Cayenne Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses

What is cayenne pepper?

The modern kitchen has found a special place for the cayenne pepper. Fresh, it’s a terrific culinary chili, bringing a medium-heat (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units) with a neutral, peppery flavor. But it’s even more popular dried. In fact, few cupboards are without a bottle of this chili in powder or flake form. It’s most likely the hottest spice you’re going to have on the typical spice rack. Ground cayenne is also often purchased as a health supplement (in pill form) in order to incorporate the benefits of capsaicin into your diet.

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

Table of Contents

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
SizeApproximately 3 to 5 inches long, curved
FlavorNeutral (peppery)

How hot is the cayenne pepper?

This is typically a medium-hot chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units), fitting neatly between the serrano and the Thai pepper. In terms of our jalapeño reference point, on average it is around 12 times hotter than a jalapeño. It has a bit of zing to its flavor, but the cayenne pepper is still a ways away from habaneros and the hottest end of the chili pepper spectrum.

Though, there are varieties of cayenne that eclipse this level of spiciness. Some generically labeled cayenne, and others like the Charleston Hot, reach 100,000 SHU and beyond. If you 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.

In terms of handling the heat, cayenne peppers are at a very good level for most people. It’s hot enough to feel very spicy, but not so hot as to turn off the great majority of people. And since it has more capsaicin than a jalapeño and the lower heat peppers, this is a chili that goes well beyond its culinary uses. Lots of people rely on it for its health benefits through cayenne pepper supplements and skin creams (among other products.)

For more on cayenne’s heat (and flavor), see our showdowns where we compare it to other popular chilies (and pepper-based spices) on the Scoville scale:

What does this chili look 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 3 to 5 inches), and curved. It matures from green to red.

Where did it originate?

It, like most hot chilies, originates from South America. Its name comes from a city in French Guiana – the city of Cayenne. But, also like most chilies, it has gone by many different names from region to region, including Guinea spice, bird pepper, and cow-horn pepper. In powder form, it is often just simply referred to as red pepper.

What does cayenne pepper taste like?

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

Dried cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes
Dried cayenne and red pepper flakes — two popular forms of this chili

Cooking with cayenne pepper

The cayenne (aka red pepper) has become a go-to spice on the spice rack for most amateur and professional chefs. 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.

More tips for cooking with cayenne:

  • Be careful with 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.
  • 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.

What’s a good cayenne pepper substitute?

Your best option would be a hot paprika, given 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 don’t also have that. Reach for crushed red pepper when you can. And if you need a powder, simply use a mortar and pestle to crush it into that form.

For more substitute ideas, read our post on the top cayenne pepper substitutes.

What are some of its health benefits?

Really it’s the health benefits of all hot peppers, and it’s all due to the compound which gives these chilies their heat: capsaicin. Capsaicin has been shown to be an amazing pain reliever (including for arthritis), appetite suppressant, and much more. Read this article on capsaicin to see more of the benefits of this compound, and you’ll see why cayenne pepper herbal supplements are so popular.

Where can you buy cayenne pepper?

All supermarkets carry it ground or as red pepper flakes in the spice section. And cayenne pepper supplements are available in many pharmacies. But check the prices online to see if there’s a better deal around. Finding fresh (or whole dried) cayenne is a whole different matter. You’ll most likely need to shop online to find products. You’ll also find a larger selection of cayenne hot sauces and pre-made salsas online than you will in most general grocery stores.

This is really quite a popular pepper when it comes down to it, rivaling the jalapeño in many ways for its space in the modern kitchen. The cayenne pepper is a family-friendly chili: one that’ll bring your dishes to life while not turning off those most sensitive to heat and spice. If you’ve only ever used the ground version of this chili, then try giving the fresh version a go. And if you don’t have cayenne on your spice rack, then you are definitely missing out on a lot of culinary opportunities.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 17, 2023 to include new content.
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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!!


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.