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What is Chili Powder?

A home cooks guide to chili powders, the background, history and characteristics. Included is a list of substitutions for chili powders and a recipe for the chili powder blend Americans use most.

Chili Powder 101, a beginners guide to chili powder

Chili Powder Background

Chili powder is your friend in the kitchen but often misunderstood by new cooks.  Grabbing the wrong chili powder can ruin, or at least greatly change the outcome of a recipe.  Not all chili powders are created equal.

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.

For the rest of the World, chili powder is dried, pulverized fruit of chili plants. This chili powder is not blended with other spices. This makes the chili powder more versatile.

Chili Powder 101, a beginners guide to chili powder

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 in a cool dark place,or longer in the fridge.

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.

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. It is important to not get these two mixed up!

How to make chili powder from dried chilies?

Cut open the dried chili. Remove stem and seeds. Place in a food processor and process until a powder forms. Store in a cool dark place or the fridge.

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.

Chili Pepper Characteristics

Below is a list of chili peppers I have on hand. Ironically, I rarely use the U.S. blend. My favorites are smoked paprika, Korean chili pepper (gochugaru) and Syrian chili pepper (Aleppo).

Chili Powder 101, a beginners guide to chili powder



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

Syrian/ Aleppo

Smokey aroma, smokey and robust taste, moderate heat

Korean/ Gochugaru

Robust peppery aroma, peppery taste, mild heat


Smoky, bright red, moderate heat

Substitutes for chili powder

Below are some substitutions if you find yourself without chili powder while making a recipe or if you can’t find a specific chili powder in your local market.

American Chili Powder blend

If you are making a recipe that calls for chili powder and you discover you don’t have any on hand, you may substitute Ancho chili powder which is made from poblano chilies. You may also use chipotle chili powder which is made from smoked jalapeños that have been dried.

If you want to make your own Ameican chili powder blend, see the recipe at the end of this post to learn how to make chili powder from scratch.

Chili powder substitute for medium heat

Gochujang is a Korean chili paste made from gochugaru chili powder. It has a medium heat profile and a slightly smokey flavor.

Harissa Paste is a condiment from North Africa. It is a mixture of spices and roasted red bell peppers that is a good substitute for medium to high heat dishes.

Chili Powder Substitute For High Heat

Sambal is a chili sauce made from a mixture of a variety of chili peppers with other ingredients including shrimp paste, shallots, garlic, ginger, scallion, palm sugar, and lime juice. It has a high heat profile so start off with small amounts first.

Substitute For Paprika

Paprika is a mild chili powder so you will need to substitute a similar chili powder with low Scoville units. Ancho chili powder made from dried poblanos is a good choice. In a pinch you may also substitute red chili flakes.

Other chili powders with similar heat include gochugaru, Aleppo and Kashmiri Chili powder.

Substitute for Cayenne

Cayenne has a high heat profile. You can either substitute a medium heat chili powder and increase the amount you use or substitute a hot chili sauce. Some popular chili sauces include Sriracha (Rooster Sauce), Tobasco, Cholula and Sambal sauce.

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Chili Powder 101, a beginners guide to chili powder

Chili Powder Recipe

Yield: 1/2 pint
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 3 minutes
Total Time: 13 minutes

A homemade chili powder blend recipe designed for Mexican and TexMex cooking.


  • 3 dried Ancho chilies
  • 2 Arbol or Pasilla chillies
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp dried organo
  • 1/2 tsp salt


  1. In a hot skillet over medium heat, toast the chilies until they develop a smoky aroma, be careful not to burn. Turn frequently.
  2. Let chilies cool, remove stem and seeds.
  3. In the bowl of a food processor add the chilies with the remaining ingredients. Process until a powder forms.
  4. Store in an airtight container in a cool dark place. You may also keep this in the fridge.


Think of this recipe as a guideline. You may use different types of dried chilies or even just use the paprika and cayenne from your cupboard. Try experimenting with different herbs and spices too. In a canning jar, they make great gifts!

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 16 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 3Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 74mgCarbohydrates: 1gFiber: 0gSugar: 0gProtein: 0g

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