20 Spicy Dinners for Chili-Heads and Fire Lovers
Feel the heat with these fiery dishes, ranging from mildly spicy all the way to “I can’t feel my tongue”
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To quote the bard (and I mean, of course, Robert Palmer, lead singer of platinum-selling '80s one-hit wonder The Power Station): “Some like it hot and some sweat when the heat is on.” He may not have been referring to habanero peppers when he sang “Feeeeeel the heat!!!” but his musical wisdom still applies today at the dinner table.
Reader, I like it hot. I add LaoGanMa chili crisp to my scrambled eggs and togarashi to my avocado toast. I garnish pho with Sriracha and pile the jalapeños on my banh mi. My brothers and I used to compete to see who could stand the hottest horseradish on our gefilte fish during the Passover seder.
There is something about fiery food that is uniquely satisfying. Maybe it’s the bracing sensation of fire creeping across the tongue, or the relief when the waves of heat subside. Maybe I reach a state of transcendence, jolted by capsaicin into full immersion in the sensations of the here and now, fully present in my body for as long as it takes to devour my salsa-drenched taco.
Whatever it is, I find myself identifying with the poet when she sings, “I’ve got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” If you’re like me and Queen Bey, you’re sure to enjoy the catalog of spicy recipes I’ve gathered for you below, with options for every level of hot sauce preference, from mild-mannered Tabasco to scorching Marie’s Sharp.
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Before you choose a recipe with some heat, prepare yourself with this brief intro to spicy foods
Are spicy foods good for you?
Sure, I guess! The Cleveland Clinic cites a laundry list of health benefits. Hot foods, for example, may help you maintain a healthy weight by curbing appetite and boosting your metabolism. They may have anti-inflammatory effects on your gut and help create a flourishing microbiome in your digestive tract. So, if good hot tasty fun isn’t enough of a reason for you to dabble in the chili-arts, you can eat jalapeños with confidence knowing they’re good for you, too.
Why do spicy foods burn?
We experience spicy foods as fiery because of the way our sensory organs react to a chemical compound called capsaicin that occurs naturally in hot peppers. The nerve endings in our tongues misinterpret the capsaicin compounds as a signal that there is something very hot (temperature-wise) in our mouth and send a klaxon alarm of pain signals up to our brain: “Ouch! Fire! Awooga!” Similar receptors on our skin and eyes react the same way to capsaicin, creating that burning sensation that we know and love in food, and know and hate when we wipe our eyes after handling a hot pepper. P.S. Use gloves and even goggles to avoid irritation when handling and cutting hot peppers!
Why do we like spicy foods?
Man, people are complicated, aren’t they? Our body screams no when we bite down on a cayenne pepper, but our minds sometimes override that involuntary pain response. The New York Times cites a theory from Dr. Paul Rozin, a scholar in the so-called psychology of disgust, who proposes that a form of “benign masochism” drives preference for hot foods. People, it seems, enjoy pain in limited doses and seek it out, especially when they know no real harm is around the corner. It’s the same thrill-seeking urge that drives us to ride roller coasters and go sky-diving.
Which parts of the pepper are spicy?
The Kitchn reports (and I have no reason to disbelieve them) that it’s the white ribs of the interior of chilis that are spicy, and not the seeds, except inasmuch as the seeds rub up against the ribs inside the pepper’s cavity.
Mildly spicy recipes for gentle souls
Not every hot sauce notches up a million Scoville units and not every spicy dish needs to be a three-alarm fire. These entry-level dishes for mild-mannered heat-seekers will create a little adventure for palates that aren’t ready for scorched earth. These are the Tabasco sauce of spicy recipes — not too hot, just a little tangy.
Blue cheese or ranch? Dairy is the quintessential neutralizer for the burn of spicy foods, so timid palates can dip these Buffalo chicken wings in dressing to neutralize the heat. A post-fry bath in Frank’s RedHot Sauce and butter gives these traditional fried chicken wings a little zing.
Not ready to fire up the deep fryer? This version of the upstate NY spicy crispy chicken wings recipe starts with oven-roasted wings, instead of deep-fried. You’ll still be licking hot sauce off your fingers.
A dose of dried red pepper flakes sets this classic spicy tomato pasta recipe apart from basic marinara. If you can’t get ahold of guanciale (cured jowl bacon), then regular smoked bacon will do in a pinch in this tomato sauce. Just don’t tell your Italian nonna that you strayed from the true path.
Garnish just about anything with this tart and tangy herb dressing. The red pepper flakes give this sauce a little piquancy, but the heat mostly plays the bass note to the bright parsley and red-wine vinegar.
I see hot honey all over the place in the new generation of wood-fired pizza joints in my neighborhood. You can reproduce it at home with this step-by-step video guide to sweet/hot pizza. Calabrian chili and n’duja (a spreadable spicy salami) make this pizza a winner.
Pho itself is not spicy, but the traditional garnish tray includes slices of jalapeño and bright red jars of Sriracha sauce. So you can doctor your bowl of rice noodle soup to your preferred heat level. If you go too far with the chilis, try a squeeze of lime juice to cut into the heat.
Medium hot recipes — when you’re ready to level up
Think of this batch of recipes as Sriracha-level — they’ve got ingredients with a definite burn.
There’s no better accompaniment to tacos or nachos than a spoonful of this classic fresh salsa. No cooking necessary, just dice up all the ingredients and let them marry in the fridge for an hour or two. Great for weeknight tacos!
I first tried tortilla soup as an appetizer at Rick Bayless’s Chicago temple to Mexican Food, Frontera Grill. Here’s his recipe for this mildly spicy chicken soup, which gets a little heat from toasted dried pasilla peppers.
You can use jalapeños or serranos or any other green chili to spike this recipe’s yogurt-mint marinade. Marinate chunks of boneless chicken breast or chicken thigh for at least an hour before grilling over charcoal for the best results.
Far from dorm room cup-o-noodles, this recipe for spicy ramen uses fermented miso paste and sesame tahini to give deep umami notes and a dollop of Sriracha and Japanese togarashi chili powder for heat.
Fierce and fiery recipes
Ready to graduate to confirmed chili-head? Try these hot and spicy recipes for spicy dinners that’ll light up your capsaicin receptors.
My two cents, it is literally impossible to put too much cumin in chili. Think of the two tablespoons called for in this traditional Texas Chili recipe as a starting point and add more to your liking. Cans of chipotle peppers in adobo provide a deep lingering heat.
Vegan sheet pan tacos? Count me in. When I make these roasted chickpeas and cauliflower, I usually add a dollop of canned chipotle chilis in adobo for a little fiery counterpoint to the cumin and lime. Works great with cubed sweet potatoes, too! Garnish with cilantro and onions.
This spicy chicken stir-fry starts with chunks of boneless skinless chicken breast and builds layer after layer of heat with a spicy ginger cayenne yogurt marinade and blistered green chilis.
My favorite way to warm up on a winter night is with a bubbling dolsot of kimchi-spiked tofu stew. Don’t have a traditional Korean stone casserole in the pantry? No problem, soondubu tastes just as good from a regular bowl.
Five-alarm fires in recipe form
Prepare the ice water and cold milk, because these recipes will give you a chili-spiked thrill and test the limits of your love of heat
Visit a grocery store with a good selection of Asian ingredients to get some ground red Thai peppers and toasted rice powder to dust on this fiery chicken salad. Works as a side dish or a main course!
This riff on a classic spicy Thai salad recipe subs in tart green apples for the traditional grated green mango condiment. Use Thai chili if you’ve got it or any dried ground red pepper.
Once you’ve made jerk marinade once, you’ll find all sorts of reasons to whip it up again. Scotch bonnets are the traditional pepper for this recipe, but habaneros will work, too! This recipe calls for all the pieces of a whole chicken, but you can easily sub in bone-in thighs or other meats to bring some Jamaican heat to the dinner table.
Yes you read it right: ¾ cup of ground cayenne pepper go into this crispy chicken recipe. There’s cayenne in the marinade and cayenne in the breading and cayenne in the sauce that you slather over your hot chicken after it comes out of the fryer.
It’s complicated — tingly spicy Sichuan recipes
The Sichuan peppercorn — part of the prickly ash shrub — adds a unique mouth-numbing tingle to spicy dishes from this part of China. Get a little ma la in your life by trying out these fiery / tingly Sichuan classics.
Sheet pan chicken thighs and veggies, but complicated! But also simple! A little Sichuan peppercorn and Sriracha in this recipe’s glaze adds heat and numbing tingles to this easy Yummly original.
This rendition of mapo tofu uses Sichuan peppercorn and fermented bean paste (doubanjiang) along with a little soy sauce to make an incredible savory-spicy pan gravy.
More spicy food recipes
If spicy food is your jam, check out the related Yummly articles below. These recipes have some heat!