Olio Santo ~ Abruzzo’s Holy Oil

olio santo

A distant cousin once entertained my sister and me at the dinner table by eating whole hot peppers. We were little and thought he was crazy, but he was Abruzzese, and as I came to learn first-hand, we Abruzzesi love our peperoncini.

No matter where you sit down for a meal in Abruzzo, whether at restaurant or at someone’s kitchen table, there will almost always be peperoncino ~ chili pepper. In summer it is likely to be a single fresh peperoncino, red or green, served on a plate with a knife or a pair of little scissors next to it for snipping. Sometimes it’s a small bowl of dried, crushed peperoncini.

peperoncino sun

And sometimes it’s olio santo. Sainted oil, holy oil. Hot oil. Olio santo is a staple all over southern Italy, made by infusing extra-virgin olive oil with chili pepper and letting it steep until the oil is tinged red and fiery hot. “It should be called olio diabolico,” a friend recently said. That’s how spicy it can be.

There’s something reverential about the way olio santo is used. It’s meant to be employed with care, spooned judiciously over maccheroni alla chitarra or roasted fish, poured in droplets over boiled escarole or rustic soups. You don’t douse a dish with olio santo, you anoint it. But it’s hard to imagine an Abruzzese meal* without it.

Olio santo is easy to to make, and worth having in your pantry as a finishing touch for anything from pasta and pizza to grilled vegetables or steak. I like a few drops on fried or scrambled eggs in the morning. It can be made with either fresh, half-dried or dried hot peppers, and every cook has his or her own preferred method.

I meant to make a batch last summer with fresh peppers from my prolific little plant. There’s a vendor at my farmers’ market who sells a compact, bushy plant called super chili, and I buy one every year. It produces all summer long and well into fall, in spite of aggressive neglect by me. The peppers are plump, 1 to 2 inches in length and about as spicy as a cayenne pepper, rating 50,000 on the Scoville heat unit scale. They are perfect for making olio santo.

peperoncini freschi All summer long I picked peppers as they turned from flame to red and tossed them into a bowl on my kitchen counter. I minced them and added them to sauces and sautés. But there were more than even I, a lover of heat and spice, could use. I kept meaning to slice some up to immerse in oil. Instead, the weeks passed and the peppers shriveled and dried up ~ perfectly, as it turns out, right in the bowl. They turned crispy without turning moldy, and they retained their bright red color.

peperoncini secchi

Finally, last weekend I blitzed half of them in the food processor to make crushed red pepper flakes. With the other half ~ perhaps as a countermeasure to the polar vortex ~ I made my olio santo. I snipped the stems off the peppers and cut them into small pieces. I put them in glass bottles and filled the bottles with good extra-virgin olive oil. (If you don’t happen to have a bowlful of dried hot chili peppers hanging around ~ why would you? ~ you can buy them at just about any well-stocked supermarket and at ethnic grocery stores.)

peperoncini in bottle

Now comes the hard part ~ waiting the two to three weeks necessary for the peppers to settle and the oil to become properly infused. Olio santo will last for at least six months kept in a cool, dark place (the longer it sits the more potent it gets), which is perfect timing as by then it will be summer and, with any luck, there will be a new crop of peppers ready for picking.

*Speaking of Abruzzese meals, have you heard of La Panarda? This annual culinary feast, comprising 40 or more courses, dates back to the 17th century and traditionally takes place in Abruzzo in January. I recently wrote about a 40-course Panarda hosted by Le Virtù, in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to my story in The Washingon Post. Happy reading!

* * * * * *

Event note: Please join me on Thursday, January 23, for a special Glorious Vegetables of Italy wine dinner/fund raiser at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C. Chef Susan Delbert has composed a wonderful five-course menu from my latest book. Details are on the Events page of my website.

Makes about 2 cups

Olio Santo: Hot Pepper-Infused Oil

"Sainted" or "holy" oil is a condiment found on just about any table in Abruzzo. It can be fiery hot and is meant to be used sparingly, as a finishing touch to dishes from pasta and pizza to grilled meats and vegetables. The longer the peppers steep in the oil, the hotter your olio santo. The quantities in this recipe are guidelines. You can make as much or as little as you want, using fewer or more peppers depending on how devilishly hot you want your oil to be.

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 dozen dried chili peppers (or more or less according to taste)
  • 2 cups good quality extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions

Use a sharp paring knife or scissors to snip the stem end off the peppers. Then cut the peppers crosswise into small pieces. Corral any seeds that try to escape. You may want to use kitchen gloves for this task to avoid getting pepper residue on your fingers.

Put the snipped peppers and their seeds into a bottle or jar, then fill the bottle or jar with oil. Close tightly with a stopper or lid and set in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 weeks to allow the heat of the peppers to infuse the oil.

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29 Responses to Olio Santo ~ Abruzzo’s Holy Oil

  1. elisa January 10, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

    Mia madre mi diceva “Hai il carattere di un peperoncino abruzzese!!”…(And she was abruzzese)…I had an aunt in Abruzzo who made ricotta spread infused with the hot peperoncino oil and spreaded on their home made bread, it was to die for!

  2. Domenica Marchetti January 10, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

    Elisa, io avevo uno zio di Pescara che mi chiamava sempre “anima dannata.” Therefore I think you and are are kindred spirits. Spicy ricotta spread sounds like a lovely way to use olio santo. Thank you for the suggestion.

  3. Phyllis @ Oracibo January 11, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    So…this summer I will be planting some hot peppers! I bought some sweet ones at a farmer’s market last summer and like you, they dried beautifully, all crackly, ready to be crumbled into or over past or….also dried some red Thai chilies…they kept their colour just like yours did! I dry them in our furnace room and it works great…nice and warm and they didn’t go moldy either! Really like your idea of putting the oil over pasta or fish or….

    • Domenica Marchetti January 13, 2014 at 8:34 am #

      The furnace room ~ what a great idea Phyllis! Next summer I’d like to dry sweet peppers as well. They add a whole new dimension to sauces, don’t they? Cheers and thanks for stopping by the blog.

  4. Frank @Memorie di Angelina January 13, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    I’ve got to try this! I didn’t grow up with olio santo and it’s always intrigued me, though whenever I’ve tried the store-bought variety I’ve been disappointed. Perhaps it was the quality of the oil they used. On the other hand, homemade from best-quality fruity olive oil and your own hot peppers, well, that’s got to be an entirely different experience!

    • Domenica Marchetti January 15, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      Frank, I agree. This is one of those pantry items that is so easy to make and always better than any you can buy in the store. I had a small taste of my oil yesterday and it definitely has a kick to it now. I’m going to let it sit awhile longer, though. I want it to be piccantissimo.

  5. Michelle - Majella Home Cooking January 15, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

    It makes me so happy when that little dish holding a fresh peperoncino and a dull knife is brought to the table in Abruzzo. Last summer, at a restaurant in Vasto, they took it a step further and wheeled an entire plant to our table. My kids were hysterical and I was in heaven! Great recipe!

    • Domenica Marchetti January 16, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

      Michelle, that is great. So you got to “choose” your peperoncino? Sort of like the way some American steakhouses let you choose the exact cut of meat or the specific lobster you want…Love it.

  6. Chiara January 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    sono per metà meridionale e adoro i sapori piccanti, quest’olio lo metto sempre sulla pizza , è delizioso !Buon fine settimana Domenica !

    • Domenica Marchetti January 27, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Ti rispondo in ritardo, cara Chiara ~ grazie per il tuo commento. Si, olio santo sulla pizza mi piace da morire. Un abbraccio!

  7. Adri January 23, 2014 at 1:34 am #

    I’m with you on this one. I adore Olio Santo. Isn’t it something how just two ingredients can become something so very wonderful? Maybe Aristotle was talking about Olio Santo when he said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Over the last few years I have taken to making it with Piquin peppers, and they work beautifully. So pretty one might be fooled into thinking these hot babies are ornamentals, they pack a pretty serious Scoville quotient – varying from plant to plant, averaging 100,000 U.

    Domenica, I truly enjoy your notes on Italian cooking. Often you select for discussion simple topics, but ones that are so very integral to getting it right. Grazie, amica.

    Also, I covet that Bormioli decanter. It is beautiful.

  8. sippitysup January 23, 2014 at 9:49 pm #

    I must be Abruzzesi. I love peperoncini. GREG

  9. Ian April 19, 2014 at 8:59 am #

    I grow Apache chillies every year and dry them by leaving in the oven at its lowest setting for 4-6 hours; we then have a supply of dried chillies for about a year from 2 plants!
    I’ll use some of these to make some Olio Santo.

    • Domenica Marchetti April 19, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

      Hi Ian, I am not familiar with Apache chiles. I googled them and from looking at the images, it seems they look a lot like the ones I grow. They dry beautifully, don’t they? I am just using up the last of my dried ones, which I pulverized in the food processor. Make sure you use enough to really get your oil nice and hot! Cheers, and thanks for your comment.

  10. Tom Bowler September 21, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Other recipes I’ve found for infused oils involve slow, low cooking. But even those only last in in the fridge for two weeks.

    Shouldnt cooking delay spoilage, but your recipe doesn’t call for cooking, and it lasts for at least six months

    • Domenica Marchetti September 22, 2014 at 1:34 am #

      Hi Tom, there are lots of ways to make chili-infused oil. If you are using fresh or only partially dried peppers, some sort of cooking or anti-spoilage treatment is necessary. You can heat the peppers in oil slowly, or you can plunge the peppers in a boiling vinegar brine and then put them in oil. This recipe uses fully dried peppers. It takes longer for the oil to become hot, but the chance of spoilage is much smaller. You must use peppers that have dried completely and that show no signs of mold. If you see any that haven’t dried properly, toss them out. I still have a little olio santo left from the batch I made to photograph for this post and I haven’t had any problems with spoilage. Hope this helps to answer your question.

      • Tom Bowler September 22, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

        Thanks Domenica! What about using commercially available crushed red pepper flakes?

        • Tom Bowler September 22, 2014 at 8:04 pm #

          Sorry just came across your comment here about using commercially available dried red peppers.

          .”If you don’t happen to have a bowlful of dried hot chili peppers hanging around ~ why would you? ~ you can buy them at just about any well-stocked supermarket and at ethnic grocery stores.)”

          Just gotta poke around.

  11. Sally October 20, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    This recipe and the way you wrote about the oil have completely captivated me!!! I can’t wait for the peppers I grew in my kitchen this year to dry. I’m already planning my next pepper seedlings around this oil to give as gifts, and have at hand. Thank you so much!

    • Domenica Marchetti October 20, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      Thanks for writing, Sally. Enjoy the olio santo. Remember that the longer it steeps the hotter it gets. I still have some left from the batch I made last winter and it is now hotter than hot. I love it. Cheers, D.

  12. Ben from Austin October 28, 2014 at 8:16 pm #

    I have a couple Chile Piquin plants in my garden (they’re native here in Texas) so I’m going to try this! Do you strain the peppers out of the oil after it infuses, or just leave them in?

    • Domenica Marchetti October 28, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

      Hi Ben. I don’t strain the peppers out of the oil. In fact, I still have some oil left from this batch I made way back in January. Because the peppers are dried I have had no issues with mold or spoilage. And, the best part is that the longer thy steep in the oil, the hotter the oil gets. I’ve been drizzling it over soups, on pasta and on top of pizza. Chile piquin is perfect for this. Go for it!

  13. Nancy July 27, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    I realize this is an older post but hope you will still see this. This is exactly what I am looking to make. I had store bought and am out and I prefer to make most things myself. Other recipes say to heat the oil. According to yours I don’t have too. That’s what I want! And…I have cayenne peppers that dried laying in a bowl on my table. Just like your peppers!! I had to giggle when I saw that. Thanks!!

    • Domenica Marchetti July 27, 2015 at 3:26 pm #

      Hi Nancy, I’m glad you found the post ~ and the site. No, you definitely don’t have to heat the dry peppers in oil before steeping. I wonder if some people do that to speed up the infusing process, though I’m not sure. I would worry about scorching the peppers and compromising the flavor of the oil. The only compromise you have to make here is that you need to wait for the oil to be properly infused; it will take a few weeks. But the longer it sits the hotter–and better–it gets. Enjoy!

      • Nancy July 27, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

        Thanks for replying and SO quick. I wanted to get this started today. Can’t believe I let myself run out before realizing it.
        Btw: love your blog!

  14. Trevor September 16, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    Three questions first do the peppers have to be dried or can you use fresh. Second is can you use habanero, ghost or differnt varietys of hot peppers or even mix them. And finally can you store in fridge or just cupboard like you say thanks.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 16, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

      All good questions, Trevor. Yes to the dried peppers, for safety reasons. You don’t want mold or bacteria growing on those peppers, and some bacteria (such as the toxin that causes botulism) thrive in an anaerobic environment (i.e. a jar of oil). You can use whatever variety of hot pepper you like, as long as it dries well. I have stored mine in the cupboard but the National Center for Home Food Preservation would recommend the fridge, again for safety reasons. The only issue here is that olive oil tends to congeal in the fridge. Be sure to wash the peppers thoroughly even before setting them out to dry. And let them dry until there is no moisture left; you should be able to crumble them. Hope this helps!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Stupid Awesome Saturday (#12) - Fooduzzi - May 23, 2015

    […] to give me some of his dried ghost peppers (these things are spicy) a couple of weeks ago. I think I’ll be making this, and then drizzling it on top of some grilled veggies. Um. […]

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