Sichuan Chili Oil Recipe ft. Caiziyou (Lajiaoyou, 辣椒油)
Published Apr 27, 2021, Updated Feb 16, 2024
Lajiaoyou the Mainland Sichuan Way, ft. Caiziyou
When it comes to this Sichuan chili oil recipe, variations abound—but all share three core factors: chilis, oil and heat. Lately, the stateside popularity of dressed up chili oil (make it crispy! with aromatics! with douchi!) has soared. But throw in middling chilis, the sundry tasteless oils available outside of China, and a flimsy grasp of temperature control? Some of that chili oil’s more dressed down than up.
So if you’ve wondered why your chili oil doesn’t seem that spicy, or how to get that beautiful crimson red color, or where to even start, this guide’s for you.
I’m dedicating this Sichuan chili oil recipe to the traditional ingredients and methods mainland Sichuan cooks use to produce their 辣椒油 (làjiāoyóu), chili oil. It’s hard to find this information elsewhere in English simply because the star ingredient 菜籽油(càizǐyóu), roasted rapeseed oil, was nearly nonexistent outside China—until Taylor started importing it herself for The Mala Market. Now, since our successful trial run last spring, our caiziyou has spent more months sold out than available. But as of last week (our most loyal customers got notified first!), it’s finally back—in bulk.
WATCH: this lesson by our partner Chinese Cooking Demystified for the lowdown on caiziyou!
Caiziyou: Not Just About the Flavor
There’s one thing about caiziyou’s centrality to lajiaoyou and 红油 (hóngyóu) dressings only Chinese sources will tell you, though: adhesive quality. This is especially relevant for cold Sichuan dishes where hongyou (literally, the red oil produced from making chili oil) dominates. Ultimately, the better an oil clings to food, the better its application as a delivery vessel for fragrance and flavor.
Incidentally, caiziyou’s infamous erucic acid content (see above video) makes it the most viscous (Tables 1-2) of rapeseed-derived oils¹ (including canola) and other everyday oils like olive², coconut, corn and soybean³. Viscosity matters because hongyou coating behaves differently as a cold-dish adhesive “running” on your food’s surface. At lower temperatures, caiziyou is more highly viscous and less runny, making it the ideal hongyou vessel.
Choosing the Right Chilies
Despite one-dimensional conceptions of Sichuan food as all spicy, all the time, Sichuan chili oil isn’t even that spicy. Instead, fragrance is its most potent quality. Traditional ingredients emphasize the combination of aroma and spice, and for old-fashioned Sichuan chili oil, no further aromatics are needed. Of course, the taste of authentic lajiaoyou is inseparable from its cooked caiziyou base—which is perhaps suggestive of why most English-language chili oil recipes end up emphasizing the other aromatics in caiziyou’s absence.
- Purists say adding other spices detracts from lajiaoyou’s “original” taste. However, some old hats add (at most) fried sesame seeds or peanuts.
- A minimum of two kinds of dried chilies are used: one fragrant, the other spicy. Locally, this means 二荆条 (èrjīngtiáo) and the 子弹头 (zǐdàntóu) variety of “Facing Heaven” 朝天椒 (cháotiānjiāo), respectively. Adding 小米辣 (xiǎomǐlà) kicks the spiciness up another notch.
- No, Italian/Korean chili flakes are not the same and cannot be substituted for Sichuan chili flakes.
Erjingtiao: Low spiciness, strong fragrance, very strong coloring ability
Zidantou: Moderate spiciness, strong fragrance, strong coloring ability
Xiaomila: High spiciness, weak fragrance, weak coloring ability
For this recipe, I’m using our fragrant-hot ground chili blend from The Mala Market. This blend combines xiaomila, erjingtiao and zidantou chilies to make the same lajiaoyou we love with 0% of the usual DIY chili-grinding prep. And, therefore, 0% of the pain. (Ma is known for toasting chilis so hot just entering the house makes everyone else cough and tear up, then using a dedicated food processor to crush said chilis to flakes, such that any use of the machine for weeks thereafter imparts a stinging heat to whatever’s inside—learned the hard but inventive way while making mango sorbet.)
Making Sichuan Chili Oil at Home
Since home cooks use a higher ratio of the hongyou runoff to dress other dishes, we highly recommend the oilier end of the caiziyou-to-chili ratio. Traditionally, this is between 3:1 and 5:1. We don’t measure much when cooking, but when developing this recipe we found our usual batch nearing 5:1 (by weight, not volume).
- Caiziyou differs from other vegetable oils. Below 410-464F (210-240C), the rapeseed oil will smell “raw” or grassy. To rid this raw quality, the oil must first be heated until smoking and allowed to cool before using.
- Theoretically, the oil and ground chilies each require adding in three distinct phases. The first pour-over at the highest oil temperature extrudes or “forces out” the smoky-fragrant chili aroma (增香, zēng xiāng). The second pour at a middle temperature draws out the attractive red color of the oil (提色, tí sè). The third and last pour at the lowest temperature preserves the spice of the chilis. But it’s the first two phases that are the most important, and many chefs only use high and middle temperature oil in their lajiaoyou. This is further testament that Sichuan chefs use chili oil primarily for fragrance and color, not heat.
Finally, the batch is covered and sealed for at least 24 hours undisturbed to yield the full effect of the fragrance. Failing to rest your chili oil in a closed container means you’ll lose much of the aroma to the atmosphere. Similar to toasting and grinding 花椒 (huājiāo), Sichuan pepper, making small batches ensures you get the most flavor before fading.
For the aromatic, spiced version of Ma’s Sichuan Chili Oil recipe, refer to my follow-up guide to Aromatic Sichuan Chili Oil!
Sichuan Chili Oil Recipe ft. Caiziyou (Lajiaoyou, 辣椒油)
- Sealable, heat-proof, nonreactive glass or porcelain container
- 30 grams ground chilies, divided (see note) approx. 5 tablespoons
- 150 grams caiziyou (roasted rapeseed oil), divided approx. ⅔ cup
- Begin with a third of the chili mixture in your heatproof container. In a wok or saucepot, add the cold oil. If attaching a hands-free thermometer, take care that the sensor end is sufficiently submerged for an accurate reading but not touching the metal of the cooking vessel.
- Heat oil until smoking, about 410°F/210°C on a medium heat setting*, stirring occasionally to ensure heating is even. Turn off heat and allow to cool on its own, taking care not to exceed 464°F/240°C. *If your heating element is too hot, your caiziyou will heat unevenly, producing smoke earlier on. If this happens (smoking heavily by 375°F/190°C), it's better to take the oil off the heat early than risk burning the oil. It's always possible your temperature gauge may not be perfectly accurate, so learning to judge by sight/smell is the most reliable skill for mastering your unique cooking environment!
- Once cooked oil cools to about 356°F/180°C*, pour a third of the oil into your container with the ground chilies, stirring constantly. It should bubble vigorously, but not burn. While it's still bubbling, add another third of the ground chilies.*For the right fragrance at this step, the oil must be no cooler than 356°F/180°C and no hotter than 375°F/190°C.
- Once cooked oil cools to about 302°F/150°C, pour another third of the oil into the container, stirring constantly. Add the remaining third of the ground chilies.
- Once cooked oil cools to about 248°F/120°C, pour the remaining third of oil into the container, stirring constantly. Cover the container and let rest on counter for at least 24 hours before using.
Tried this recipe?