Chili crunch is the versatile condiment you need to be using. Learn the best brands to try, plus how to make it at home.

Chili crunch is a condiment that's growing in popularity, known for its spice-infused chili oil and crunchy ingredients. (Photo: Momofuku)
Chili crunch is a condiment that's growing in popularity, known for its spice-infused chili oil and crunchy ingredients. (Photo: Momofuku)

Chili crunch is a crunchy flavorful condiment that's been increasing in popularity for years. Chili oil with added umami (savoriness) and texture, chili crunch works for everything from spicing up pasta dishes to giving a slice of pizza a bit more flair. And it's becoming more readily-available: in spots ranging from grocery chains like Trader Joe's to higher-end Asian markets, picking up a jar of chili crunch is easier than ever before.

But what exactly is chili crunch?

The origins of chili crunch

"These condiments have been around for a long time in Asia, " says Jarrod Craft, a corporate chef at The Fresh Market, "like all the amazingly-nuanced products from those cultures."

Perhaps most popularized by culinary brand Momofuku's famed Chili Crunch, it's rich in a tradition of crunchy-spicy sauces that have existed in cultures around the world for years. "My first experience with chili oil is from the tables at Chinese restaurants, but they were merely oil and peppers together [used to add] additional heat to dishes," says Craft.

"Chili crunch is one of many products that over the years, has finally exploded in popularity through steady social media [exposure] via influencers and celebrity chefs," says Craft. "This allowed everyone to become familiar with — and begin appreciating — unheard of products that offer balanced profiles and unique flavors."

What's in chili crunch?

Chili crunches can have a range of ingredients, but are united in being crispy or crunchy, offering texture and umami while also having a spicy garlicky flavor that compliments a variety of dishes. Chili crunch condiments are red chili-steeped oils, but have the distinction of crispy fried inclusions like garlic and ginger, fermented soybeans and smoked ingredients, which offer a greater eating experience beyond the persistent warm burn of normal chili oil.

One of the most famous and instantly-recognizable chili crunches of them all is Momofuku Chili Crunch, which now comes in a range of varieties, from Hot Honey to Black Truffle. "Momofuku Chili Crunch is Momofuku Goods' contribution to the world of chili oils," explains says Marguerite Zabar Mariscal, chief operating officer of Momofuku Goods and Momofuku. She credits David Chang, celebrity chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group, and the Momofuku Culinary Lab with perfecting the recipe.

"The team spent years tinkering and experimenting in our restaurant kitchens to create a Chili Crunch ... that delivers a balanced flavor and satisfying crunch," she adds. "Our riff on Chili Crunch blends the vinegary chili oils we love with the ingredients and textures of salsa macha — a thick, oily salsa — and salsa seca, a lesser-known dry salsa. We use smoky sweet dried chilies, crispy garlic and shallots combined with sesame seeds and oils to create a complex and balanced crunch."

How to use chili crunch

The opportunities for using chili crunch are endless, from spicy and savory to even sweet dessert dishes.

"Yes, it is amazing on noodles, rice, pork buns and eggs," says Zabar Mariscal, "but our team also loves to put it on ice cream, in yogurt and sour cream to make dips, on charcuterie boards, in marinades for meats and veggies and even as a topping on pizza."

Given it has both a spicy and smoky quality to it, chili crunch really works with anything.

"It's packed with umami notes and is far more complex than its chili oil brethren," says Craft, adding that chili crunch great in place of any condiment you'd normally use, like salsa or another chutney, and best in finishing applications: drizzled over wonton appetizers, sushi, soup, stir fry or noodle bowls. "Don't be afraid to fold them into anything or use them on any American staple: breakfast eggs (or any egg application, such as deviled), hot dogs, burgers, pizza and loaded nachos."

Keeping the crunch crisp

Maintaining a crunchy texture is crucial to the chili crunch experience, but how does it stay crisp inside the jar?

"We're very specific about our sourcing and production process," Zabar Mariscal says of the Momofuku variety. "The crunch is crucial to us, and it comes from a perfect blend of crispy shallots, dried garlic and sesame seeds. Our ratio of crunch to oil per jar is exponentially more crunch, so that it stays crispy longer."

How chefs use chili crisp

As a condiment, chili crunch covers all sorts of ground. Chef Troy Guard, who currently uses chili crunch at his restaurant, Guard and Grace in Houston, Tex., says he's currently topping his Oak -Grilled Broccolini with the condiment. "This is one of my favorite condiments, you can really do a lot with it," he tells Yahoo Life. "Put a little in some mayo for a sandwich or add some punch to a salad dressing. Or keep it simple with some fresh lime and lemon juice and a little vinegar over grilled fish and vegetables. It's a nice way to add some heat and texture."

"I also think it would be great in a pizza dough or bread recipe," he adds,"or over goat cheese or burrata at home with crackers."

Taiwanese chef and co-owner of SeaSweets Poke Ian Hung makes his own chili oil for the Portland, Ore. restaurant. At SeaSweets, the homemade chili oil is an optional add-on to drizzle over poke dishes. He believes the secret to good chili crunch is Sichuan peppercorns, from the Sichuan province in southwestern China, for an extra boost in flavor and aroma. He also likes the addition of sesame oil for nuttiness.

Chili crunch varieties to try

Want to try this crunchy condiment? These chef-recommended variations are a great place to start.

Chili Lime Chili Crunch, This Little Goat

(Photo: This Little Goat)
(Photo: This Little Goat)

Embrace a more Mexican flare in this chili crunch take. Chili Lime Crunch is a vegan-friendly blend of ancho chili and guajillo peppers, with a kiss of lime.

Hot Honey Chili Crunch, Momofoku

(Photo: Momofuku)
(Photo: Momofuku)

Featuring a base of three types of Mexican chilis, crunchy garlic and shallots, this chili crunch is just like the classic version made famous by the brand, but with the addition of a hot honey twist.

Smoky Coffee Chili Oil, Hot Mama Salsa

(Photo: Hot Mama Salsa)
(Photo: Hot Mama Salsa)

This coffee-centric chili oil contains four different chiles blended with deep flavors of black garlic and coffee to make a mole-like chili oil with rich, smoky flavor and medium-hot heat level.

Ghost Pepper Chili Crunch, Momofuku

(Photo: Momofuku)
(Photo: Momofuku)

A new limited edition flavor for Momofuku fans who like their dishes extra spicy,Momofuku promises this chili crunch to be thirty-times spicier than their original variety.

Kelp Chili Crisp, Barnacle Foods

(Photo: Barnacle Foods)
(Photo: Barnacle Foods)

This chili crisp is infused with fried crunchy Alaska-grown kelp, chiles de arbol, fried onion and garlic, with a hint of sweetness

How to make your own chili crunch

If you can't find chili crunch at your local grocery store, or just want to try your hand at making your own, it's surprisingly easy to make from scratch.

"To make chili crunch, I like to start by small dicing shallot, garlic and peppers of your choice," says Christopher Arturo, chef-instructor of culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Make sure to cut the items in an even size so they cook at the same rate."

"For peppers," he continues, "I like to use Thai bird chilis because they're super-hot. Heat a little neutral oil in a sauté pan to 325 or 350 F, then add a garlic and shallot — you want them to fry until nice and golden brown and crispy."

Arturo says pull the garlic and shallot off the heat once they've reached a color that's a shade or two before they're the color you want. "It will carryover cook to that point," he explains. "Strain the solids out of the oil and put them on a sheet tray lined with paper towel. Then pour the hot oil over the Thai bird chilis and gochugaru (chili powder). The gochugaru will give it a nice, deep color and the Thai bird chili will give heat. Recombine the garlic and shallot with the oil mixture, season to taste with soy sauce and store in a mason jar in the fridge."

You can also add a little zested citrus after the oil has cooled down for more flavor. "Avoid adding salt to the oil to season, as this will denature the oil (make it go rancid faster)," Arturo warns. "This is why I season with soy sauce instead."

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