Learn how to make Tunisian harissa paste from scratch

You can make spicy harissa paste quickly and easily at home with just about any type of chilies and not much else. You can even make it from store-bought harissa spice powder.

Harissa is a delicious condiment and a versatile ingredient, but it’s not always easy to find in the store. And like so many things, homemade is so much better. Good news though! Harissa paste is really easy to make from scratch.

To understand what goes into a homemade harissa and how it’s made, I reviewed twenty recipes for this spicy condiment. I’ve figured out the most common ingredients and the most popular approach to help you choose a recipe, or pick an approach if you want to go it alone.

Before we dig into it though, a little background in case you’re new to harissa.

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What is harissa?

Harissa is a spicy paste made from chilies, garlic, oil and spices. It originated in Tunisia, but has become a household condiment across North Africa, in Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Morocco as well.

In it’s simplest form, and some Tunisians would argue it’s most authentic form, harissa is a thick paste made from dried chilies, garlic, salt and plenty of olive oil. And a common variant (which has essentially become the standard form) includes ground coriander, caraway and maybe some cumin. Beyond that many North African households add other flavours to create their own traditions.

As it has become more popular in Europe and North America, harissa has evolved to become more of a sauce, with milder ingredients like tomato paste and roasted red peppers (capsicum) added to the mix.

Harissa vs sriracha, gochujang, etc

If you’ve seen harissa paste pop up in a recipe and wondered if you could replace it with hot sauce, sriracha, gochujang or another chili paste, be cautious. While you can certainly match the heat of harissa with another product, the flavour profile is unique, and a substitute could well change the entire tone of a dish.

The good news is it’s easy to make at home.

What’s in harissa paste?

As with any homemade dish, there’s a lot of variation in the ingredients these authors choose to use.

Most popular ingredients

Every recipe starts off true to a traditional harissa, with all twenty including chilies, garlic and olive oil. And all but three include salt.

I’ll discuss chilies separately, but suffice to say for now there is a lot a variety in both the type used and the quantity.

Every recipe uses fresh garlic cloves, but there’s a lot of variation in how many. Based on the amount of harissa their recipes produce though, there’s a popular ratio of three to four cloves of garlic per cup of finished paste. But if you really like garlic, a few use twice as much as this.

With olive oil, there are two variables – type and quantity. Just over half the authors use plain olive oil, while the rest specify extra virgin. And as for quantity, there’s again huge variation, but on average, the most popular amount is two to four tablespoons per cup of harissa paste. Several use double this amount, which will obviously give their harissa quite a different consistency.

Regarding salt, most use half to one teaspoon per cup of paste, or simply recommend adding it to suit your taste.


After these foundational ingredients there are a few spices that are very common:

  • Eighteen recipes include cumin seed.
  • Seventeen use coriander seed.
  • Fourteen include caraway seed.  

If you haven’t come across caraway before, it is similar to cumin in it’s earthy tone, but has a distinct aniseed aroma as well. It’s popular in German cuisine and is commonly used in rye bread. If you don’t have any you can substitute other aniseed-flavoured spices, like fennel or anise seeds. It won’t be the exact same, but harissa is better with the anise flavour, giving it a unique twist. Just be careful with anise seeds because they are strongly aniseed compared with caraway or fennel.

All of the recipes that use these spices use at least two, and most include all three. And there are two recipes that don’t include any spices (from Half Baked Harvest and The Spruce Eats).

The authors that use these spices use them in a variety of ratios. The most common is equal amounts, but only six recipes take this approach. Beyond that there’s no real pattern. Some favour more coriander, some more cumin and some more caraway.


The only other ingredient that appears in more than half the recipes is lemon juice. Fourteen recipes use between two teaspoons and three tablespoons of fresh lemon juice (averaging about two tablespoons per cup of paste).

A couple of authors mention how you could replace lemon juice with preserved lemon, a popular citrus ingredient in North African cuisine, especially Moroccan.

Other ingredients

The authors use a variety of other ingredients in their harissa pastes:

  • Tomato is included in ten recipes, mostly as a small amount of paste or puree.
  • Six authors add one or two roasted red peppers (capsicum) to their harissa.
  • Six include some smoked paprika for a smoky flavour without increasing the heat.
  • Five authors add a tablespoon or so of vinegar, usually white wine vinegar.
  • Mint makes a couple of appearances, once dried and once fresh.
  • Fresh cilantro (coriander) also appears a couple of times.

How the recipes compare to commercial products

Out of interest I compared the ingredients these authors use in their homemade harissa to those used in commercial harissa pastes and powdered spice blends.

I picked three commercially available pastes, including the famous Le Phare Du Cap Bon, which has been made in Tunisia since the 1940’s. I also picked three harissa spice blends.

Ignoring chilies because every product has them, all of the pastes include coriander seeds, garlic and salt. Only one, Al’fez, excludes caraway and includes cumin, and none use olive oil. One uses sunflower oil and one rapeseed oil. And the Cap Bon paste doesn’t contain any oil at all, presumably obtaining it’s slightly oily texture from the oils in the coriander and caraway seeds. The Al’fez paste is the most complex, also including lemon juice, white wine vinegar, tomato puree, sugar, paprika and star anise (instead of caraway).

The powders are all very similar to each other (again, ignoring chilies). All three contain coriander, cumin and caraway seeds, as well as salt and mint. Surprisingly one doesn’t have garlic, and one other adds paprika and sugar to the mix.

So the commercial products are similar to scratch-made harissa, but not the same, and of course can’t be tweaked like you can tweak a homemade batch.

Closeup of many dried red chilies.

Choosing chilis for harissa paste

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of variation in both the variety of chili (or chilies) the authors use, as well as the type (dried or fresh).

Chili varieties

No single variety of chili dominates, with none even being used in half of the recipes. Some are more common than others though:

  • Seven authors use guajillos, which are dried mirasol chilies.
  • Six recipes include chilies de arbol, a popular Mexican chili.
  • Five recipes use New Mexico chilies, a group of chilies that includes the Hatch and Anaheim varieties.
  • Four recipes use anchos, which are dried poblano chilies.
  • A couple of authors use bird’s eye chilies, and two add some cayenne powder to their mixture.
  • One recipe uses pasilla chillies, and another uses Fresno chilies.

Beyond these specific choices, eight recipes are not specific, directing you to use dried chilies, or fresh red chilies, or chili flakes. Most of these authors recommend you choose the variety you prefer.

It’s worth noting that more than half of the authors choose to add more than one variety of chili to their harissa, and several add three or more. And the reason for this becomes clear when we look at the different levels of heat the different varieties bring to the paste.

Level of spiciness (heat)

There are literally hundreds of different varieties of chilies, and as well as having different flavour profiles, they also have different levels of heat or spiciness.

The heat of chilies is measured with the Scoville scale. On this scale, the amount of capsaicins (the spicy compounds in chilies) are measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). This allows you to compare different varieties.

The scale goes from zero literally into the millions. At zero, a chili has no heat. Bell peppers (capsicum) have a zero SHU rating. After that, you can think of them like this:

  • From 700 to 3,000, they’re considered to be mild.
  • From 3,000 to 25,000, they’re moderate.
  • From 25,000 to 70,000, they’re hot chilies.
  • Above 70,000, look out!

Based on the Scoville scale, here’s how the chilies our authors use stack up:

  • Guajillos and anchos are considered mild to moderate, rating between 1,000 to 5,000.
  • De arbol chilies are moderate to hot, with 15,000 to 30,000 SHU.
  • New Mexico chilies are a group, so they range from zero to as high as 100,000. Anaheim chilies are mild.
  • Cayenne is hot, with 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.
  • Bird’s eyes are hot to very hot, rating 50,000 to 100,000.

As you can see, a number of recipes use mild chilies, but quite a few use hot and very hot varieties as well.

But harissa is intended to compliment a meal, not render it tasteless due to scorched taste buds. And this is why so many recipes use more than one variety of chili pepper.

In Tunisia, harissa is made with baklouti chilies, which rate 1,000 to 5,000 SHU (mild to moderate). And none of these harissa recipes are made with only hot varieties. Especially since hotter varieties are very often smaller than mild ones. To prepare one cup of harissa with bird’s eye chilies, you’d need so many that you’d be able to strip paint with it (and stomach linings!).

By building your harissa on a mild or moderate chili, you can prepare a good amount of paste with a nice level of heat. Then, those that prefer theirs a bit hotter can add smaller amounts of hotter chilies to boost the spiciness.

A couple of the recipes are based on hot chilies, but also add roasted red bell pepper (0 SHU), tomato paste, or both to reduce the heat.

Dried vs fresh

Harissa is traditionally made with dried chilies. Most of these recipes use dried chilies, with a few authors using a combination of dried and fresh.

You may wonder why dried chilies are used when the first step in most recipes is rehydrating them. Why not just use fresh and skip this step?

There’s a number of reasons dried chilies are popular. They originally became popular because it significantly extends shelf life, making it easier for chili growers to get them to market, and giving people who buy them more time to use them at home.

Dried chilies also tend to be hotter because they’re usually not dried until they are fully ripe. 

And last but not least, fresh chilies contain more water than rehydrated dried chilies. This sounds counterintuitive, but it’s because they don’t fully rehydrate to the state they were before being dried.  As a result, a harissa paste made with fresh chilies will tend to be wetter in consistency than one made with rehydrated dried chilies.

Making harissa paste with fresh chilies

That doesn’t mean you can’t make harissa paste with fresh chilies.

Amongst these recipes, Yotam Ottolenghi’s harissa recipe on Epicurious and Neha’s on Whisk Affair are both made with fresh chilies. I’ve listed their recipes separately at the bottom if you’re interested.  Yotam has you cook the chilies, but Neha’s recipe uses them raw. BBC Good Food’s recipe and Alida’s on Simply Delicious also add raw fresh chilies to their pastes.

On top of that, several of the other authors answer questions from readers on using fresh chilies instead of dried. Many haven’t tried it, but some advise you can certainly do so. Emily on The Kitchn recommends using twice as many fresh chilies as you would dried with her recipe. Keep in mind the earlier point about water content if you want to do this but prefer a drier paste.

Making harissa paste from scratch

Most of the recipes roughly follow a very similar process to prepare their harissa:

  1. Rehydrate chilies by soaking in hot water. This step varies from half-an-hour to overnight, depending on the author. Regardless of the time, most start with boiling water. Once they’re rehydrated, you drain them and some authors have you keep the liquid for use in the paste.
  2. Toast whole spices (coriander, cumin and caraway seeds) briefly in a dry pan. This not only enhances their flavour, it also makes the whole spices easier to grind. And the key here is briefly so they don’t burn.
  3. Grind spices to a fine powder. Some authors use a mortar and pestle, and some use a spice grinder.
  4. Blend all ingredients together in a food processor.

And several authors recommend a final step of tweaking the paste for taste (especially saltiness) and texture (with more oil or the water the chilies were soaked in). If you find your harissa is too spicy, you can add tomato paste or roasted red bell pepper to cool it down a little. You can also adjust acidic ingredients at this point if you’re using them (lemon juice or vinegar).

There are a few other steps that some recipes direct you to do as well:

  • Remove the membrane and seeds from your chilies. This is where most of the heat is in chilies, so this reduces the spiciness. It also impacts texture. If you leave them in you’ll have whole seeds and potentially small chunks of the membrane in your harissa. A couple of authors recommend doing this before you rehydrate them because the seeds tend to just fall or shake out while dry. Once the chili is rehydrated you’ll have to scrape the seeds outs.
  • Several authors advise that harissa is better after it’s had a day or so for the flavours to mingle. So if you have time, let it sit in the fridge before you use it.
  • And the recipes that use roasted red bell peppers typically guide you through the process of charring and skinning them as well.

Making harissa paste from powder

If you don’t have time to make it from scratch, or don’t have all ingredients, you can make a pretty good harissa paste from a good harissa spice mix powder like the products I mentioned earlier.

Recommended approaches vary, from mixing equal parts harissa powder, oil and water, to mixing just harissa powder and oil.

Keep in mind that the only water in most of the recipes here is typically what’s left in the chilies after rehydrating them, and in red peppers (where they’re used). And many authors advise you to squeeze out any excess water from your rehydrated chilies. So equal parts powder, oil and water is likely to give you more of a sauce than a paste.

I go into this in a lot more detail, including a recipe, on my post on making harissa paste from powder.

Storing homemade harissa paste

Most of the authors offer a recommended storage time in the refrigerator, but there is enormous variation. While a few authors say your harissa should last for two to three weeks, quite a few advise one to two months and SBS say it will be good for one year!

In order to extend the shelf life, there are two key steps that most authors recommend.

The first is to ensure you properly sterilise the jar prior to adding your harissa paste.

And the second is to pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top of the paste in the jar to create an additional seal. Most also recommend refreshing or topping up this layer after using some of the paste.

What can you use harissa paste for?

While it’s not the focus of my review, I’d be remiss not to share some of the great ideas the authors recommend:

  • A number of authors suggest adding a tablespoon or two to soups or stews.
  • Several recommend dolloping small amounts on top of pizza.
  • Roast vegetables are another great use that comes up more than once.
  • Mixing harissa with Greek yogurt, sour cream or mayonnaise for a quick dip or sandwich/burger sauce. Meggan from Culinary Hill recommends this on a classic beef meatloaf sandwich, which sounds awesome. It’s also incredible on a lamb burger.
  • A few also recommend stirring some into hummus for a spicier chickpea dip.
  • Several recommend it with eggs – scrambled, poached or hard-boiled. Yum.

In addition, many of the authors have links to their own harissa-based recipes for dips, sides, main meals and more.

And harissa goes perfectly with reverse-seared chicken breasts or juicy pork chops.

The essence of homemade harissa paste

Tunisian harissa paste is easy to make from scratch, and can be tweaked to suit your tastes and your preferred consistency.

What you need

For a very basic harissa, you’ll need the following:

  • Dried chilies
  • Garlic
  • Olive oil
  • Salt

But I highly recommended you spice it up with some coriander, cumin or especially caraway seeds, or any combination of the three.

How to make it

Making harissa paste is straightforward:

  1. Rehydrate your chilies by soaking them in hot water.
  2. Toast your spices briefly in a hot pan, then grind them to a powder.
  3. Blend all of your ingredients together (drained chilies, garlic, oil, spices and salt) to the consistency you like.
  4. Taste and tweak to suit your palate.

And if you want to make harissa paste from powder, mix it with oil until you’ve almost got the consistency you want, then add a little water, and you’re done!

Whichever way you go, if you can let it sit, even for a few hours, it’ll be even better.

So there you have it – the essence of homemade harissa paste. Hopefully this will help you to choose recipe or an approach that suits you best.

Recipes included in this review

Harissa recipes made with fresh chilies

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