I used to work in a kitchen where there was an East African dish washer and for staff meal he said to make his plate “as spicy as you want”. The chefs would order the rarest, most blistering peppers from around the world to try and conquer his bold confidence and he never so much as blinked once. Spice or heat or whatever you call it is relative but here are some things I have learned working spice into cooking for a long time, I hope this helps you….

Spice is not just for lovers of spicy food. Often a little chili can elevate a pasta sauce much like sneaking a trace of anchovy in for umami. People may say “I don’t like anchovies” or “I don’t like spicy food” but in a blind taste test they would be team chili + anchovy versus the same dish without.

Heat is a tool to use, much like a little fat or sweet or texture, so here are some basic ways I like to deploy it.

Fresh Chilis

Jalapeño, Serrano Habanero etc. great for fragrant, punchy heat. Especially good for raw preps like ceviche or dip (think guac) to be served right away.

Dried Chili / Red Chili Flakes

More of a build and depth of flavor, try adding to Oaxaca mole or a simmering tomato sauce or Texas style Chili.

Chili Pastes — Harissa, Gochujang, Sambal

A tablespoon as the base of a stir fry or tagine or rubbed on fish and you can’t go wrong. I like to use any of them mixed with butter and smeared on toast. Look for fermented chili pastes for some more funk!

Raw Garlic / Ginger / Horseradish

Certainty giving the sensation of spice, think pungent garlic in a fresh caesar dressing, horseradish over oysters or that fragrance of fresh ginger hitting a hot wok.

Hot Sauces

From Tabasco (more vinegar) to Sriracha to whatever local one you pick up at the market. Douse early and often to finish dishes but try adding some drops in when sautéing onions and aromatics for a pasta sauce, or adding to a base for stews or broth. You can extract more flavor from hot sauce and not just heat the earlier you add it in cooking.

Chili in Adobo / Smoked Chili Peppers / Smoked Paprika

Chipotles in Adobo are the father of “chipotle mayo” but also a way to work complex smokiness into your cooking. Many countries have varieties of smoked peppers or you make you own at home. Smoked paprika is easy to find and can elevate dishes quick.

Hot Pickle

In Haiti Pikliz (spicy pickled vegetable relish) is on many dishes because the combo of acid and heat and it works so well with so much. Try adding cayenne to your quick pickles of cucumber or red onions for tacos or drop some pickled jalapeno over fried rice.

Chili Oil / Chili Crunch

Chili oil provides slow, comforting warmth and chili crunch can add texture to boot. Try Fly By Jing.


Szechuan, Cubeb Pepper, Pink Peppercorns, Long Pepper, Sansho Peppers try experimenting beyond standard black pepper. A simple piece of fish or chicken can taste many different ways depending on the pepper used.

For Max Fragrance…

Toast your spices in a dry pan for a couple minutes until fragrant. Crush in in a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder fresh for maximum flavor. Often great food in India or Morocco tastes so electric because of the FRESH toasted and ground spices.

Final point, remember spice builds, you can always add more so be cautious especially when cooking for guest or working in big batches. The majority of dishes benefit from a touch of heat so experiment. Finally, it’s fun to offer a guest an option for a little heat at the table like a dish of sriracha (pho restaurant style) or lay out some hot sauces or try making your own (it’s easier than you think).

Ok enough babble from me, I want to know, what’s your favorite way to add spice / heat?

PS: This is a sample from Open Kitchen Cooking School.


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