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So you’re trying to heat things up, are you? In one hand you have a bottle of cayenne, in the other, a bottle of chili powder. As you stand over the stove, perhaps at the beginning stages of preparing an enchilada filling or working up a little spicy hot chocolate, you consider your next move. Are these two spices interchangeable? Which one was it this recipe called for? “Ah, whatever,” you think, casually grabbing that which is closest…
Now listen carefully. Put the bottles down. Turn off the heat (metaphorically and actually), and step away from the stove. Unless you are prepared to take your chances on developing the ability to breathe fire or having your chocolate also spiked with cumin and oregano, you’re going to want to actually understand the difference between cayenne and chili powder and proceed carefully.
All cayenne powders are technically chili powders, but not all chili powders are cayennes. A quick look at the back of both bottles should clear some things up. Your bottle of cayenne probably doesn’t have a list of ingredients, because the single ingredient is right on the front: cayenne. Cayenne is a type of chili pepper whose primary use is being ground into powdered form for adding heat in cooking. Chili powder, on the other hand, is more of a chili seasoning blend that not only contains some ground chili, (which may or may not be cayenne chilis), but also additional flavor components such as cumin, oregano, salt, garlic powder, etc. Depending on brand, these may just be listed as “spices” on the back label, but it any case you’ve got more that only chilis in that bottle.
Cayennes are moderately hot chilis, registering between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units. (The Scoville scale measures the impact of capsicum, the “spiciness” compound, in various types of peppers.) By comparison jalapeños clock in only around 10,000 units max, and the famed Carolina Reaper is pushing 1.5 million units. A little cayenne goes a long way, and for an average single recipe, you’ll typically see cayenne called for as a fraction of a teaspoon, sometimes just a pinch, unless you’re cooking up something seriously spicy. Chili powder can vary in heat level depending on brand and definitely does bring some fire to the situation, but more so brings flavor. It’s like the difference between hot sauces such as Tabasco, which brings a burst of heat in a single dash, and Cholula or Frank’s, which have a pepper flavor, and a tangy, viscous quality that allows for larger portions. A full teaspoon of chili powder, even up to a tablespoon, isn’t likely to leave you running for the pickles and ice cream. (I have it on good authority that this is the antidote for extreme levels of cayenne. Looking at you, Nashville Hot Chicken.)
Cayenne and chili powder look an awful lot alike in the bottle, with maybe chili powder having a slightly deeper crimson blush, but other complicating factors are that a number of other spicy additives might also be sharing the spice rack. Other forms of pulverized chilis exists, such as ancho chili powder, paprika or smoked paprika, aleppo, gochugaru, etc. Additionally, other chili-based spice blends are out and about, such as tajin: a Mexican condiment that includes chilies, lime zest, and salt. Chili flakes or crushed red pepper flakes are similar to cayenne except that they are crushed rather than ground, and include the visible seeds of the pepper, but can function in a somewhat similar way when added to food.
In the Pot
When you add small amount of cayenne toward the beginning of the cooking process, it will infuse your dishes with an even heat. Innocent-seeming recipes such as béchamel sauce can even call for a pinch of cayenne to give an undercurrent of warmth. Chili powder is also something that goes in early, and benefits not only from contact with oil to help all of its layered flavors bloom, but a long cooking process. A bubbling pot of chili wouldn’t be nearly the same if you added chili powder right at the end, and would taste uneven and flat. Certain recipes may even call for both chili powder and cayenne, to amplify the heat of what the chili powder brings, but also incorporate the other attendant flavors.
To put in context the different ways cayenne and chili powder function in recipes, here are a roundup of recipes that highlight some of the best applications of both!
Yeah, remember when I talked about the relatively small quantity of cayenne needed to make a point? Right, this recipe for Nashville’s signature dry-rub spicy chicken calls for two full tablespoons. You have been warned. PICKLES AND ICE CREAM AT THE READY. Get the Roasted Nashville Hot Chicken recipe.
Here we see how cayenne functions in a much more subtle fashion. These aren’t spicy fritters, per se, but the cayenne helps cut through rich, somewhat creamy components for a warming, rather than spicy effect. Get our Crispy Corn Fritters recipe.
Cayenne is your go-to heat to add a little fire to something sweet. Chocolate, meet cayenne. Passion ablaze! Get our Mexican Chocolate Slice and Bake Cookies recipe.
I mean, take your pick. If the dish is called “chili” it better have chili powder in it, or else a good excuse as to why it doesn’t, like a laundry list of individual spices. But just grab the chili powder already. Get our Bacon Black Bean Chili recipe.
Second only to chili, taco seasoning is chili powder’s other star turn. Here chili powder can transform even the palest of veggies into something rowdy and almost meaty, worthy of earning its spot in a taco. Get our Cauliflower Tacos recipe.
Here we see the true universal nature of chili powder. Flavorful enough to elevate eggs and beans into the exalted realm of nachos, but mellow enough to have them for breakfast! Get our Breakfast Nachos recipe.