different chili chips to add complexity to my pasta,” James Park wrote in Eater. (Park is working on a cookbook dedicated to this ingredient.) It even works with desserts! (Try it spoonful over vanilla ice cream and thank me later.)

Miso Parmesan Pasta with Chili Crisp is a weekday wonder

Keep in mind that the solids will settle to the bottom of the jar quickly, so it’s a good idea to give the chili crisp a good stir to ensure it mixes evenly with each additional scoop. And while some brands say it’s okay to store chili chips at room temperature, once opened, they’re best refrigerated for maximum freshness and flavor.

Our favorite chili chips

New chili chips seem to be coming out all the time, with grocery chains, celebrity chefs, small restaurants and chili chip lovers all launching their own products. To narrow it down, I and a few brave colleagues tried 10 jars available in international grocery stores, well stocked supermarkets and online. Some of them sparked very different thoughts and opinions, but we unanimously liked these four.

Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp. What stood out before it was even tasted was that it had the “least amount of oil,” one taster commented. “I enjoy how many things there are.” It’s instantly recognizable to anyone who eats chili chips. “The flakes give a nice texture, but they’re not overly crunchy per se,” and another person commented, “I’d like it a little crunchier.” It has a fairly medium level of spice. “Overall it’s fruity and good and I’m glad it’s so readily available.”

Momofuku Chili Crunch. “This one has warmth that is layered and lasting. There are different levels of heat that hit separately, like they’re time bombs going off one at a time.” It also has more crunch and lives up to its name, with one person commenting that they “love the crunch and the heavy presence of sesame seeds.” It also has a noticeable sweetness; The tasters were divided on whether they liked this aspect.

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Milu Chili Crisp. A “suitable option if you don’t want to be overwhelmed by heat,” said one commenter, while another said it had a “comfortable warming heat but not super hot”. It’s also great in terms of texture, with one taster remarking, “Audibly crisp, yes!” The only downside is that this vessel was at the top of the spectrum in terms of oil-to-solids ratio. “If only the jar wasn’t 70 percent oil and 30 percent crunchy – it would be an absolute winner.”

S&B Umami Topping Crispy garlic with chili oil. This jar might have had the least amount of spices of any we tasted, but everyone liked the overall flavor, calling it “super complex” and enjoying the “strong hit of sesame oil.” This was also perhaps the most “crunch-tastic” of the bunch, with everyone commenting on their texture.

The others we tried were Mr. Bing Chili Crisp, ZinDrew Crunchy Garlic Chili Oil, Oomame Chinese Chile Crisp, Fly by Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, Su Chili Crisp, and Trader Joe’s Crunchy Chili Onion. Many of these created mixed feelings in our tasting group and it is possible that you will find your favorite in this group.

However, there was one that we generally agreed was at the bottom of the list – Trader Joe’s. (Sorry TJ fans.) Comments included, “Definitely not the best,” “I don’t want to,” and last but not least, “No.”

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