What Is Chili Powder? (Hint: It Isn't the Same as Cayenne Pepper)

Chili powder
Chili powder. James A. Guilliam / Getty Images

Confusing chili powder with cayenne pepper is a potentially worse culinary mishap than using baking powder in place of baking soda. In one case, your cake doesn't rise, but in the other, your dry rub might burn somebody's mouth off.

Chili powder and cayenne pepper are two different things, and it's important to remember that cayenne pepper is not a chili powder substitute. Cayenne pepper is pure ground dried chiles.

Chili powder is a blend of spices, of which cayenne happens to be but one. The other ingredients include cumin, garlic powder, oregano, and paprika. But it's roughly one part cayenne to seven parts other things (depending on the recipe, and I've got one for you below).

That means cayenne is 8 times hotter than chili powder, and if your recipe calls for two tablespoons of chili powder and you use two tablespoons of cayenne pepper instead — well, let's just say that you probably won't make that mistake twice.

Fortunately, you don't have to make that mistake even once. Just remember chili powder is a spice blend. Cayenne pepper is pure ground cayenne pepper.

Chili Powder Recipe

If a recipe you are making calls for chili powder and you don't have any, the following mixture would be a great chili powder substitute:

  • 1 Tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp ground oregano

    Mix the ingredients together until well blended and you're ready to go. This will make a little less than 3 Tbsp of chili powder. Double it if you need more. Store in an airtight container.

    Obviously, this recipe is only useful in the specific situation where you're out of chili powder but you have plenty of those other five ingredients.

    Even so, I think it's illuminating to see what chili powder is, what ingredients it's made up of, and in what proportions.

    As you can see, the single most prominent ingredient is cumin. Together, the cumin and garlic powder make up fully half the recipe. What you can conclude from that is that chili powder is not especially hot. If you want your chili or tacos what have you to have a kick, chili powder alone is not going to be the primary source of heat. It's more like warmth.

    Of course, if you make your own chili powder, you can make it as hot as you want. Bear in mind, however, that some recipes call for chili powder PLUS additional cayenne, so you might have to make some modifications.

    Finally, some store-bought chili powder contains salt, but my feeling is that the cook should be able to control the amount of salt that goes into a dish, so my recipe leaves it out. Season with Kosher salt toward the end of cooking. And be sure to taste!