A new cooks guide to chili powders, the background, history and characteristics. I’ve raided my larder so that you can learn the unique flavor and heat profiles of my favorite chili powders.
Chili Powder Background
Chili powder is your friend in the kitchen but often misunderstood by Americans. Grabbing the wrong chili powder can ruin, or at least greatly change the outcome of a recipe. In the U.S., chili powder in the spice aisle is actually a blend, usually consisting of cayenne, other chili powder, cumin, garlic, oregano and salt. It is most often used in Mexican dishes or in Tex-Mex recipes. It has a distinctive flavor profile that would not bode well in Indian, Korean or Thai cooking. Your curries could taste more like Tex-Mex than Asian.
The rest of the world uses only dried chilis in their powders. Some are fried dry or smoked like the jalapeño which takes on the name of chipotle when smoked. Placing dried chilis in a blender or food processor will yield you some fresh chili powder which should stay shelf stable for about 6 months, more in the fridge if you have room.
Each variety of chilis have a unique flavor and heat profile which is measured in Scoville units. The Scoville scale ranges from 0-16,000,000. A sweet bell pepper rates 0 while pure capsaicin rates at a toxic 16,000,000. A jalapeño varies from 2,500-5,000.
Sometimes you can mix different peppers in recipes but I usually stay on the safe side and try to use Asian peppers for Asian recipes and Mexican peppers for Mexican recipes etc, especially if I am not familiar with the recipe or the pepper that it calls for. For my own recipes, I do frequently substitute the jalapeño for many obscure peppers in international recipes because it is common to the US and I am familiar with its flavor and heat profile.
Besides the chili powder blend, cayenne and paprika are common in US markets. Cayenne rates between 30,000-50,000 Scoville units and paprika comes in around 1,000.
Chili Powder History
Chilis were first cultivated in South America where Christopher Columbus first made contact with this new fruit. Trade ensued and the pepper quickly made its way around the world. Every culture that was exposed to this exotic prize quickly adapted it into their horticulture and cuisine. Africa, Asia, Europe…no civilization was spared. Varieties were selected and honed and each region propagated their favorites. Now we have Hungarian and Spanish Paprika, Thai chilis, Korean chilis, African chilis and so on. Paprika has become so entrenched into Hungarian culture that they have salt and paprika shakers at the table, skipping black pepper all together.
I didn’t realize my affinity for chili powders until I wrote this piece. Below are most of the chili powders from my larder, I was a bit surprised at how many varieties I used without thinking about it. I whiffed, tasted and reported the results so that you too can learn from my pepper stash.
Robust aroma, smokey and peppery taste, mild heat
Smokey aroma, Smokey and peppery taste, moderate heat
Robust aroma, peppery taste, moderate heat
Pungent aroma, peppery taste, hot
American Chili Powder
Complex savory aroma, cumin taste, mild heat
Smokey aroma, smokey and robust taste, moderate heat
Robust peppery aroma, peppery taste, mild heat
If you have more to add or want to share your favorite powders and sources, leave a comment. Until then, Bon Appetit!
For recipes that use chili powder: