What Is Chili Powder?

Hint: It Isn't the Same as Cayenne Pepper

Chili powder and cayenne pepper are not the same thing.
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From its name, you might think that chili powder is simply ground up chili pepper, similar to cayenne pepper. But this assumption is very wrong, and could easily ruin the dish you are making. Chili powder is, in fact, a blend of spices. Cayenne happens to be one, but the other ingredients—cumin, garlic powder, oregano, and paprika—are much more prevalent. The ratio is one part cayenne to seven parts other spices, depending on the blend. 

Just be mindful when you are at the supermarket or spice store looking for chili powder since there are also spices labeled "chile powder." These are made of pure ground up chile peppers such as cayenne, chipotle, and ancho. They will be spicy or simply add a completely different flavor than what the recipe intended.

Chili Powder Vs. Cayenne Pepper

Since cayenne pepper is made solely from the cayenne pepper, it is not a chili powder substitute. Whereas chili powder is a blend of spices, cayenne pepper is pure ground dried chiles and is eight times hotter than chili powder. If your recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of chili powder and you use 2 tablespoons of cayenne pepper instead—well, let's just say that you're unlikely to make that mistake twice. Just remember that chili powder is a spice blend, whereas cayenne pepper is pure heat.

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

Making Your Own Chili Powder

If a recipe you are preparing calls for chili powder and you don't have any, you can make your own. In this mixture, the single most prominent ingredient is cumin. Together, the cumin and garlic powder make up almost half of the recipe, which means that chili powder is not especially hot. Thus, chili powder alone is not going to be the primary source of heat in your chili or tacos; instead, it adds 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. Also, some store-bought chili powders contain salt; this recipe does not. When it comes to salt, it is best to control how much goes into a dish independently of the other seasonings. Season your dish with Kosher salt toward the end of cooking. And be sure to taste the finished dish to check for a balance of flavors.

Homemade Chili Powder Recipe

  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground oregano

Mix the ingredients together until well blended. This will make a little less than 3 tablespoons of chili powder but it is easily doubled if you need more. Store in an airtight container.