What Is Chili Powder?

A Guide to Buying and Cooking with Chili Powder

Chili powder and cayenne pepper are not the same thing.

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American Tex-Mex-style chili powder is a blend of spices often used for making chili con carne or flavoring beans or meat. It is not simply ground up chili peppers, although there can be confusion with spices of similar names. This ground spice blend is available year-round.

What Is Chili Powder?

Chili powder is a red-colored blend of powdered spices. While it contains some cayenne pepper for heat, it also has spices such as cumin, garlic powder, oregano, and paprika intended to lend the flavors expected in chili con carne. The ratio is one part cayenne to seven parts other spices, depending on the blend. The heat level for any particular brand of chili powder is variable but is always far lower than that of pure ground chili peppers. Some blends contain salt as well as spices, which can be a concern for those who are avoiding salt.

Varieties of Chili Powder

You will find blends simply labeled as chili powder or chili seasoning mix, suitable for use in making chili con carne. Organic varieties are available. Some chili powder is labeled as hot while still being a blend of spices. Dark chili powder varieties have a smoky and slightly sweet flavor.

Chili Powder
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Chili Powder vs. Cayenne Pepper

The spice sold as cayenne pepper is simply ground cayenne pepper and it is not a chili powder substitute. Ground cayenne pepper 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, you won't make that mistake twice as cayenne pepper is pure heat. Your dish will be blazing hot but lack the other flavors provided by chili powder.

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.

What Does It Taste Like?

Chili powder is mild to moderately spicy, depending on how much cayenne pepper makes up the mixture. The aromatic and savory spices in the blend create the flavor profile known as Tex-Mex. If you have a good palate, you'll be able to recognize the cumin, oregano, garlic, and any additional spices particular to the mix. The blend might contain salt, which should be kept in mind when adding it to the pot or using it as a rub on barbequed or grilled meat.

Cooking With Chili Powder

Chili powder is added to chili con carne, beans, or casseroles when the other ingredients are mixed and set to cook. Often, additional amounts of the spices that are typical components of chili powder (such as cumin) are also called for in the recipe, to create the desired flavor combinations. Chili powder can also be used as a rub on meats before grilling.

Spoon of chili powder
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Meat loin cooking
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Bowl of chili con carne
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Delicious Grilled Mexican Corn
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mexican pop corn with hot sauce
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Recipes With Chili Powder

Create that tasty Tex-Mex flavor profile by using chili powder in stews, casseroles, beans, and meat.


If a recipe you are preparing calls for chili powder and you don't have any, you can substitute the component spices. In this mixture, the single most prominent ingredient is cumin. Together, the cumin and garlic powder make up almost half of the ingredients, which means that chili powder is not especially hot. Cayenne is the component adding the heat, and you can adjust how much you add to your personal taste. Some recipes call for chili powder plus additional cayenne, so you might have to make some modifications. As some chili powders contain salt, you will need to adjust that seasoning in your dish. Taste to check for the balance of flavors toward the end of the cooking time.

Where to Buy Chili Powder

Chili powder is available in the spice section of any supermarket. You can find additional varieties at a spice store, organic grocer, or online.

How to Make Your Own Chili Powder

A typical blend of spices to make homemade chili powder would include two or three parts ground cumin, two parts garlic powder, and one part each of cayenne pepper, paprika, and ground oregano. If you just want enough for one recipe, the part could be a teaspoon, resulting in about 3 tablespoons of chili powder. If you use tablespoons as your part, then you would get about half of a cup.

  1. In a small bowl, combine the ingredients together until well blended.

  2. Use immediately or store in an airtight container.


Store chili powder in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. It is shelf-stable and should last for months to years. As spices lose their potency over time, it is good to replace it regularly.

Article Sources
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  1. US Department of Health & Human Services. FoodKeeper App. Chili powder. Updated April 26, 2019.