Cayenne Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, And Pairings

The cayenne pepper is renowned in the kitchen for its fiery medium heat and versatility. This long, slim chili pepper from French Guiana typically measures between 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), making it significantly hotter than the average jalapeño. And while it has an enjoyable peppery, lightly sweet taste, the overall flavor profile is more neutral than many chilies, making it an excellent option for adding heat without changing a dish’s expected taste. While it’s delicious fresh, cayenne pepper is often used in powdered form (one of the most common spices found on spice racks around the world) to add a spicy kick to dishes such as soups, stews, and marinades. It’s also a key ingredient in spice blends like Cajun and Creole seasonings.

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Cayenne pepper is an excellent spice to keep at hand because it adds a vibrant kick of heat and depth to a variety of dishes, enhancing their flavor profiles. Its versatility makes it a staple in many cuisines, from soups and stews to marinades and sauces.

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Fresh cayenne pepper on the vine
Fresh cayenne pepper, on the vine and ready for picking (in its mature red color)

Cayenne pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)30,000 – 50,000
Median heat (SHU)40,000
Jalapeño reference point4 to 20 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginFrench Guiana
UseCulinary
SizeApproximately 3 to 5 inches long, curved
FlavorNeutral (peppery), lightly sweet

How hot is the cayenne pepper?

The common cayenne is a medium-hot chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units), fitting neatly between the serrano (10,000 to 23,000 SHU) and the Thai pepper (50,000 to 100,000 SHU). It’s a potent kick — one that sits at the top of the heat you’ll normally find on spice racks. But it’s still a far cry from the spiciness you find at the upper end of the scale.

In terms of handling the heat, cayenne peppers are still at an eatable level for most people. It’s hot enough to feel very spicy, but not so hot as to turn off the great majority of eaters. And, as it’s typically used ground, you have total control over the amount used. A pinch of cayenne diluted into a large pot of soup would only provide a mild simmer.

For more on cayenne’s heat, see our comparisons between it and other popular chilies (fresh and dried) and ground pepper-based spices on the Scoville scale:

What does it look like and taste like?

You’re probably used to seeing it in flake or powder form, but the cayenne looks nothing like your typical bell or poblano pepper. It’s more akin to a Thai pepper in terms of shape: thin, long (up to three to five inches), and curved. It matures from green to red, and the cayenne is most often used when it’s fully mature.

While many chilies have unique flavor depth, the cayenne is not one. It provides more of a neutral “peppery” flavor with a light amount of sweetness. That may initially seem like a downside to this chili, but for many home chefs, this is a real feature. It’s a chili pepper you can rely on to provide true spiciness, but with little concern that the pepper’s flavor will combat with the other ingredients’ flavors. If you want to add heat without affecting flavor, the cayenne is often the best option available.

Types of cayenne:

There are varieties of cayenne that eclipse the normal level of spiciness or dramatically change its looks. Note, if you find a spice labeled “cayenne” and don’t see a range on the label, it’s likely the typical American “spice-rack ready” cayenne ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU. Some of these cultivars (and others) can be found ground, but the label will typically state a higher Scoville range.

  • Long Red Slim Cayenne: This cultivar is similar in heat to the common cayenne but produces longer and slimmer pods, which can be more convenient for drying and grinding into powder.
  • Joe’s Long Cayenne: Known for its exceptionally long fruits, sometimes reaching up to a foot in length, Joe’s Long Cayenne has a slightly milder heat but offers a higher yield per plant.
  • Golden Cayenne: This variety has a bright yellow color and a slightly fruitier flavor compared to the common cayenne, while maintaining a similar level of heat.
  • Purple Cayenne: With its striking purple color, this cultivar adds visual interest to dishes and gardens, and it has a comparable heat level to the common cayenne.
  • Carolina Cayenne: This variety is hotter than the common cayenne, often reaching up to 100,000+ SHU, making it a good choice for those who prefer more intense heat.
  • Charleston Hot: This chili is generally hotter than the common cayenne pepper, reaching up to 100,000 SHU. The Charleston Hot has a similar neutral peppery and lightly sweet flavor.
Dried cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes
Dried cayenne and red pepper flakes (which typically contain crushed cayenne)

Cooking with cayenne pepper

The cayenne has become a go-to spice on the spice rack for amateur and professional chefs alike. It is a very versatile way to add some heat to nearly any dish, from soups and pizzas to meat entrees and baked desserts. The famous red pepper flakes you find at pizzerias (and in many homes) often use a variety of hot peppers, but cayenne chili pepper is what gives it perhaps its greatest kick.

But as chili peppers have become more and more popular, the cayenne pepper has also become more than just that red pepper powder on the shelf. People are finding lots of culinary uses for fresh cayenne pepper, especially in Asian cuisine. It also makes a mean medium-spice salsa and cayenne hot sauces are very popular. Its more neutral peppery flavor becomes a unique “benefit” for hot sauces where the flavor of the other ingredients should be taking center stage.

Tips for cooking with cayenne:

  • Be careful of a heavy hand when using it dried. It’s easy to think that since cayenne is available in many spice rack sets that it’s not so spicy. It is. And a heavy hand can ruin a dish, especially if you’re using a powder which permeates the dish much more than red pepper flakes.
  • If you’re looking for a less intense experience, opt for flakes rather than powder. Pepper flakes sit atop the food more, while powders tend to integrate deeply into a dish. You can also see and remove crushed red pepper while that’d be impossible with a powder.
  • When using fresh, use kitchen gloves. You can typically handle cayenne peppers when uncut without gloves without too much worry. But the minute you start chopping, it’s best to be wearing kitchen gloves. Cayenne has a relatively potent medium heat, and that can lead to a surprising amount of chili burn if you touch the chili’s interior membrane then rub your skin or eyes. As a “just in case” measure, read our posts on dealing with chili burn and relieving chili burn pain specifically from your eye. Knowing before hand how to handle can save you a lot of pain.
  • If you’re looking for a cayenne substitute, your best option would be a hot paprika. It’ll have more of a kick that the typical generic paprika out there. But of course, if you don’t have cayenne, you likely also don’t have that. Another option is crushed red pepper (a mix of chilies, but predominantly cayenne.) If you need a powder, simply use a mortar and pestle to crush those red pepper flakes into that form. For more substitute ideas, read our post on the top cayenne pepper substitutes.

Common cayenne ingredient pairings

As cayenne can simply provide heat, it’s paired with many ingredients and dishes. We’ll focus here mainly on herbs and spices that this chili pepper is often paired against, along with what kind of use cases the pairings are typically used in.

  • Garlic: The robust and pungent flavor of garlic complements the heat of cayenne pepper, creating a balanced and flavorful profile in many dishes, particularly in sauces and marinades.
  • Lemon: The bright acidity of lemon juice cuts through the spiciness of cayenne, providing a refreshing contrast that enhances the overall taste of seafood, chicken, and vegetable dishes.
  • Paprika: Both cayenne and paprika are chili peppers, but paprika is milder and adds a smoky, sweet flavor that rounds out the heat of cayenne and adds some depth to the flavor, making them a great duo in spice blends.
  • Cumin: The earthy, warm notes of cumin blend seamlessly with the fiery kick of cayenne, adding depth and complexity to dishes like chili, tacos, and stews.
  • Oregano: The slightly bitter and aromatic qualities of oregano provide a fresh-flavored depth ground cayenne and red pepper flakes. They are often used together in Mediterranean and Mexican cuisines to add layers of flavor. Atop pizza is another popular option.
  • Honey: The sweetness of honey acts as a counterbalance to the spiciness of cayenne pepper, creating a sweet and spicy combination that is perfect for glazes, dressings, and marinades.
  • Cinnamon: The warm, sweet spice of cinnamon pairs surprisingly well with the chili heat, often used together in savory dishes like mole sauce or in spiced desserts for a unique flavor twist.
  • Ginger: The zesty, slightly sweet heat of ginger complements the sharp spiciness of cayenne, making them a great pairing in Asian-inspired dishes and health tonics.
  • Turmeric: The earthy and slightly bitter flavor of turmeric works well with the heat here, often used together in curry powders and health drinks for their combined anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Black Pepper: The sharp, pungent flavor of black pepper enhances the heat of cayenne pepper, adding an extra layer of warmth and complexity to dishes like soups, stews, and spice rubs.

Some of our favorite cayenne pepper recipes

  • Sweet and Spicy Bacon: One of our favorite simple ways to use cayenne. Here we pair it with brown sugar for an amazing enhancement to bacon.
  • Cayenne-Spiced Pumpkin Pie: Who said the holidays can’t be just as spicy as the summer months?
  • Fiery Apple Chips: What a great treat. These apple chips pair the chili with cinnamon, for a fiery sweet warmth.
  • Spicy Candied Pecans: Powder sugar and salt pair up with this chili. This recipe is perfect as a pre-dinner snack for gatherings.
  • Cayenne Pepper Tea with Ginger: Thinking of using cayenne every day to support a healthy life? Drinking it as a tea ingredient is an excellent way to approach it.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on July 8, 2024 to include new content.
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yippee

Thank you SO MUCH for this site! I love how neat and organized it is. I need a good list of peppers for a little project I’m working on. Super happy to have found this page on cayenne. I really appreciate it <3!!

tarunkrsnadas

I’ve been growing these for years, also. Not impressed with the green ones; lack flavor. Waiting for mine to turn red. My Indian friend Bimala says green for cooking and red to eat fresh. Red ones are nice n sweet. t

Jimmy Fleetwood

I have raised these for years and my father before me. They are addictive once you can overcome the heat. Best eaten fresh off the plant.