How to Make Harissa Paste. A flavorful chili pepper paste made from dried chilis, garlic, olive oil, and toasted spices, learning how to make harissa is easy and fun. Enjoy this totally addicting flavor explosion mixed into your favorite dips, stews, soup, and marinades.
I remember the first time I saw harissa. I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and, per usual, checked to see if they got in any new products. There on the shelves was harissa in its fancy (not really) glass jar just waiting to be picked up and taken to a new home. Naturally, I obliged.
And then I forgot all about her…him?
Anyway, as usual, I had no idea how to use this mystery jar of red paste so it got shoved to the back of my pantry where it sat for a year. Yes, a year. It wasn’t until one random day when I decided to clean the pantry that I rediscovered this jar of harissa paste, and this time, I actually used it.
Given that it was my first time trying harissa, I had no idea what to expect. So, I mixed it with a random assortment of leftovers sitting in the refrigerator and fried them up with eggs. A perfect balance of spicy smoky heat, the resulting flavor is both bold and wild, but not overwhelming.
Its official, harissa was going on everything.
What is harissa?
If you have never tried harissa, try it. Perhaps not straight from the jar, at first, but as a marinade, harissa packs some seriously awesome flavor punch!
So what is Harissa and where does it come from?
Harissa (pronounced hah-ree-suh) is a spicy chili paste widely used in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. Most harissa recipes are made with a blend of hot chile peppers, garlic, olive oil, and spices, like cumin, coriander, and mint. Tomatoes, or tomato paste, and rose petals are also commonly found in harissa.
Most closely associated with Tunisia, harissa is also common in Libya, Morocco, and Syria.
Does Harissa have to be spicy?
Assuming that you prepare a harissa paste with at least some kind of chili (pretty crucial to the recipe) then yes, there will be some element of spice and heat to it. However, when you make your own harissa paste, you have control over how many chilies and which kids of chilies will go into your harissa paste. This paste uses three different chili peppers- chiles de árbol, guajillo chiles, and ancho chiles.
- Chiles de árbol– small and potent, the Chiles de árbol is a Mexican chili pepper also known as bird’s beak chile and rat’s tail chile. It is considered a “hot” chili registering 15,000-30,000 SHU (Scoville units). Often Chiles de árbol is replaced by cayenne pepper.
- Guajillo chiles– somewhere between Chiles de árbol and Ancho chiles in terms of heat level (2,500-5,000 SHU), Guajillo chiles are used in a variety of dishes to provide flavor and depth, not just heat.
- Ancho chiles (poblano)– The least spicy of all three, Ancho chiles are actually dried poblano peppers.
You’ll notice that I used 20 Chile de árbol, 3 Guajillo chiles, and 1 Ancho chili. This combination was perfect, delicious, and yes, spicy. If you prefer less heat, cut the number of Chiles de árbol in half and add additional Ancho chiles.
Ingredients in harissa paste
- dried chiles de árbol
- dried guajillo chiles
- dried ancho chile
- cumin seeds
- coriander seeds
- white wine vinegar
- tomato paste
- smoked paprika
- olive oil
When I first started cooking I was terrified of attempting any recipe that called for whole dried chilis or spices. I mean, I could buy them easy enough, but I had absolutely no idea what to do with them after.
This is the perfect recipe for anyone just starting to get comfortable with these kinds of ingredients. In fact, I’ve found that the hardest part to a recipe like this is tracking down the dried chilis, so unless you have a Mexican market near you, I highly recommend purchasing them online (yes, that is where I purchased the dried chilis and spices that you see above).
If you need all three types of chili peppers listed above, I recommend purchasing this.
Tools needed to make Harissa
So you have the ingredients, now what? How do I turn all those delicious spices into a delicious harissa paste? You’re going to need a few things.
- gloves. I don’t usually wear gloves when I cook, but you will be scooping the seeds, pith, and ribs from the interior of each chili. Since spice level in chili peppers is often unpredictable it’s better to keep all that capsaicin off your fingers.
- mini food processor. You will need something small to blend the cumin and coriander seeds with the garlic. If your food processor is too large it will just fling the seeds just out of reach of the blades which is pretty pointless.
- larger food processor. the last step to this recipe is to drizzle the olive oil into the paste as the food processor runs. I can’t do that with my little food processor, so I transferred everything to my larger one.
- silicone spatula.
How to make homemade harissa paste
Making homemade harissa paste is probably much easier than you think. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to make this delicious and flavorful condiment.
- Re-hydrate and soften the chilies. Transfer the dried árbol, guajillo, and ancho chilies to a heat-safe bowl or cup (I used a large measuring cup, but anything glass would work). Pour enough boiling water over the chilies so that they are completely submerged and covered with water. Use a spoon to submerge fully and mix around as they will naturally float to the surface. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and allow the chilies soak for 20-30 minutes, or until soft.
- Dissect the chilies. Wearing gloves (if you have them), drain the chilies and remove the stems and as much of the seeds, pith, and ribs from the interior as possible. It will be impossible to remove everything- that’s OK. Transfer the dissected chilies to a clean bowl and set aside.
- Toast the cumin and coriander seeds. In a clean, dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. This takes just 2-3 minutes (don’t walk away!) To help prevent the seeds from burning, gently toss the skillet throughout cooking.
- First blend. To a small food processor add the toasted cumin and coriander seeds plus the smashed garlic. Process to combine, forming into a textured, paste. Make sure to scoop down the sides and under the blades to ensure that everything has been mixed evenly. Add the chilies and process again, scraping down the sides as needed, until a course, choppy, mixture forms. Add the lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, smoked paprika, and salt. Process to combine, forming into a textured, yet smooth, paste. Make sure to scoop down the sides and under the blades to ensure that everything has been mixed evenly.
- Second blend. Transfer mixture to a larger food processor or one with a lid that has a removable attachment that allows you to add oil as the motor remain running. With the food processor running, slowly pour 1/2 cup of olive oil into the mixture. Process until the oil is fully incorporated.
- Transfer harissa to a jar or container and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. Store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
If you make your own Harissa Paste, please leave me a comment and let me know! I always love to hear your thoughts.
For more easy recipes check out,
- Meal Prep: Chicken Shawarma Quinoa Bowls
- Homemade Thai Red Curry Paste
- Middle Eastern Curried Lamb Meatballs
- Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Stew (Khoresht Fesenjan)
- Spicy Poached Eggs in Tomato Sauce
- Baba Ghanouj (Eggplant Dip)
- Baked Harissa Chicken Recipe
- Slow Cooker Harissa Lamb Tacos
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How to Make Harissa Paste
- Transfer the dried árbol, guajillo, and ancho chiles to a glass bowl or cup (I used a large measuring cup). Pour boiling water over the chiles so that they are completely submerged and covered with water. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap and allow the chiles soak for 20-30 minutes, or until soft.
- Wearing gloves (if you have them), drain the chiles and remove the stems and as much of the seeds from the interior as possible. It will be impossible to remove every seed- that's OK. Discard the seeds and the stem.
- In a clean, dry skillet over medium-low heat, toast the cumin and coriander seeds until fragrant. This takes just 2-3 minutes (don't walk away!) To help prevent the seeds from burning, gently toss the skillet throughout cooking.
- Transfer the toasted cumin and coriander seeds to a small food processor. Add the smashed garlic and process until the spices have broken up into smaller bits and the garlic begins to form a paste. Add the chiles and process, scraping down the sides as needed, until a coarse paste forms.
- Add the lemon juice, vinegar, tomato paste, smoked paprika, and salt. Process to combine, forming into a textured, yet smooth, paste. Make sure to scoop down the sides and under the blades to ensure that everything has been mixed evenly.
- With the food processor running, slowly pour 1/2 cup of olive oil into the mixture. Process until the oil is fully incorporated.
- To store the harissa, transfer to a jar or container and cover with the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil.
- Harissa may be stored for up to 1 month in a sealed air-tight container in the refrigerator.
(Nutrition information provided is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and specific brands of ingredients used.)