Culinary Arts

What's the Difference Between Cayenne Pepper, Paprika, Red Chili Pepper, and Ground Red Pepper? Plus 15 Red Pepper Varieties and Culinary Uses

Written by MasterClass

Jun 1, 2019 • 6 min read

The various jars of bright red powders on the spice rack, from bold cayenne powder to flavorful paprika, may blend together in terms of appearance, but each brings a unique hit of flavor to a recipe. Learn what makes them different to amp up your home cooking.


What's the Difference Between Cayenne Pepper, Paprika, Red Chili Pepper, and Ground Red Pepper?

Although each of these ground ingredients shares a similar appearance and texture, these flavorful spices have unique spice levels, flavor profiles, and uses.

  • Cayenne pepper is a super spicy chili that rates high on the Scoville scale—a method for measuring peppers' heat levels.
  • Ground paprika is produced by grinding numerous peppers and can have a flavor ranging from sweet to fiery.
  • Ground red pepper and red chili powder are both generic spice names that at times refers to cayenne, but can also include other red chilies.

Despite its name, black pepper is unrelated to any of these bright red spices, and comes from the fruit of a flowering vine, rather than the pepper family.

What Is Cayenne Pepper?

Typically found in the spice aisle of the grocery store as a finely ground powder, cayenne is a hot pepper that can add a punch of heat to any recipe, from homemade hot sauce to chili con carne. This staple of Mexican cuisine is native to South America and starts as small, thin, bright red pepper before being dried and ground down to cayenne pepper powder.

With a hot, fiery taste, cayenne is one of the main ingredients of Tabasco sauce, and is commonly used in a wide range of world cuisines, like Creole, Asian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, and more. Belonging to the Capsicum Annuum family of plants, cayenne is related to a number of peppers, including jalapenos, bell peppers, and New Mexico chili peppers.

What Is Paprika?

Paprika is a unique ground spice that can be made from multiple kinds of peppers, resulting in distinct flavors and heat levels. Despite its fiery red color, not all paprikas are spicy. When cooking with paprika, it is imperative to know which of the three types of paprika is being used to avoid imbalances of flavor.

Sweet paprika (aka Hungarian paprika), which is made primarily from ground red bell peppers, is a more subtle spice used primarily as a garnish to add color to dishes. On the other hand, hot paprika (aka Spanish paprika), which is made from ground chili peppers or a combination of chili and bell peppers, can have a heat level comparable to other ground red chilies. Smoked paprika is made when the chili and/or bell peppers are smoked before getting ground into a powder, resulting in a, you guessed it, smokier flavor.

What Are Ground Red Pepper and Red Chili Powder?

This generic form of ground chili pepper—which can be labeled by spice manufacturers as ground red pepper or red chili powder—has a similar finely ground, bright red appearance to cayenne and paprika, but can be made from a variety of ground chilis in the Capsicum family of peppers.

However, the majority of ground red chili pepper products found in the spice aisle, including Mccormick’s popular spice, are made from ground cayenne peppers. In general, red chili powder and ground cayenne can be used interchangeably when a recipe calls for one or the other.

Can You Use Cayenne Pepper, Chili Powder, and Paprika Interchangeably?

Despite the similarities in appearance, these three ingredients can’t necessarily be used interchangeably in all recipes. While fresh cayenne is a consistent source of earthy, spicy heat, chili powder and paprika are more unpredictable ingredients.

The flavor and heat level of a given chili powder can fluctuate depending on the ingredients, so while a super-hot chili powder could at times be swapped for cayenne, it is not guaranteed to be a good substitute. Generally, ground red pepper and red chili powder can be used as cayenne pepper substitutes, as they are frequently made from the same pepper.

Paprika comes in a variety of spice levels and flavors, ranging from sweet and mild to spicy and smokey. Substituting cayenne, or any kind of dried chili pepper, for sweet paprika would certainly affect the overall flavor of the dish. However, hot paprika can be used as a suitable substitute for spicier ground peppers.

15 Red Pepper Varieties

There are many varieties of red pepper grown around the world, each with a unique flavor profile, Scoville units, and appearance. Some of the most common red pepper varieties are:

  1. Cayenne Pepper: A thin, red chili pepper in the nightshade family that is typically used in a dried, ground form. Scoville heat units: 30,000–50,000.
  2. Chipotle Pepper: A form of dried, smoked red jalapeno made from aged jalapeno peppers. Sold commercially as chipotle powder. Scoville heat units: 2,500–8,000.
  3. Aleppo Pepper: Common in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, this bright red pepper is typically used in dried, crushed form as an alternative to crushed red pepper or paprika. Scoville heat units: About 10,000.
  4. Red Bell Pepper: A large sweet pepper with no spice that comes in a variety of colors. Scoville heat units: 0.
  5. Ancho Chili Pepper: The dried form of the poblano chili, this mild pepper is traditionally used to make mole sauce. Scoville heat units: 1,000–2,000.
  6. Paprika Pepper: A large, mild pepper typically used in dried, ground form. Scoville heat units: 250–1,000.
  7. Serrano Pepper: Coming in both green and red form depending on the pepper's age, this Mexican pepper is typically dried and ground into spices. Scoville heat units: 10,000–23,000.
  8. Chili de Arbol Pepper: Small, thin peppers cultivated in Mexico and commonly used in Mexican and Spanish cuisine. Scoville heat units: 15,000–30,000 or 50,000–65,000 depending on the category of chili de arbol.
  9. Espelette Pepper: This pepper of French origin, known in French as Piment d’Espelette, is a mild red pepper used most commonly in the Basque cuisine of France and Spain. Scoville Heat Units: About 4,000.
  10. Caribbean Red Chili Pepper: Originally cultivated in Mexico, this intensely spicy pepper is now grown and used around the Caribbean. Scoville heat units: 300,000–475,000.
  11. Espanola Chili Pepper: A mild, deep red pepper originating in New Mexico that is commonly ground down to a powder with a smoky flavor. Scoville heat units: 1,500–2,000.
  12. Pimento Pepper: This extremely mild pepper is small and heart shaped, and is most commonly used in pickled form or in Southern pimento cheese. Scoville heat units: 100–500.
  13. Piquante Pepper: Also known as the Peppadew pepper, this mild South African variety has a subtle sweetness. Scoville heat units: About 1,100.
  14. Italian Sweet Chili Pepper: This sweet variety of pepper native to Italy has a fruity flavor and deep red tone. Scoville heat units: 0–500.
  15. Kashmiri Chili Pepper: Most commonly used to make Kashmiri chili powder, this Indian chili is known for its vibrant red hue. Scoville heat units: 1,000–2,000.

Red Pepper Nutritional Information

All varieties of dried, ground red pepper are low in calorie, fat, cholesterol, and sodium counts. For example, in a 1 teaspoon serving of crushed red chili flakes, there are:

  • 5.7 calories
  • 0.3 grams of fat
  • 0 milligrams of cholesterol
  • 0.5 milligrams of sodium
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates
  • 0.5 grams of dietary fiber

Red Pepper Health Benefits

Crushed and dried red peppers do have potential health benefits when consumed frequently. Rich in antioxidants and beta-carotene, red peppers can help to strengthen the immune system overall and fight harmful pathogens that cause illness. The compound capsaicin, which is active in all chili peppers, has also been shown to help lower blood sugar levels.

How to Make Homemade Chili Powder

The spice mix known as chili powder is a combination of ground cayenne pepper with other flavorful ground spices. One of the most popular spice blends in the world, chili powder consists of a flexible blend of spices, which frequently includes:

  • 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon paprika powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

Chili powder can be customized to fit the preferred spice level and flavors of each individual chef and home cook. Combine all of the ground spices in a bowl using a spoon before transferring the blend of spices to an airtight jar and storing in a cool, dark place for 3 to 6 months.

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