Back before the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen’s YouTube channel came to an abrupt halt (RIP BA Test Kitchen videos), I used to spend an unhealthy amount of time watching fan favorites like Brad, Carla, and Chris cook.
When you binge hours’ worth of YouTube videos at once, you start to notice a theme among the videos’ stars. In this case, there’s a universal love for Calabrian chiles among these trusted chefs. No matter how many times I watched one of them add these chiles to pastas, sandwiches, and breakfasts, I resigned this ingredient to being “chef-y” and out of my league.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my picky tendencies over the years, it’s that I’m far less picky when it comes to Italian foods. I still haven’t tried most salamis and won’t touch a pizza if it has pepperoni on it, but even so, I’m far more open to new Italian ingredients than I am other cuisines. Shout out to the motherland!
So after an unfortunate experience with fish last week (made more unfortunate with each day I saw the leftovers in the fridge), I decided to go easy on myself this week and give these fancy peppers a try.
If you’re unfamiliar with Calabrian chiles, they’re small peppers most often sold whole in a jar of oil or chopped into a paste. Any Italian market worth it’s parmesan will sell them, but given their rising popularity in the US, some grocery stores carry them as well. My humble neighborhood shop is not so well-stocked, but a short drive to the next-closest store yielded me a jar of whole Calabrian chiles!
My original plan for this week was to make one of my favorite simple pasta dishes, but add some chiles to the sauce (made with San Marzano tomatoes, chopped onion, garlic, Italian sausage, and some pasta water). After adding three small chiles (with almost all their seeds), my boyfriend and I definitely noticed a kick to the dish, but not an overwhelming change from the norm.
I used sweet Italian sausage in this dish, but it tasted similar to if I had used hot sausage and added some red pepper flakes. It definitely tasted good, but I was a little underwhelmed and confused as to why so many chefs were pumping Calabria’s tires over something red pepper flakes can do more easily and less expensively.
Determined to get to the bottom of these chiles’ allure, I worked them into another weeknight recipe. Instead of just the regular old sausage and pepper subs that we had planned for the night, I added Calabrian chile butter à la Molly Baz from Bon Appetit to the toasted hoagie rolls (I told you the folks at BA love this stuff).
I figured that the beauty of this condiment is that we could add as much or as little as we wanted to our subs, so loading up meant I could get as much chile flavor as possible. Also it’s 75% butter, so it couldn’t taste bad.
Now that I’ve had it, I can tell you, dear reader, that it’s not just “not bad.” This chile butter is goooood. Paired with caramelized onions and bell peppers and seared sausage that never lets me down, the salty, creamy, spicy, and even a little acidic butter elevated this sub from “pretty good” to “pretty damn good”—a high honor.
Molly Baz explains in her Bon Appetit article that this butter can last in the fridge or freezer for a long time, so I look forward to slathering this spread on many cheese boards, sandwiches, and chicken thighs in the weeks to come. I also plan on stirring it into pasta for a quick-but-complex sauce the next time I’m considering late-night delivery.
If you haven’t tried Calabrian chiles yet, I definitely recommend giving them a shot. The small heat (which you can increase or decrease depending on how many peppers and their seeds you use) and slight funk* that comes with these chiles adds dimension to otherwise-familiar dishes to spice things up (pun very much intended). They’re also super versatile, so you can try your jar out on pastas, sandwiches, and appetizers alike.
So let me know how you love (or would love) to use Calabrian chiles in the comments below or on Instagram @thepickyeaterchronicles. I see some cheese board experimentation in my future (still no salami though)!
*Note: The word “funk” hasn’t traditionally made foods sound all that appealing to me, but I’m starting to get it. There’s a salty, savory, slightly-acidic something that certain foods have that you can’t describe without words like funky or umami. And it’s impossible not to sound pretentious when using the word umami. So funk it is.