Over the years, many of you have discovered how simple and rewarding it is to make your own chili oil at home. Yet there is always a small handful of folks who ask me, “What are the best chili oil brands I can buy from the store?”
The truth is, there weren’t that many options back then. But in recent years, there’s been an explosion in the popularity of chili oils.
We like to think that we helped contribute to the mania a bit with our homemade recipes (perfect chili oil, chiu chow chili sauce, chili oil with black beans) and our love for Lao Gan Ma. But plenty of new entrants like Fly By Jing also fueled the craze.
Now there’s a whole slew of chili oil brands to choose from at every price point—ranging from artisanal ($$$) to utilitarian choices imported from China. So we’re finally doing a taste test to find the best one! Read on.
The Line-up in THE STORE-BOUGHT CHILI OIL TASTE TEST!
The lineup for our best chili oil brands taste test was chosen from two stores:
- A run-of-the-mill 99 Ranch in the middle of New Jersey: chili oils I just stumbled upon in my everyday shopping.
- Pearl River Mart in New York City’s Chelsea Market: a representative selection of what you would find if you went a little bit out of your way to find the most popular artisanal chili oil options on the market today.
All in all, we ended up with a mix of 11 chili oils and chili crisps to taste test. The goal was to get a balanced mix of “chili oils” and “chili crisps” or sauces. They’re two genres that we firmly believe are different. If you care to know why, check out the sidebar below.
What’s the difference between chili oil and chili crisp?
Consider me your type A neurotic friend so that you don’t have to be. While many people think of them interchangeably—most often as condiments—we would like to reiterate that they have important differences that you should weigh depending on how you want to use them. We talk about this a little bit in our cookbook, too.
If you are looking for something to cook with in larger amounts, you should really be looking for chili OIL. Not necessarily chili crisp. You’d be looking for something with a generous amount of oil and just chili flakes with little else.
Now this is confusing, because some of these chili oils have crispy bits of peanut or fried tofu in them, but I’m not sure I would technically qualify them as chili crisp in the same way I would Lao Gan Ma’s classic chili crisp.
So why not just cook with chili crisp if that’s what I can find? First of all, any crispy bits of goodness might get lost in the cooking process. No need to rehydrate something in sauce that has been intentionally dehydrated for max crispy effect. Perhaps more importantly, the addition of ingredients other than chili can also affect the texture and flavor of your final dish.
Chili crisps are designed to be standalone, perfect salted condiments. In larger quantities (say in a batch of mapo tofu) they can throw salt levels out of whack. They can be okay in things like noodles and chili oil wontons, but you *must* taste as you go.
Finally, chili oil is often called for by the tablespoon at a time. Some of these store-bought jars are VERY small. You don’t want to use all of it on just a few dishes.
For the studious among you counting, we technically have 12 pictured here, but we realized we had three duplicates from one brand—two were their chili oils and one was their chili crisp. We prioritized the former two.
One of the jars, this Yuan Xian Spicy Oil, came with a warning on the label for the state of California on chemicals including lead and cadmium.
Each of us has our own comfort levels, but it’s something to be aware of. All the more reason to make your own. We included photos below of the ingredients labeling on all the chili oils we tested.
We tried to get a sampling of niche brands, cult hits, and classics. For example you’ll see we’ve opted for the Lao Gan Ma chili crisp, which has sparked so many copycats and followers.
We did omit the beloved Lao Gan Ma with fermented black beans, because there is simply no point in quibbling. Go buy some and have it on hand at all times as a condiment. Or make your own! No taste test required.
If you have a chili oil you’re itching to see a review of that isn’t here, leave a comment below, and we will consider it for future updates to this post!
The use case
Spoiler alert—this taste test is not very scientific. We’re not sampling gallons of chili oil across 1000s of people. We decided on just one humble use case, the blank canvas of what would have many of us reaching for chili oil: a dumpling.
Sarah chose a store-bought brand with a mellow and unobtrusive flavor: Twin Marquis pork and cabbage dumplings. We boiled them so as to not introduce any caramelized flavors that might sway the outcome of the taste test.
Price – let’s be honest, in spite of the headlines, inflation ain’t gettin’ any better. We use a simple $-$$$ rating. $ = in the neighborhood of $4-7, $$ = in the neighborhood of $8-13, and $$$ = anything above $13. If you look at it per ounce, it works out to the following:
$ =/< $1.00/oz.
$$ = $1.01 – $2.50/oz.
$$$ = $2.51 – $3.50/oz.
Texture – We have accounted for the texture, beyond the chili oil vs. chili crisp distinction.
Flavor – We’ll provide tasting notes for each, with an aim towards objectivity as much as one can in a taste test conducted by just 4 people.
Regarding heat level: We actually *didn’t* give too much credence to heat, as believe it or not, we don’t think that chili oil is actually that spicy.
If you’re one of those Hot Ones obsessed hot sauce heads, this isn’t the time to melt your face. Not to mention, relative heat is in the tastebuds of the eater. It actually is a good thing, as it means you can really taste the flavors of the chili oil.
THE PROS AND CONS OF MAKING CHILI OIL AT HOME
Before we begin, a consideration on the pros of homemade chili oil, and the cons—in other words, the argument for store-bought chili oil. Keep in mind though, the homemade chili oil is not an either/or equation. I myself have jars of various Lao Gan Ma on my refrigerator door at all times.
(Shoutout to the mushroom one—I believe this is the real sleeper hit of Lao Gan Ma. I dare you not to eat a quarter of the jar in one sitting with rice and eggs or noodles.)
- Freshness. This is the #1 reason to make it at home. You get to use it as soon as it’s crackly, warm, and fragrant.
- You can tailor it to your taste. Want a sweat cleanse chili oil with extra peppers? Perhaps you’ve gone the extra 100 miles and grown your own chili peppers, dried them, and want to make them into chili oil. Go for it.
- You can add lots and lots of spices and aromatics—up your favorites, and omit the ones you’re not a fan of.
- It’s so good, it tastes like something you’d dollop into a bowl of hot noodle soup at a noodle joint somewhere in the alleyways of Beijing.
- You can give it as gifts.
- We’ve never done a cost analysis of purchasing the ingredients vs. purchasing the pre-packaged equivalent, and it depends on the ingredients you start out with (what type of oil, where you source your chili flakes, etc.), but we do think that making it homemade is more economical for the quality.
- Ideal for low-salt dietary needs. You don’t need to add salt to your chili oil to have a delicious flavor experience. In fact, we rarely do anymore, because we use it as an ingredient in so many other recipes.
- Food allergy-safe. You can personally ensure the safety of your chili oil for folks with peanut or soy allergies. Many of the chili oils we tested include warnings that they were produced in a facility that handles peanut and soy.
- Gathering all the spices and ingredients. This is a bit of a stretch to say it’s a con, because in our experience, once you’ve got all the spices on hand, most people are only too happy to make a batch of chili oil again and again. That said, we understand that not everyone has the pantry space or the inclination to go searching for ingredients online or at a Chinese market.
- Variable results. Getting a feel for the chili oil making process can sometimes require at least one “first pancake” trial. Consult the comments section of our chili oil recipe to avoid some common foibles. We’ve built guardrails into our recipe as well to help you avoid burning your chili oil.
- Nervous about food safety? Jarred chili oils technically have to undergo food safety protocols that prevent food borne illness. At home, you can put in place common sense safety measures, but if you’re a nervous nelly, we see you.
- Time. The oil infusion process does take at least 30 minutes, or ideally 60 minutes. Idk about you though, I’ve fallen into Instagram wormholes that have lasted just as long.
- It requires effort, and you’re just a little bit lazy.
- You may not have the stomach to add the MSG and other magical bits that make some store-bought chili oils so tantalizing. For those of you who consider yourself homemade purists (we have made a good attempt at recreating it at home).
THE TASTE TEST:
|The Woks of Life Chili Oil (Homemade Recipe!)||N/A||N/A|
|Szechuan Flavor Hot Chili Sauce (less spicy)||$7.39||$0.31/ounce|
|Szechuan Flavor Hot Chili Oil (more spicy)||$8.99||$0.37/ounce|
|Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp||$4.00||$0.54/ounce|
|You Po Lazi||$5.29||$0.60/ounce|
|Sze Daddy Taiwanese Chili Sauce||$10.00||$1.67/ounce|
|Nowon Chili Oil||$13.00||$2.32/ounce|
|Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp||$15.00||$2.50/ounce|
|Yun Hai Su Five Spice Chili Crisp||$14.00||$2.50/ounce|
|Cy Eats Mala Chili Oil||$12.00||$3.00/ounce|
|Mingde Fried Chili Pepper with Garlic||$16.00||$3.14/ounce|
Szechuan Flavor Hot Chili Sauce (less spicy)
Price: $7.39 ($0.31/ounce)
This is a run-of-of-the-mill chili oil with a roughly equal ratio of flakes to oil. There’s also a handful of sesame seeds thrown in. However, they do float to the top, so you’ll have to stir them in to get an even distribution. They also have a small amount of soybeans and peanuts. The flavor is mild and almost a little sweet. The flavor itself is good, but definitely more heat than spicy.
Szechuan Flavor Hot Chili Oil (more spicy)
Price: $8.99 ($0.37/ounce)
From the same Szechuan Flavor brand, this one seems to be a spicier variant, and was spicier than many of the other brands, but it’s still fairly mild with a balanced flavor. There’s a lot of crunch from the sesame seeds; this one seems to have even more than the less spicy version. After a while, that would annoy me personally, which is why we advise putting sesame seeds into your chili oil as needed for things like dipping sauce.
Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp
Price: $4.00 ($0.54/ounce)
A classic option, but the texture isn’t for everyone. If you like an extra crispy chili crisp, this is for you. If you like a lot of oil, you may want to opt for another option. That said, Lao Gan Ma brand has been beloved for its salty spicy bite, MSG-umami, and crunchy texture. It’s got one of the most satisfying garlicky, shallot-y flavors. It’s a classic for a reason.
You Po Lazi
Price: $5.29 ($0.60/ounce)
Heavy on sesame seeds, with a notably toasted flavor. For some of us, the toastiness tasted more burnt. A fine option.
Sze Daddy Taiwanese Chili Sauce
Price: $10.00 ($1.67/ounce)
This chili sauce from Eric Sze is aptly named “chili sauce.” It’s squarely in the condiment camp, and arguably really shouldn’t be on this list, but we’ve been curious to try it for a while. It’s got a floral flavor from Sichuan peppercorn and star anise. The scallion and garlic give it a very fresh taste as well. The garlic puree is the dominant texture—it’s almost paste-like. It’s definitely not for cooking applications—just to be savored. Very good if you’re looking for something unique to try.
Nowon Chili Oil
Price: $13.00 ($2.32/ounce)
This one has more of the texture of chili powder or very finely ground chili flakes than the large flakes that are typical. This one was polarizing. It has a citrusy flavor, and the chili flakes are at the edge of being sizzled such that they’re almost black. That earthy, burnt flavor can grow on you as you eat it (the texture is enjoyable), but this is definitely not for you if you don’t enjoy that intense flavor.
For our homemade chili oil, we’ve noticed that sometimes sizzling the chili flakes at hotter temperatures yields this burnt effect, and while the resulting batch of chili oil may not be perfectly bright red, it can still be enjoyable.
Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp
Price: $15.00 ($2.50/ounce)
It’s easy to see why this chili crisp took the world by storm. It has a strong depth of flavor with an almost sandy, paste-like texture (similar to Shacha sauce). There’s a rich but not overpowering sesame flavor. It was definitely one of the fresher tasting brands and tasted less MSG-forward than popular brands like Lao Gan Ma (though we don’t necessarily count that as a negative). The presence of seaweed gives it a hint of seafood umami too. With its carefully sourced ingredients, it is one of the pricier options.
Yun Hai Su Five Spice Chili Crisp
Price: $14.00 ($2.50/ounce)
This one had a nice spiciness—perhaps more so than any of the other brands. The flavor was pretty mild otherwise. The texture and color were similar to our chili oil, but it is one of the most expensive options. This was the one jar Sarah volunteered to bring home when we were left with 12 jars of chili oil.
Cy Eats Mala Chili Oil
Price: $12.00 ($3.00/ounce)
Very cardamom and cumin-forward, a little bit too intensely so, but it does offer a unique flavor.
Mingde Fried Chili Pepper with Garlic
Price: $16.00 ($3.14/ounce)
The texture is very crunchy—sharp and a little bit sandy-like. Garlic and cinnamon were the dominant flavors. The flavor of the oil was just a tad stale, but the strong garlic flavor makes up for a lot when you’re reaching for something to spoon over your fried rice or noodles.
Our choice of all-around store-bought chili oil:
First, the simple answer to the question of, what’s the best store-bought chili oil, and how does it compare with homemade?
This grocery store brand, Szechuan Flavor, makes a great value chili oil with a nice flavor. Just be mindful of anyone with peanut / soy allergies. Otherwise, just about every time we loved our own homemade chili oil. :D
- The Woks of Life Homemade Chili Oil – we still preferred ours!
- Szechuan Flavor Hot Chili Oil (more spicy) – Shop here – $8.99
Our choice for condiments:
When it comes to our favorite condiment option, we were slightly less aligned around one option, so consider these our top 4!
- Sze Daddy Taiwanese Chili Sauce – Shop here – $10.00
- Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp – Shop here – $4.00
- Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp – Shop here – $15.00
- Yun Hai Su Five Spice Chili Crisp – Shop here – $14.00
Do you have a different brand that you think is the best chili oil? Let us know in the comments!