What’s A Good Cayenne Pepper Substitute?

Cayenne pepper is one of the most popular chili peppers in the world. In dried form, it’s found a home in most well-stocked spice racks for its ability to quickly add a little spiciness to a meal. Fresh, it’s used in many recipes for its bold medium heat and neutral peppery flavor, but cayenne is certainly not as available as some chilies in the produce section. So where should you turn if you need an alternative in either form? What’s a good cayenne pepper substitute for dried? For fresh? We break down your options for both.

Ground cayenne powder substitutes

Hot paprika chili powder

You’ll want to check the label of the bottle of paprika you have sitting in your cupboard. There are various heat levels of paprika; not all paprika will bring the medium heat that cayenne pepper delivers (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units). In fact, if it’s just labeled “paprika” assume it isn’t. Generic paprika is typically at the lowest end of this hotness scale

But both Hungarian and Spanish paprika have multiple varieties that run from mild (pimento level heat) to hot (closer to the cayenne). Anything labeled “hot paprika” will give you the closest experience to cayenne pepper powder in terms of spiciness. Though, some may have a slight sweetness as well. It’s not a sweetness that’ll massively change your dish’s flavor profile, but do give it consideration. Cayenne’s flavor is more neutral, so there is a difference in taste.

–> Learn more: Cayenne Pepper Vs. Paprika

Red chili flakes

This is your best “quick fix” solution as red pepper flakes (aka crushed red pepper) is very common in kitchens, even kitchens without a lot of other spice options.

Cayenne pepper is the staple of many red chili flake mixes, though it’s often cut with flakes from other chilies. It usually won’t be as hot as 100% ground cayenne, but it’s still plenty spicy and its flavor is neutral. It provides spiciness without a concern about overall flavor.

Swapping in chili flakes may not work in every recipe, simply due to it’s a flake and not a powder. Flakes sit atop the food on your plate, even when mixed in thoroughly. Ground cayenne tends to permeate a dish. Crushed red pepper can also lead to spotty heat, some bites being hotter than others, while ground cayenne’s heat in a dish (because of how much it permeates) is more universal.

And of course, you can see chili flakes in a dish, where ground cayenne disappears into a dish. If those aesthetics are a concern, look to hot paprika or one of the other options below.

–> Learn More: Cayenne Vs. Crushed Red Pepper

Other substitutes for cayenne pepper powder

  • Generic chili powder (generic chili powder will not be as hot and it’s a mix of many different spices)
  • A few drops of original Tabasco sauce: If the recipe allows for something in liquid form, but again it’s not as hot (2,500 – 5,000 Scoville heat units)

Not a good option: Chipotle powder

Yes, you’ll often find ground chipotle on a well-stocked spice rack, so it’d be really simple to grab it. After all, it’s right there and chipotle are dried jalapeños, which we recommend as a fresh alternative below. But that logic is missing an important point: chipotle is smoked and dried jalapeño. That smokiness in the powder is rather bold and will certainly change the flavor profile of a dish.

Fresh cayenne pepper substitutes

Tabasco pepper

Tabasco and cayenne peppers share a very similar heat profile, but tabasco peppers are known for their juiciness too. That’s quite different from cayenne (or any hot pepper), and it could definitely change a recipe’s overall flavor. Still, for salsas and hot sauces, tabasco peppers can definitely work. Though, of course, tabasco chilies are just as uncommon fresh in stores as cayenne.

Thai peppers

Some stores carry fresh Thai peppers, and, worst case, you can typically find dried Thai peppers in the international foods section of most any grocer. But these Thai peppers will be double the heat of cayenne – 50,000 to 100,000 Scoville heat units. If you like spicy, this is a good substitute. If cayenne is pushing it for you in terms of spice, it’s best to opt for a milder option.

Serrano or jalapeño peppers

Serrano peppers are the closest to a cayenne pepper’s heat of the two, at about half the spiciness (10,000 to 23,000 Scoville heat units). Jalapeños, while medium in heat as well, come in at least four times milder (2,500 to 8,000 SHU). You can commonly find jalapeños at your local grocery, and serrano peppers may be there as well.

Just note: Both have a different flavor than cayenne. When green, both of these chilies have a bright, grassy bite. When red, they take on more sweetness and lose some bitterness. You may find that using red jalapeños or serranos is the better cayenne substitute for you.

Must-read related posts

  • Red Jalapeño Vs. Green: This is an easy to find fresh cayenne alternative. Learn more about the differences between the two color options you typically find in stores.
  • Cayenne Vs. Chipotle: Chipotle powder is often found in spice racks as well. Learn more about why it’s very different than cayenne.
  • Cayenne Planting Guide: If you have a green thumb, you could opt to grow this chili, so you’ll rarely be without.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on April 7, 2022 to include new content.
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What about banana peppers? Are they as effective as capsaicin powder or liquid?