Keeping the fridge stocked with condiments is my hack to life. It’s easy to jazz up any simple weeknight meal with an arsenal of flavor bombs at my disposal. Who wants boring sweet potatoes when you can smother them with miso butter? Even Costco rotisserie chicken can impress if you douse it with enough garlic-y toum. But there’s a special place in my heart for my array of chili-spiked condiments, with harissa right at the top next to Laoganma’s Chili Crisp and Valentina’s hot sauce.
Harissa is a North African chili paste with as many variations as there are ways to use it. At its more basic, harissa is a blend of chilies seasoned with a touch of citrusy coriander and musky caraway, but that’s where any similarities between any two harissas end. The fiery pastes can be made from fresh charred peppers for a one-two punch of smoke and spice, rehydrated dried chilies with notes of raisin and plum, or a combination of the two. The assertive chili paste is a great place for additions like pungent garlic, earthy cumin, and rowdy mint.
Here’s how to make a couple entry-level harissas. Although they’re perfect just the way they are, they can also be the start of your homemade harissa adventure. The pastes can be thick or thin, spicy or mild, studded with mix-ins or heady with spices. Now go grab a pair of gloves and let's get elbows deep in capsaicin.
Making Harissa From Dried Chilies
For my dried chili harissa, I depend on mild guajillo chilies as the backbone. These level-headed chilies offer a gentle heat along with a slight bitterness and astringency on par with black tea. I also throw in an ancho chili, which is the dried form of a ripe poblano, for its sweet raisin and date flavors. The two players responsible for bringing the heat to the harissa are sprightly arbols and bright Kashmiri red chilies. I don’t want a harissa that completely blows my lid, so a mix of smoky, fruity, and hot peppers gets me the balance I’m looking for.
To prep the dried chilies, I need to remove the stems and seeds. The seeds of dried chilies can be leathery and tough, and if they aren't removed, they'll leave the harissa with a clunky texture. When working with smaller quantities, kitchen shears are all you need to snip off the stem and shake the seeds out of each pepper. For a larger amount of chilies, I’ve found that it saves time to clip the chilies into strips over a rimmed baking sheet lined with a wire rack. I then shake the sheet, allowing the seeds to sift through the gaps in the rack, leaving seed-free chili pieces behind.
I next grind the dried chilies to a fine powder in batches in a spice grinder. You can also blitz the chilies all at once in a high-speed blender. I then combined the chili powder with freshly ground coriander and cumin in a dry pan for a toast. Toasting the spices releases their essential oils, making them more aromatic and flavorful. You could stop right here and be left with a dry harissa, perfect for sprinkling on popcorn, using as a blackening spice, or even as a perky barbecue rub.
To transform this harissa powder to a paste, I add a splash of water and bring the mixture to a simmer, which hydrates the chilies and transforms their flavor. I continue to cook the mixture down until it’s thick enough to hold a channel when I run my rubber spatula across the skillet. From there, a final seasoning with salt, vinegar, and olive oil is all it needs and it’s ready for a place in my refrigerator door.
Making Harissa From Fresh Chilies
Harissa made from fresh chilies has a looser texture and lighter flavor than one made with dried chilies alone. Similar to the dried chili harissa, I use mild red bell peppers for the body and bulk of the sauce. I also include a grassy poblano pepper to balance the sweetness of the red bell pepper. Finally, I add Fresno and serrano peppers to light it up with fruit, heat, and acid.
I lightly oil the peppers and throw them under a broiler on a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet to blacken and blister. The coat of oil helps the peppers char evenly. You could also char the peppers over the direct flame of a gas burner, but I prefer doing it under a broiler, where the indirect heat allows the peppers more time to cook, so the flesh fully softens before their skins burn. In the oven the peppers are also heated from all sides, allowing their natural juices to evaporate, which concentrates their flavor.
Once the skins on the peppers are evenly singed all around, I transfer them to a bowl and tightly cover it with plastic wrap, allowing them to steam. While the peppers steam and become cool enough to handle, I toast ground coriander and caraway in a dry pan. I next remove the skin, seeds, and stems from the peppers and blend them until smooth in a food processor. The resulting pepper paste is seasoned with the toasted spices, fresh lemon juice, salt, and olive oil.
Customize Your Harissa
So now you have homemade harissa, but the fun doesn’t have to stop yet. There are many ways to customize harissa, so it can become as unique and special as you. Chopped briny olives or capers take harissa to the Mediterranean, ready to swirl into pasta or risotto. For a burst of brightness, speckle the paste with chopped preserved lemon or citrus zest and pair it up with grilled seafood. You can even get extra fancy with saffron or dried rose petals.
And if you’re a real champ, make both harissas and mix them together for all the glory of fresh and dried chilies combined.