Cayenne Pepper Vs. Paprika: PepperScale Showdown

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Two hot powders on the spice rack…but what should you expect?

So you’re looking for something spicy to pep up your meal, and you have cayenne and paprika in the spice rack. Is one better than the other? Spicier? Is one sweeter than the other? Earthier?

For two powders that look a lot alike, there are some definite differences to consider before adding a dash to your dish. We break it down in our PepperScale showdown: cayenne pepper vs. paprika.

What are the main differences between cayenne and paprika?

Both cayenne pepper powder and paprika are chili powders, but the biggest difference is their consistency. You know what you’re going to get when you use cayenne pepper powder; whereas paprika – by design – can range in color, taste, and heat. It all depends on the type of paprika you pick up.

Is cayenne pepper powder hotter than paprika?

It typically is. Cayenne peppers are firmly settled in the medium-heat level of the Scoville scale (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units), so there is some punch to this powder. It’s a punch you know you’ll get every time you use the spice.

Paprika, on the other hand, covers a wide range of heat. The generic paprika you’ll typically grab from a store shelf is likely going to be mild. It typically has a mild pepper base (like a pimento pepper). But there is hot paprika, too, that’s made from spicier chilies, so  read your label carefully. Hungarian paprika follows a spice range that can have some bite – like cayenne heat – at the top range.

Also, if the label states that the powder is “hot paprika”, it could be a mild chili base cut with a spicier pepper. Oftentimes, that “other” pepper is cayenne itself.

There are color differences?

Yes, this is part of the “you know what you’re getting” difference between these two chilies. Cayenne has a limited range around an orange-red, with slight variations due to the cayenne color when it’s dried and smoked. Paprika has a similar color palette, but a wider range of colors, from an orange-brown to a deep red. This is due to the different types of peppers you’ll find used as the base for paprika.

Can you easily substitute cayenne pepper for paprika and vice versa?

It’s easier to substitute cayenne pepper for paprika than the other way around. This again is due to the overall consistency of what you get. Cayenne is earthy and spicy, whereas paprika can range from earthy and spicy to mild and sweet. The dish that calls for the earthiness of cayenne could be adversely affected by the oftentimes sweet paprika.

And substituting in cayenne for paprika – while easier – is a major heat uptick. Paprika is often listed as an ingredient for its earthy mild simmering heat – the cayenne is a significant upgrade. It may be best to cut the amount of chili powder that a recipe is requiring if you are opting for cayenne over paprika. Otherwise, the dish may be a little too hot for those used to milder spices.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 5, 2019 to include new content.
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