The delicious Tunisian chili paste harissa has become a go-to for spicy recipes, but it’s not always something many have in their pantries or even their local stores. So what do you do when your recipe calls for harissa and you have none to work with? What’s a good harissa substitute that you can pick up easily or that you may even have right at home? Which will get you closest to the actual flavor? Let’s lay out your options.
Your best bet: Another chili paste (sambal oelek recommended)
There are many varieties of chili pastes on the market that offer a similar heat profile and consistency to harissa. Where they tend to falter as an alternative to harissa is in the exact flavor. Harissa is well-spiced with layers of cumin, coriander, and caraway seeds along with other ingredients (like mint) depending on the recipe. Other chili pastes can go in an entirely different direction. Gochujang for instance has a sweet fermented flavor similar to miso – a far cry from harissa’s flavor.
So we recommend the chili paste with the simplest ingredient list you can find. Sambal oelek is perfect as a substitute since its solely chilies with a small amount of vinegar, water, and salt. It’s very neutral compared to harissa, so your recipe may not have the same spiced nuance. But if you dive into your own spice rack, you can layer in at least some of the harissa experience. Add cumin, coriander, and caraway to sambal oelek (1/2 teaspoon per cup to start) until you reach the flavor profile you prefer. You can pick up sambal oelek in many well-stocked supermarkets, or try your hand at making your own.
An easy to find alternative: Sriracha
The consistency is very different, but otherwise Sriracha is a terrific harissa substitute, especially since – if you’re already a spicy food fan – you likely have a bottle of the Rooster Sauce sitting in your pantry. Sriracha’s garlic undertone fits with typical harissa, and if you want to layer in extra flavor, add in cumin, coriander, and caraway as well. There’s an extra benefit to adding in the extra spices: it thickens up the comparatively thin Sriracha sauce. It becomes more paste-like in the process providing a consistency – while not perfectly paste-like – a whole lot closer to harissa. If you want to thicken it further without adding extra of the three spices above (to keep from over-spicing), use hot paprika. It’ll thicken Sriracha without adjusting the flavor.
If you must: Red pepper flakes
This is solely a “when there’s no other choice” solution that only provides a similar heat. If your recipe relies on the consistency of paste (or a thicker sauce) to thicken your recipe up, then opt for sambal oelek or Sriracha. If you’re only looking for heat, then pull out that crushed red pepper.
For the kitchen master: Make your own
If you have dried chilies available to you, then you’re not too far away from having a homemade harissa paste that may be even tastier than store-bought! The chilies are the hardest part to source; the rest of the ingredients are pantry spice staples and common store herbs like cilantro and mint. Take a look at our homemade harissa recipe for inspiration. It’s easier than you may think.