It is confusing when working with chilli based spices – what are they, how they differ, and can you substitute one for the other?
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Cayenne Powder or Cayenne Pepper is Unadulterated Powdered Chillies
This hot powder is made by grinding the dried red skins of several types of hot chilli peppers. It is intense and hot and is usually sold in powdered form. Cayenne is used for its heat not for its flavour profile which is acidic and tart. It’s heat level is similar to the Asian bird’s eye chillies.
Cayenne pepper originated from Cayenne Island in French Guiana. In general it is made from South American chillies – cayenne, arbol or guajillo chillies.
Chilli Powder and Indian Chilli Powder
This is where the confusion arises. In India, chilli powder (quite naturally) refers to unadulterated ground chillies, similar to Cayenne powder. It is powdered dried red chillies, most commonly the cayenne variety of chilli peppers but can be made of local varieties. In Indian recipes, when it asks for chilli powder, it definitely refers to unadulterated powdered chillies.
BUT Mexican-Style chilli powder which is used in many other parts of the world, including the US, also contains a range of other spices such as Cumin, Garlic and Oregano. Some mixes may even include black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, mace, nutmeg, or turmeric. As a result of the various potential additives, the spiciness of any given chilli powder is variable. Different chillies give the chilli powder different taste profiles, and it is generally milder than Cayenne Pepper.
Many spice powders from India include Indian chilli powder. It is good for the digestive fire. It is said to stimulate the appetite, destroys toxic build-up, kills worms in the intestines and purifies the blood. It can jump-start weakened organs after an operation.
Due to its high pitta nature, it is used sparingly in Ayurveda, especially during the summer and for people with hight pitta. It has a heating effect, but Ayurveda prefers black pepper for heating action.
Kashmiri Chilli Powder is made from a long Kashmiri chilli that is relatively mild in taste, but which, like paprika, gives off a lovely deep red colour. If this is not available, use a mix of paprika and normal chilli powder.
Korean Chilli (available in flakes, powder and paste) is a little different as it has a slight smoky flavour, in addition to being slightly sweet and also quite hot.
Paprika is a spice made from the grinding of aromatic sweet bell peppers. In many European countries, especially Hungary where paprika is primarily used, the word paprika also refers to bell peppers themselves. The seasoning is used in many cuisines to add color and flavor to dishes. Paprika can range from sweet (mild, not hot) to spicy (hot) through to smokey.
Hungarian paprika is made from peppers that are harvested and then sorted, toasted, and blended to create different varieties. All Hungarian paprikas have some degree of rich, sweet red pepper flavor, but they range in pungency and heat. Just to confuse you there are eight grades of Hungarian paprika: különleges (“special quality”; mild and most vibrant red), csípősmentes csemege (delicate and mild), csemege paprika (similar to the previous but more pungent), csípős csemege (even more pungent), édesnemes (“noble sweet”; slightly pungent and bright red), félédes (semi-sweet with medium pungency), rózsa (mildly pungent and pale red), and erős (hottest and light brown to orange). In the US, what is marketed as Hungarian sweet paprika is usually the édesnemes variety.
Spanish Smoked Paprika
Unlike Hungarian paprika, in which the peppers are slowly sun-dried, pimentón peppers are slowly smoked over a fire, imparting an unbelievably rich and smokey flavor. The resulting smokey-sweet powder is used to create a warm, complex flavor profile. Like all paprika, you can find smoked paprika with varying degrees of heat: dulce is mild, agridulce is semi-hot, and picante is quite hot.
What to Use : Sweet vs Hot
The sweetness and heat of the paprika is all to do with the types of peppers used. If you are looking for a general use paprika, start with sweet paprika, and try other varieties as you experiment. However, unless stated otherwise, Spanish dishes will often use smoked paprika.
For general heat without a lot of flavor, use cayenne pepper, but beware: a little goes a long way!
For less heat and more flavour, use a Mexican style chilli powder.
For a sweet, more mild flavor use traditional sweet Hungarian Paprika, which is generally not spicy at all.
For a salsa-like flavor with a lot of heat, use Tabasco Sauce!
Can you substitute?
Although you will read that you cannot substitute cayenne with chilli, and vise versa, I believe that you can if you know what you are doing. If you do have a blended chilli powder, remember that it contains other herbs and spices. If you are using it as a substitute for cayenne you may need to add more than the recipe states while at the same time reducing some of the other flavourings in the dish.
Conversely you are substituting cayenne for chilli powder, use only a small amount and add some additional flavourings to the dish.
Paprika’s flavour can be quite different, and it is best not to use it as a substitute for chilli powder or cayenne pepper unless it is an emergency. If it is an emergency, substitute mild chilli powder such as ancho or chipotle powder (for a smoky flavor), or use just a pinch of cayenne. Depending on your recipe, you can add salt, cream, lemon juice or tomato juice to help reduce the spiciness of cayenne pepper.
You might also like to read All About Chillies and Chilli Types.
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