Harissa Recipe photo by Taste of Home
Total Time
Total/prep time: 20 min. + standing
You've probably seen this North African ingredient in recipes for hummus, seafood, sauces and more. But if you're wondering, What is harissa? then it's time to learn all about this flavorful chile paste.

Updated: Apr. 23, 2024

If you haven’t already fallen in love with harissa, now’s the time. This North African chile paste is incorporated into almost every meal in certain parts of the world, and you’ll want to do the same once you try its nuanced, complex flavors. So stop using spice substitutes like berbere or Sriracha when you see harissa in a recipe. It’s easy to learn how to make harissa from a handful of simple ingredients you probably already have in the pantry.

What is harissa?

Harissa is a thick chile paste that originated in Tunisia. Recipes vary, but the paste usually contains dried chiles, garlic, oil and warming spices like cumin, coriander and paprika. It’s often called a hot sauce, and some harissa varieties can be quite spicy. However, harissa is more about flavor than spice. It has depth and complexity, balancing the chiles’ heat with sweet, spicy, tangy, smoky undertones.

Harissa is so ubiquitous in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine that it’s been compared to ketchup’s use in America (although that comparison does an injustice to harissa’s nuanced flavors). It’s one of those sauces capable of enhancing almost any savory dish, from traditional soups and stews to eggs and burgers.

What is harissa paste made of?

Our harissa recipe includes dried guajillo chiles, roasted sweet peppers, tomato paste, garlic, warming spices, lemon juice and olive oil. We use mild chiles to keep the heat low and accentuate the other flavors in this nuanced sauce. The lemon juice brings brightness and vibrance, and tomato paste adds complexity with its savory, umami-rich flavor.

Ingredients for Harissa

  • Dried chiles: The type of chile used will determine the harissa’s spice level. We like guajillo chiles, Mexican chiles with mild heat and a slightly sweet, almost fruity character. For a smokier flavor, use chipotle chiles.
  • Roasted sweet peppers: Bell peppers give the paste a sweet undertone. You can use a 16-ounce jar of roasted peppers. Just make sure to drain it well to avoid watering down the paste. If you decide to roast red bell peppers at home, remove the skins and seeds after roasting the peppers.
  • Garlic: Garlic adds a pungent flavor and aroma. Feel free to adjust the amount of garlic based on your preferences.
  • Spices: Warming Mediterranean spices round out the paste’s complex character. The cumin, coriander and paprika lend smoky vibes, and cayenne pepper contributes some heat. Some harissa recipes also include caraway seeds, which add a hint of licorice flavor.
  • Extra virgin olive oil: Olive oil can be fruity, buttery or grassy, depending on the olive oil brands. Choose a high-quality oil with a flavor you enjoy most.

Directions

Step 1: Toast the dried chiles

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Remove and discard the stem and seeds from the chiles. In a large dry skillet over medium heat, cook and stir the peppers until lightly toasted, one to two minutes on each side. Transfer to a large bowl.

Step 2: Soak the toasted chiles

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Cover the peppers with hot water. Cover the bowl, and let stand for 30 minutes.

Step 3: Blend the harissa into a paste

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Add the red peppers, tomato paste, lemon juice, garlic, coriander, cumin, paprika, cayenne and salt to a food processor. Pulse until blended.

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Drain the chiles, and add them to the food processor. Process until the mixture is blended into a thick paste.

Step 4: Add the olive oil

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With the processor running, slowly add the olive oil until blended. You can use the paste immediately, or store it in a jar in the refrigerator for later.

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How to Store Harissa

Homemade harissa isn’t shelf-stable. Store it in a jar with a tightly fitted lid in the refrigerator, where it’s good for up to two weeks. Before sealing the jar, top the paste with a thin layer of additional olive oil. You can stir the oil in if you plan to use the harissa all at once. If not, leave the layer on top to preserve the harissa.

How to Use Harissa

  • Use it as a condiment: Harissa can be used like hot sauce. Use it to spice up burgers, finish off grilled meat or fish, or add complexity to scrambled eggs.
  • Swirl it into sauces, soups and stews: Harissa is traditionally used in dishes like slow-cooker chickpea tagine, slow-cooked Moroccan chicken, or shakshuka. Stir some into pasta sauces or your favorite chili recipe to kick up the heat.
  • Cook with it: We love adding harissa to batter-based recipes like harissa sweet potato fritters, meatballs or feta-stuffed kibbeh. You can also use it in stir-fries or as a marinade for meat, chicken or vegetables.
  • Turn it into a sauce: Whisk harissa with ketchup or mayonnaise to create a spicy dip for french fries. Or add it to your favorite chicken wing sauce. To create a simple dipping sauce for pita bread, stir harissa into olive oil or hummus.

Where to Buy Harissa

Once upon a time, you could only find harissa at specialty food stores. Today, you can find jarred or canned harissa from several online retailers. It’s also available at most grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s. Look for it in the international aisle.

Harissa Tips

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What’s the difference between harissa paste and harissa powder?

Harissa paste and harissa powder have similar flavor profiles and are generally interchangeable. The powder contains a blend of chile powder and spices, and the paste also includes wet ingredients like lemon juice and olive oil to create a thick consistency. In our experience, harissa paste tastes fresher and more complex than harissa powder.

What chiles do you use to make harissa?

We use guajillo chiles to make our harissa, but you can use any type of chile pepper. The chiles determine the harissa’s spice level. Guajillo, chipotle, Kashmiri or New Mexico chiles are great choices for creating a mild harissa. To make it spicier, use a blend of chiles with a few arbol or Thai chiles to kick up the heat.

Harissa

Prep Time 20 min
Yield 4-1/2 cups.

Ingredients

  • 15 dried guajillo chiles or dried chipotle chiles
  • 1 jar (16 ounces) roasted sweet red peppers, drained
  • 1/2 cup tomato paste
  • 4 to 6 garlic cloves
  • 4 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 3 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Remove and discard stem and seeds from chiles. In a large dry skillet over medium heat, cook and stir peppers until lightly toasted, 1-2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a large bowl. Cover peppers with hot water. Cover bowl and let stand 30 minutes.
  2. Add red peppers, tomato paste, lemon juice, garlic, coriander, cumin, paprika, cayenne and salt to a food processor. Pulse until blended. Drain chiles; add to food processor. Process until blended into a thick paste. With processor running, slowly add olive oil until blended.
  3. To store, transfer to a jar. Top with a thin layer of additional olive oil (do not stir). Cover and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition Facts

2 tablespoons: 74 calories, 7g fat (1g saturated fat), 0 cholesterol, 105mg sodium, 3g carbohydrate (1g sugars, 1g fiber), 1g protein.

Unlike other hot sauces, harissa isn't only about the heat! This Mediterranean-style condiment has several layers of flavors—hot, sweet, spicy, tangy, smoky—that enhance whatever you use it on. Top chicken, beef, fish, vegetables, meat, hummus, bread and more with this amazing condiment. —Nikki Haddad, Germantown, Maryland