In my house we have a chronic shortage of chili powder. My teenager goes through the stuff like air!
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Many might be surprised to learn that Chili powder hasn't been around that long relative to other spices. It was invented in Texas. However, the person's identity remains a matter of dispute. According to Chili historian (yes, it's a thing) Joe Cooper, William Gebhardt, a German immigrant, first invented the powder in 1896 in the Texas town of New Braunsfels, located between San Antonio and Austin.
Other accounts say DeWitt Clinton Pendery, the Mexican Chilley Supply Company owner, which opened in Fort Worth in 1870, invented chili powder. And by 1890, he began marketing a new seasoning powder called Ciltomaline.
This means that whenever I reach for the chili powder I’m left with the dregs at best, which in turn means I’ve had to get crafty about seasoning.
What is Chili Powder
Unsurprisingly, chili powder is made from ground chilis. Sometimes, a specific chili is used to make a chili powder. For instance, you may have used chipotle chili powder in Mexican dishes or peri-peri chili powder to season chicken.
Generic chili powder tends to be made from red chilies as they are hotter than their green counterparts.
Alongside the ground chilis you’ll find other spices including cumin, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cayenne pepper is generally used in hotter chili powders.
Because each blend is different, the heat of chili powder varies from recipe to recipe. Store bought chili powder tends to be offered in mild, medium, and hot varieties but homemade chili powder is much more diverse.
Making Your Own
Homemade chili pepper is actually one of the best replacements for empty store-bought jars.
The recipe is simple, and you’ll more than likely have the ingredients in your spice rack. Another benefit of making your own chili pepper is the fact that you can make it as hot as you like it!
The base recipe looks like this:
- 2 tablespoons of paprika
- ½ tablespoon of cumin
- ½ tablespoon of garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon of onion powder
- 1 teaspoon of oregano
- ¾ teaspoons of cayenne powder.
Put them all in a bowl and mix thoroughly. You can keep this chili powder for 6 months to a year, although we tend to go through it in a month!
If you have other chili powders around like chipotle powder, ancho powder, or any other named variety, you can add that to the mix for a hotter taste. Start with ½ a teaspoon and see if it’s hot enough for you before adding more.
Barebones Chili Powder
If your spice rack is properly depleted, you can scale back the chili powder recipe even further. Using just paprika, cayenne pepper and cumin in place of chili powder will give your food the kick you’re looking for.
It won’t have quite as rich or well-rounded a flavor as you’re used to, but it will do in a pinch.
To get the ratios right, you should substitute 1 tablespoon of chili powder for 2 teaspoons of paprika, 1 teaspoon of cumin, and ¼ a teaspoon of cayenne pepper.
Of course, if you want to spice things up, increase the amount of cayenne pepper.
Assuming you don’t have the ingredients to make your own chili powder, what else can you substitute?
Well, top of our substitute list is chili flakes. Most household kitchens have a bottle of chili flakes laying around. It’s the kind of thing you get as part of a kitchen set for Christmas but rarely use.
You can either add a sprinkling of the flakes directly into your food, or you can grind them up.
I find that adding the flakes to soups, chilis, or anything liquid based works just fine. The juices soak up the flavor of the flakes and you’re less likely to end up with a mouthful of just flakes!
If you want to create a meat rub or season dry ingredients, you’re better off grinding up the chili flakes.
You can do this easily enough with a pestle and mortar. If you haven’t got a pestle and mortar, use two tablespoons, and crush the flakes between them.
Chili flakes whether ground or not, will add more heat than generic chili powder. You can use less flakes to bring the spice levels down if you need to.
Specific Chili Powders
You may not have named chili powders like chipotle or peri-peri in your cupboard. However, it’s worth checking. Again, these are the kinds of things that you get in kitchen sets and forget about.
You can use any kind of named chili powder to replace your generic chili powder. However, you need to remember that they will be hotter than what you’re used to.
If you don’t want to be overwhelmed by spice, scale back the amount you put it. It’s a good idea to check where the named chili lands on the Scoville scale to get an idea for how hot it will be.
It’s also worth noting that some of these powders will bring slightly different tastes to generic chili powder.
Chipotle powder is made from ground and smoked jalapeno peppers which gives it a smokier taste than say ancho chili powder which is made from dried poblano peppers.
If you’re making a liquid based dish like soup or chili then you can substitute your chili powder for a few splashes of hot sauce like Tabasco or Sriracha.
Many hot sauces have a chili pepper base which means that they will give you a similar overall taste to chili powder.
The difference is these sauces usually contain distilled vinegar and sugar. The vinegar can give you quite a sharp, acidic taste that you wouldn’t get with chili powder. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it’s not to everyone’s taste.
The sugar found in sauces like sriracha adds a sweet element to your soups, stews, and chilis. Again, it’s different but not necessarily a bad thing.
If your soup or chili recipe calls for a teaspoon of sugar, as many do, you can reduce the amount you put in if you’re using hot sauce instead of chili powder.
If you want to season dry ingredients like meat or vegetables, you’re better off using the hot sauce in a marinade. By soaking the meat or vegetables in hot sauce, the flavors and spice can penetrate the food.
If you splash hot sauce on top, it will act more like a dip. You’ll still get the spice but the flavors in the sauce will be more prominent than the meat or veg. They won’t marry together so much as just exist side by side.
If you’re really desperate, check the back of your cupboards and drawers for those packets of seasoning you often get with meal kits.
Taco seasoning, Creole seasoning, and Cajun seasoning mixes can be used to give your food a kick. They are pepper based but have different spices mixed in. This means that the taste won’t be quite what you’re expecting.
If you’re making a chili then taco mix will be pretty much spot on as it is generally a mix of darker Mexican peppers similar to what is found in chili powder.
Creole and Cajun seasoning both incorporate cayenne pepper and paprika so they have a similar base to chili powder. Though the exact blends do differ.
What Not to Use
Remember that not all spice is the same. Grabbing the first spice you see won’t always end well.
Here are a few things to avoid when trying to substitute chili powder.
Some curry powders include chili powder others use cayenne pepper. That doesn’t mean that you can switch the two!
Curry powders are more popular in the United Kingdom than in the US or even India! However, if you do have pre-mixed curry seasoning, do not put it in your chili.
Curry powders tend to contain turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger. These create a unique flavor perfect for curries but not for chili!
This spicy Japanese horseradish plant definitely has a kick to it. In fact, it’s so spicy it tends to start burning your nose before you get a chance to eat it.
Wasabi might be a delicious addition to your sushi or katsu, but it won’t make a good substitute for chili powder in your soups, sauces, or chilis.
The same can be said of mustards and any other horseradish-based foods or ingredients. This is because they are fundamentally different to peppers.
Peppers, and their derivatives create heat and spice through an oily chemical called capsaicin. This chemical binds to our taste buds and triggers a response called the TRPV-1 response.
This response is also triggered by heat which is why when you eat pepper-based products you feel hot in a temperature sense.
Wasabi and its related ‘spicy’ plants do not produce capsaicin. Instead, they contain a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate.
When eaten, allyl isothiocyanate binds to your taste buds and triggers the TRPA-1 response. This response is also triggered by a variety of chemical irritants.
So, when you eat wasabi, your brain feels it as a chemical irritation rather than a source of heat. This is why chili pepper and wasabi have different spicy flavors and shouldn’t be substituted for each other.
Black and White Pepper
While they might share a name, black and white pepper are not related to chili peppers.
Black and white pepper are made from the fruit of the black pepper plant. These fruits are called peppercorns and can be used to make black, white, green, and red pepper.
Black pepper is made from the cooked, dried, and unripe peppercorns. It is the most widely traded spice in the world.
Green pepper is made from the unripe peppercorns that are not cooked. It is popular in Thai food but doesn’t ship well unless preserved.
White pepper is made from the ripe seed of the peppercorns. The dark, red flesh that surrounds the seed is removed which is how the final product remains white.
Red peppercorns are the ripened fruit of the pepper plant. They are usually pickled or preserved for use though they can also be dried.
These peppers produce a rich, aromatic spice through a chemical called piperine. Interestingly, piperine triggers both the heat activated TRPV-1 reaction and the acidic sensing TRPA-1 reaction. Making it a bit of a mix between chili powder and wasabi.
In any case, black or white pepper can certainly be used to season your food, but they are not adequate substitutes for chili pepper. The flavor is just too different.
Frequently Asked Questions
What can I use in place of chili powder?
Chili powder is a blend of different spices and seasonings, so you can make your own powder version!
You will need sweet paprika, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. This should be mixed and stored in an airtight jar or container for up to several months.
If you only have some of these spices, there are several other substitutes you can find in your cupboard.
Hot sauce will provide the spiciest kick, just remember that the consistency of this liquid is different from chili powder as this could affect your recipe!
Can you substitute paprika for chili powder?
Paprika actually has a chili pepper base, which is why it is one of the best substitutes for chili powder. It is generally a mixture of chili pepper, tomato pepper, and cayenne pepper.
There are several types of paprika that are determined by the sweetness or smokiness, but generally speaking, almost any paprika can be used instead of chili powder.
Sweet or regular paprika is a good option for those who aren’t a fan of extremely spicy foods. The beauty of cooking is that you can afford to have creative liberty, so you can mix and match spices until your taste buds are satisfied!
For the most accurate results, some people prefer to use smoked paprika. As chili powder is a mixture of different spices, including regular paprika and often smoked paprika, it only makes sense that paprika can be used as a substitute.
Can you use cayenne pepper instead of chili powder?
Chili powder is an accumulation of several spices, including cayenne pepper, paprika, ground cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder amongst others.
This means that cayenne pepper can be used instead of chili powder in a recipe. However, there are some things to consider before you chuck in a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Cayenne peppers are actually 10 times hotter than jalapeno peppers, whereas chili powder comes from a bunch of ground peppers that are less spicy.
This means that you’re more likely to have a spicier dish if you use cayenne pepper instead of chili powder. If you like spice, this is great! If you’re not a fan of spice, this is something to consider.
Chili powder also has a slightly different flavor to cayenne pepper as it is made from several ground peppers and includes other seasonings. Cayenne pepper is made from one pepper, which gives it its signature earthy, spicy flavor.
If you’re looking to substitute cayenne pepper for chili powder, you might need to chuck in other spices and seasonings to replicate the taste better.
Can you substitute cumin for chili powder?
As chili powder is made from an accumulation of different spices including ground cumin, you can definitely substitute cumin for chili powder.
The main thing to consider is that chili powder includes a bunch of spices alongside ground cumin, including paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic and onion powder, and others. This means that ground cumin alone won’t replicate the exact flavor of chili powder.
The best way to use cumin to substitute for chili powder is to match it with other spices in your pantry such as paprika and cayenne pepper.
As cumin is a savory and earthy spice, you might want to add other ingredients to give it a spicy kick. You can afford to play around with spices to suit your preferences, so why not get creative?
There are lots of chili powder alternatives hiding around the kitchen. You just need to sniff them out.
As a general rule, if it contains paprika and cayenne pepper it’ll work just fine.
Our Best Substitutes for Chili Powder
- Making Your Own
- Barebones Chili Powder
- Chili Flakes
- Specific Chili Powders
- Hot Sauces
- Packet Seasoning
- Try our kitchen tested chili powder substitutes.
Use in or with your favorite recipe.