Cayenne Pepper vs. Chili Powder: What you NEED to Know

Cayenne pepper vs. chili powder: when it comes to spices, both are widely used to add heat and flavor to dishes. But can you swap ’em out? Here’s everything you need to know before you buy (or substitute) the wrong one.

Cayennne Pepper next to Chili Powder to compare.

Cayenne pepper vs. chili powder: Is Chili Powder the Same as Cayenne Pepper?

As a food scientist, I totally geek out on this stuff. I’m going to go deep, but first I will give you the short answer: No, chili powder is not the same as cayenne pepper.

In North American recipes, chili powder refers to a spice blend commonly used in chili and Tex-Mex dishes, while cayenne pepper is pure ground chili peppers.

Here are a couple of key takeaways on cayenne pepper vs. chili powder before we dive in to detail and best substitutions:

  • Despite their common purpose to make tasty, spicy food, chili powder and cayenne are VERY different in their composition, heat levels, and cooking uses.
  • Substituting cayenne for chili powder would make the dish an unpleasantly intense heat, as even a small amount of cayenne pepper can be quite spicy.

Chili Powder in a bowl.

What is Chili Powder?

Chili powder is a popular blend of spices used in North America. The blend usually features ground dried chilies as the main component, along with onion powder, garlic powder, and other spices and herbs such as cumin, cloves and oregano. It also typically contains salt and sometimes sugar.

Unlike cayenne pepper, which is pure ground cayenne chilies, chili powder is a mixture of various ingredients that adds rich complexity to a dish.

Chili powder originated in Tex-Mex cooking and is commonly used to season dishes like tacos (it’s used in these stellar Chicken Tacos), enchiladas, soup and chili (like this award-winning Chili Con Carne).

While it’s possible for the ground dried chilies in the chili powder to include cayenne pepper, the blend usually features milder chilies to keep the overall heat level moderate.

Taco Seasoning ingredients.

Best Substitutes for Chili Powder

If you’re out of chili powder and need a substitute, the following swaps can work:

Where chili powder is the predominant flavor, like in actual chili, use one of these:

Where chili powder is used to add a little bit of flavor (like 1-2 tablespoons in a recipe), you won’t lose too much richness of flavor by using one of these:

  • Paprika: A good option for milder heat; consider adding a little cayenne to boost spiciness.
  • Ancho Chili Powder: Made from dried poblano peppers, this is a milder, sweeter substitute.
  • Kashmiri Chili Powder: Known for its vibrant red color and moderate heat, it can work as a milder substitute for chili powder.

Choosing the right substitute depends on the dish you’re making and how closely you want to match the heat and flavor of chili powder.

Whole fresh cayenne peppers, cayenne pepper powder and a jar of ground cayenne pepper.

What is Cayenne Pepper?

Cayenne pepper is a ground red chili pepper. It’s made from the dried pods of cayenne chillies.

Originating from the Cayenne region of French Guiana, this spice is known for its relatively high heat level due to the high concentration of the capsaicin compound. It ranges between 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units.

Used globally, cayenne powder adds spicy kick to dishes like curries, sauces, and rubs.

How can you identify cayenne pepper?

Ground cayenne pepper spice usually a bright red, fine powder.

Fresh cayenne peppers are long, skinny, and red.

What flavor is fresh cayenne pepper?

Fresh cayenne has a clean, sharp heat with a somewhat fruity flavor.

Best Substitutes for Cayenne Pepper

If you’re out of ground cayenne pepper or want to explore alternatives, the following substitutions can work:

  • Red Pepper Flakes: Also known as red chili flakes, these provide similar heat but with a coarser texture.
  • Hot Paprika: Similar in color but generally less spicy than cayenne.
  • Ground Chipotle Chili Pepper: Offers a smoky flavor and is less spicy.
  • Thai Chilies or Serrano Peppers: Fresh options that are similar in heat.
  • Kashmiri Chili Powder: Milder in heat and richer in color, often used in Indian cuisine.
  • Gochugaru: A Korean chili powder that is used in dishes like kimchi and various Korean stews. It is less spicy than cayenne pepper and has a somewhat sweet undertone.
  • Siling Labuyo Powder: A Filipino chili powder made from native Siling Labuyo peppers. It is very spicy and used in Filipino cuisine to add heat to dishes. Comparable or even hotter than cayenne, this chili powder packs a serious punch.
  • La Jiao: A Chinese red chili powder used in various regional dishes to add heat. Varies in heat but can be quite spicy, particularly those used in Sichuan cuisine, although usually not as hot as cayenne.
  • Thai Chili Powder: Made from Thai bird’s eye chilies, this is an extremely hot powder often used in Thai cooking. Usually hotter than cayenne and should be used sparingly if substituting.
  • Franks Red Hot Sauce: Less spicy with an added vinegar tang, suitable for sauces.

What is the difference between ground cayenne pepper and fresh cayenne pepper?

They are the same pepper; one is simply the ground form of the other.

What can I substitute for fresh cayenne pepper?

Fresh Thai chilies or serrano peppers could work as a substitute.

Paprika in a package and in a small bowl.

What About Paprika?

Paprika is a ground spice made from specific types of peppers that are generally milder than cayenne. Paprika can range from sweet to smoky in flavor.

Paprika, chili powder and cayenne are not directly interchangeable due to their differences in heat and flavor profiles.

What is the difference between cayenne pepper and hot paprika?

Hot paprika can be spicy but is far less spicy than cayenne.

Can I use paprika instead of cayenne pepper?

You can use paprika instead of cayenne, but more for color than for heat. You would need to expect a much milder dish. It’s up to your personal preferences.

Is paprika pepper hot?

Traditional paprika is mild, but hot paprika varieties do exist.

Is paprika just dried crushed red pepper?

No, paprika is made from specific types of peppers that are usually milder.

What’s the difference between paprika and cayenne pepper?

The difference between paprika and cayenne pepper is that paprika can range from sweet to smoky, while cayenne is primarily noted for its heat.

Can you substitute paprika for cayenne pepper in a recipe?

It is possible to substitute paprika for cayenne pepper in a recipe but would significantly reduce the heat level. You are better off adding another source of heat like red pepper flakes.

Chili powder next to cayenne pepper powder.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Chili Powder: A Full Comparison

Cayenne pepper vs. chili powder: Origin and Composition

Cayenne Pepper

  • Origin: Sourced from the Cayenne region in French Guiana, South America.
  • Composition: A ground spice derived exclusively from dried cayenne peppers.

Chili Powder

  • Origin: Developed and popularized in North American and Tex-Mex cuisines.
  • Composition: A spice blend typically consisting of ground dried chilies, cumin, garlic, and oregano.

My Hearty Chili Con Carne is the ultimate comfort food! This Mexican recipe is rich, seriously delicious and and easy to make. Who doesn’t love a homemade beef chili with lots of beans!

Cayenne pepper vs. chili powder: Heat Levels

Cayenne Pepper

  • Scoville Heat Units: Ranges from 30,000 to 50,000.
  • Heat Level: Generally high.

Chili Powder

  • Scoville Heat Units: Varies due to being a blend but is usually much milder.
  • Heat Level: Mild to moderate, depending on the blend.

Cayenne pepper vs. chili powder: Culinary Uses

Cayenne Pepper

  • Best For: Used in spicy dishes, sauces, and rubs.
  • Cuisine: Found in a variety of global cuisines including Indian curries and Mexican salsas.

Chili Powder

  • Best For: Ideal for Tex-Mex dishes such as tacos, enchiladas, and chili.
  • Cuisine: Common in American, Mexican, and Tex-Mex cooking.

Chicken Korma ingredients.

What about “Chili Pepper”, “Chile Pepper”, or “Chilli Pepper”?

Here’s where it gets confusing. In other countries, pure ground chillies are called chili pepper, chilli pepper or chilli powder (with two Ls) in recipes. Sometime even chile peppers.

Your cue should be to ask yourself, is this a North American, Mexican or Tex-Mex recipe? No?

Then it’s probably not referring to the chili seasoning blend of North America, but pure ground chilli peppers from other parts of the world.

  • Chili Pepper, Chile Pepper or Chilli Pepper: These terms refer to many different fruits of plants from the Capsicum family. They are the raw or dried forms from which ground spices like cayenne pepper and chili powder are derived.
  • Heat Level Comparison: Cayenne is a specific type of chili or chilli pepper known for its high heat. While cayenne ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units, other chili peppers can vary widely in their heat levels.
  • Types of Chili/Chilli Peppers: Includes varieties like jalapeño, serrano, and habanero, each with its own heat level and flavor profile.

So then is Cayenne Pepper the Same as Chili Pepper or Chilli Pepper?

Yes and no. Cayenne is a specific type of chili pepper, whereas “chili pepper” can refer to any pepper in the capsicum family.

The term “chili pepper” is used commonly in Asian recipes, Indian recipes, and outside of North America to refer to spicy ground chillies.

If the spicy ground chilli you have on hand is cayenne, that works!

Chicken 65 in a bowl with naan.

Chili Powder vs. Cayenne Pepper Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Just skimming through? Here are some quick answers to the commonly-asked questions.

What spice is closest to cayenne pepper?

Ground red pepper or red pepper flakes are the closest to cayenne pepper in terms of heat but have a different flavor profile. See full list of closest spices in the list of best substitutes above.

Are paprika and cayenne pepper interchangeable?

No, paprika and cayenne pepper are not the same and are not interchangeable. Paprika is generally milder and can range from sweet to smoky, while cayenne is straightforwardly spicy.

What spices are hotter than cayenne pepper?

Habanero and ghost pepper are significantly hotter than cayenne.

Can I use hot sauces like Franks Red Hot as a substitute for cayenne?

Yes, but Franks Red Hot is less spicy and has a vinegar tang, altering the flavor profile of your dish.

How much cayenne pepper is equivalent to chili powder?

Cayenne is much spicier; even 1/4 teaspoon per serving could be very hot. A direct swap isn’t advisable.

Can I substitute chipotle chili pepper for cayenne pepper?

You can, but the chipotle will add a smoky flavor and is generally less spicy.

Can I substitute Franks Red Hot for cayenne pepper?

Yes, but Franks Red Hot is less spicy and has a vinegar tang, so the flavor profile will change.

Is cayenne pepper hotter than chili pepper?

Cayenne is generally hotter than most generic chili peppers but not as hot as some like the habanero or ghost pepper.

What is the difference between cayenne pepper and chili peppers?

Cayenne is a type of chili pepper, specifically known for its heat.

What spice is hotter than cayenne pepper?

Habanero and ghost pepper are examples of spices hotter than cayenne.

How can you tell the difference between cayenne pepper and paprika?

One way to tell the difference is by color; cayenne pepper is usually a brighter red, while paprika can range from orange-red to deep red. Another indicator is the taste and heat level; cayenne is straightforwardly spicy, while paprika can be sweet, smoky, or mildly spicy.

Easy Butter Chicken - an authentic Indian recipe

Favorite Recipes using Ground Cayenne Pepper Powder:

Chicken tacos on a platter.

Favorite Recipes using Chili Powder:

NEXT READING: Best Gochujang Substitute (and everything you need to know about Korean Chili Paste)

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