Sometimes a recipe forces you to pause at your spice cabinet/rack/drawer, scan the jars with a scrunched brow, and spend some moments hmm-ing and huhh-ing. Chili powder. Chili flakes. It’s the same thing but ground to different sizes, no? Not so much.
Chili powder, like chili flakes, is a mix of different types of dried peppers. But chili powders in the United States often are not only a blend of different dried peppers, but sometimes also cumin, oregano, garlic powder, and salt. And many of those peppers that chili powder does use are mild, near the bottom of the Scoville scale, according to Matt Bray on pepperscale.com. Bray authored the book, The Pepper Scale: A cool primer to the Scoville scale and the hottest peppers in the world.
You might find chili flakes at the grocery store (and in recipes, like ours) under two other names: red pepper flakes and crushed red pepper. The relatively hotter cayenne pepper is a staple in chili flakes. It’s especially important here not to use a 1:1 ratio if you’re trying to substitute chili flakes for chili powder. You can easily overheat or underheat your dish, partly due to the density differences between flakes and powder. If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of chili flakes and you don’t have that at the moment, you’re better off doing a few dashes of Sriracha or another basic hot sauce, Bray says. U.S.-style chili powder would be too mild for a chili flake substitution. What you find under the name “chili powder” in an Indian grocery store, however, may be a different matter.
If you’re looking for another substitution for chili flakes and happen to have the whole pods of dried chile de arbol lying around, you could crush down the pods with a mortar and pestle. Their medium heat is close to what you’d get in a typical jar of red pepper flakes, Bray says. So on a scale of mild to hot, it goes: paprika (just had to toss that one in there too), chili powder, chili flakes, and cayenne powder.
And to further confuse clear up this chili thing, there’s just plain chili, which for many North Americans means chili con carne, that beef stew with beans (up for debate), tomatoes, onions, and spices including chili powder. Then there’s Chile, that long skinny country shaped like a red hot chile pepper (not that ’90s California band, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) on the southwest coast of South America. Speaking of the whole pepper itself, the correct spelling is chile, which is Spanish for “pepper.”
But in South America, peppers are called aji, according to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. The institute also explains that the Scoville scale, or Scoville Heat Unit (SHU), is the measure of chile pungency named after Wilbur Scoville, who based it on the dilution of chile samples until heat is no longer detected by the taster.
By the way, all chile peppers contain different levels of the akaloid capsaicin, which gives peppers their characteristic pungence or heat. Don’t confuse that with capsicum, the genus name for chiles, according to the institute. Capsaicin, the alkaloid, could possibly fight inflammation, lower cholesterol, and provide other health benefits. Most of all, these chili/chile powders, flakes, and peppers spice our food with vibrant color, warmth, and flavor. Sprinkle wisely or with abandon. It’s your food.
Try some of our food and make it your own:
Most of the heat in this stew comes from the three chipotles in adobo sauce that you find in a little can. No-beans-about-it Texans may claim that this isn’t chili, but in dozens of other states, it sure is. Make this chili ahead of time, chill, and then reheat before serving so the chili flavors have time to develop. Get our chipotle, beef, and bean chili recipe.
There’s chili powder in this stew, but also smoky poblano chiles, red bell peppers, jalapeños, and while we’re listing it, ground black pepper. This is by no means a bland chicken dish. Get our white chicken chili recipe.
Sometimes you just want to tear into hunks of sloppy, spicy hunks of meat. This brisket satisfies that craving with simple ingredients including paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and chipotle chiles in adobo sauce — and a lot of time (10.5 hours). Get our easy slow cooker bbq beef brisket recipe.
This creamy, spicy dip combines four different kinds of peppers, from the red bell pepper you can find the supermarket to crushed Urfa chiles, which might require a visit to a Middle Eastern grocer or an online purchase. Dip some herbed and oiled flatbread in it. Get our whipped feta with sweet and hot peppers recipe.
The combination of red pepper flakes, bread crumbs, garlic, and yellow raisins makes roasted cauliflower more exciting. It’s still pretty simple too. Get our roasted cauliflower recipe.
This is an easy weeknight dinner that provides a fresh new way to incorporate more fish into your diet. The tomato sauce is spiked with red pepper flakes and hot paprika. Select tilapia that’s wild from Peru or Ecuador, or farmed in closed tanks within the U.S. or Canada to adhere to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations, which helps consumers choose seafood that has less impact on the environment. Get our broiled tilapia with brava sauce recipe.
Head Image: Pepperscale.com