Made with red chiles and aromatic spices, this easy Harissa Sauce is brightly colored, richly flavored, and makes the perfect addition to both meat and vegetable dishes, soups, stews, or dips!
Harissa is one of my favorite ways to amplify the flavors of a meal making it so much more complex and rich.
Use this Harissa Paste in my Honey Harissa Chicken for the best sweet and spicy flavor combination.
What You'll Love About This Recipe
- Easy to Make - For something so simple to make, this harissa sauce is super versatile and can add loads of flavor to a variety of dishes.
- Healthy Addition - This sauce contains only 58 calories with 2 grams of fiber and 37% of your daily value for vitamin C in just 1 tablespoon. It is also low-carb, paleo-friendly, and vegan!
- Stores Well - No need to use the entire yield right away. This recipe can be stored in the fridge for up to 1 month and used whenever you want to add a little kick to your meal.
What is Harissa?
Harissa is a spicy and smokey red pepper paste that is common in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine. It is made from dried red chiles, roasted red peppers, citrus, garlic, olive oil and spices like smoked paprika, cumin, coriander and caraway seeds. Ingredients will vary slightly based on the region where the harissa is prepared.
New Mexico Chiles – New Mexico chiles are medium on the spice spectrum, are not overtly smokey and can be found dried at most conventional grocery stores in the US.
Chiles de Arbol – Chiles de arbol are the spiciest pepper used in this recipe. They are fairly small, and the quantity can be adjusted to add more or less spice to the harissa sauce.
Roasted Red Peppers – Roasted red peppers are mild and flavorful and help to balance the spicy chiles in this recipe.
Tomato Paste – Tomato paste is not always present in harissa. This ingredient adds a little sweetness but can be omitted for a different but still delicious flavor.
Spices – Paprika, cumin, coriander, and caraway are traditionally used in harissa. However, you can adjust the types and quantities of spices used to cater to your preferences. Caraway seeds, found in most harissa pastes and add a mild licorice flavor, can be omitted if you do not generally use this spice in your cooking at home. Using ground spices is convenient, but whole seeds can be toasted and ground to deepen the flavor.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Use a high-quality EVOO to ensure the oil will add to complex and rich flavors in this recipe instead of detracting from them.
How to Make Harissa Paste
Making Harissa Paste is easy and can be done in a few simple steps. Here is how to do it:
Place the chilies in a shallow bowl and cover with hot water.
Use a plate or canning weights to cover the chilies so that they stay submerged and soak for about 20 minutes.
Once the chilies are soft and pliable, remove the stems and seeds.
Place all ingredients except for the oil in a high-powered food processor. Process until there are no large chunks. Add oil and process until smooth.
Tip: Wearing gloves when handling spicy peppers is generally a good idea. This will protect your hands from spreading the oil from the peppers to other areas of your body (like your eyes!) which can cause a burning sensation.
Sometimes finding the right varieties of chilies can be challenging depending on the region you live in. Here are some possible substitutions:
- New Mexico Chilies - California chiles, also called dried Anaheim chiles, or Guajillo chiles are other commonly available varieties of dried chiles that will work well as a substitute for New Mexico chiles in this recipe.
- Chilies de Arbol - Puya chiles can also be used. To reduce spice, you can replace these peppers with another New Mexico chile or 2 additional teaspoons of paprika which is just dried and ground bell pepper.
Reducing the Spice
While Harissa Sauce is going to have some level of spice because it is a sauce made from chilies, it is possible to reduce the heat.
New Mexico chiles have a medium spice, while chiles de arbol are quite spicy. To reduce the spice, you can use fewer chiles de arbol and add in another New Mexico chile as a substitute. Keep in mind that the chiles de arbol are comparably small and will not require a 1:1 substitute. You can also omit the chiles de arbol and replace them with about 2 additional teaspoons of paprika for a milder sauce.
- Food Processor or Blender - It is important to have a high-powered food processor or blender with sharp blades. If your food processor is not great, you can mince the garlic before adding it to ensure there are no large chunks.
- Rubber Spatula
- Grinder or Mortar and Pestle - This is only needed if using whole seeds instead of ground spices.
This Harissa Sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 month.
To freeze, scoop the paste into a silicone ice cube tray. Freeze overnight and then pop the cubes out and place them in a resealable freezer bag. Store in the freezer for up to 2 months. Add the frozen cubes directly into hot foods like soups or stews. You can also allow them to thaw before mixing into things like dressings or hummus.
- Toasting both the dried peppers before rehydrating and the seeds (if using whole caraway, cumin, and coriander seeds) before grinding in a hot skillet for several minutes is an added and optional step that will deepen the flavor of the harissa.
- Depending on how you plan to use this harissa paste/sauce, you can add more oil and/or water to thin it to the consistency your need. Add a few tablespoons at a time, blending as you go, until you achieve the desired consistency.
How to Toast and Grind Spices
While using ground spices is convenient and will shorten the time needed to complete this recipe, toasting and grinding your own spices is a great option to add some additional flavor. Here is how to do it:
Heat a dry skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the whole caraway, cumin, and coriander seeds. Toast the seeds until they start to smell fragrant (about 2-3 minutes), stirring periodically. Do not wait for the seeds to change color or start to pop. Once fragrant, remove from the heat and allow them to cool for about 5 minutes.
Once cooled, grind the seeds using a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee grinder. If using a mortar and pestle you can use a teaspoon of the lemon juice or olive oil to help extract some of the oils from the seeds and create a paste. Once ground, add the seeds to the food processor with the other ingredients.
This recipe yields about 8 ounces of sauce/paste.
The type of peppers used in harissa will vary by region. It will generally include two types of dried chiles, one that is spicy and one that is more mild. Traditional North African harissa is made with Baklouti peppers which are local to Tunisia. Baklouti peppers can be difficult to find in the US. In most recipes, you will see them replaced with New Mexico or Guajillo chiles which are easier to source. Chiles de arbol or Puya chiles are added for heat. Sometimes you will find chipotle peppers used for a super smoky harissa sauce.
Harissa is extremely versatile and can be used in a variety of ways. Stir it into sauces, soups, or stews to add a kick and deepen the flavor. Rub it onto chicken before smoking or grilling. Use it to season veggies like cauliflower before roasting in the oven or to top dips like hummus. Harissa can also be used in place of regular hot sauce to not only add spice but to add a complex and exciting flavor to any meal.
Looking for other recipes like this? Try these:
Feel free to leave a comment and a rating below. Feedback is always appreciated! 😊
Harissa Sauce (Harissa Paste)
- Food processor or blender High-powered
- Rubber Spatula
- Grinder (or mortar and pestle) Only needed if using whole seeds instead of ground spices.
- 6 Dried New Mexico chiles
- 6 Dried chiles de arbol
- 12 ounce jarred roasted red peppers, drained 2 large peppers
- 2 tbsp Tomato paste Optional
- 2 tbsp Lemon juice About ½ large lemon, juiced
- 4 large Garlic cloves Peeled
- 2 tsp Ground cumin
- 1 ½ tsp Smoked paprika
- 1 tsp Sea salt
- 1 tsp Ground coriander
- ½ tsp Ground caraway seeds Optional
- Hot water To soak the chiles in.
- ¼ cup Extra virgin olive oil
- Add the dried chilies to a shallow bowl and cover them with hot water. Use a small plate or a set of canning weights to weigh down the chiles so they are fully submerged and soak for about 20 minutes. Set aside.
- If using whole caraway seeds, use a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee grinder to grind the seeds and set aside. If using other whole seeds, see notes for toasting and grinding instructions.
- Once the chiles are rehydrated, remove the stems and the seeds. Wear gloves if you want to protect your hands from the capsaicin. Hold the pepper at the base just below the stem with one hand and then twist and pull the stem with the other. You should be able to remove the stem, veins and most of the seeds in one pull for the larger peppers. Removing the seeds is a way to reduce the spice and improve the texture, do not worry about removing 100% of the seeds.
- Add all ingredients except for the olive oil to the food processor and process for about 2 minutes or until a smooth paste is achieved. Scrape the sides with a rubber spatula as needed.
- Once everything is fully incorporated and a smooth paste is achieved, add in the olive oil and process for about 30 seconds to achieve a saucier consistency.
- At this point you can taste and adjust the flavors to your preferences. To increase the spice, you can add more rehydrated chiles de arbol or a sprinkle of cayenne pepper. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 month.