Harissa is a versatile sauce with plenty of kick

Harissa is a smoky red pepper sauce traditionally used in North African cuisine.

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Lynda Balslev/TasteFood

If you’re looking for a condiment that multitasks and tastes stand-alone delicious, then look no further than harissa. Harissa is a smoky red pepper sauce traditionally used in North African cuisine. You may know it as a fiery one-note paste sold in a tube or as a jarred red sauce with a salsa consistency.

Essentially, harissa is a paste or puree of red peppers and chiles combined with other ingredients, such as garlic, citrus and spices. Its nuances, heat and flavor will vary from cook to cook, influenced by the choice of peppers and aromatics.

This recipe is the harissa sauce I have been making for years, and it’s positively addicting. It’s an extremely versatile condiment; I use it on just about everything.

I combine roasted sweet bell peppers with fiery chiles for a balance of smoke, sweetness and heat. The heat is intentionally kept at a moderate level to prevent the sauce from overpowering everything it touches. I add a dollop of tomato paste, which lends a hint of fruity acidity while helping to thicken the sauce and round out the flavors.

How to use harissa:

— Marinate skirt or flank steak or chicken thighs in the sauce, then grill over indirect heat.

— Drizzle harissa over roasted vegetables, eggs, grilled meats and fish steaks, such as swordfish or halibut.

— Use it as a dip for pita chips, veggies or meatballs. Or mix a spoonful into other dips such as tzatziki and hummus for a punch of flavor.

— Add a dollop or two to soups, ragouts and stews as a secret flavor-boosting ingredient.

— Elevate your prepared rice or couscous to the next level with a swipe of harissa and a shower of chopped herbs and lemon zest.

As you can see, this sauce is indeed versatile, a welcome addition to the summer picnic table. When making the sauce, be sure to toast and grind the whole seeds. This extra step imparts a fantastic flavor to the harissa, which is deeper than if you use pre-ground spices. For best flavor and consistency, roast fresh peppers. If using jarred roasted peppers, be sure to drain them well.

Note that the finished sauce will be soupier and sweeter with jarred peppers than if you roast your own peppers. If you prefer more heat, you can choose not to seed the chile peppers — it’s up to you!

The harissa sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. The flavors will develop once they’ve had a few hours or a day to meld. And while you’re at it, you might want to make a double batch. Chances are that it will be gobbled up.


Yield: Makes about 1 1/2 cups


  • 2 large red bell peppers
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 2 red jalapeno chiles, seeded, coarsely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1. Grill the whole peppers over high heat until evenly charred, turning as needed. If using an oven, halve the peppers. Place skin-side up on a baking tray and broil until the skin is charred. Transfer the peppers to a bowl and cover. Let steam for 10 minutes, then peel away the skin, remove any ribs and seeds, and coarsely chop.

2. Toast the cumin, coriander and caraway seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until aromatic and beginning to pop, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a mortar with pestle or a spice grinder and grind the seeds to a fine powder.

3. Combine the peppers, seeds, chiles, garlic, tomato paste, oil, salt and black pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Process to blend. Taste for seasoning.

4. Transfer to a jar and refrigerate until use. The flavors will develop with time. Store for up to one week.

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food and wine writer, cookbook author and recipe developer. She also authors the blog TasteFood, a compilation of more than 600 original recipes, photos and stories.

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