Cayenne vs. Ancho Pepper – How Do They Compare?

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Cayenne and ancho peppers are both popular chilies used in Mexican cuisine. But how do they compare? Is one hotter than the other? Do they taste similar? Do they look alike? Let’s compare these two chilies so that you can make the best choices for your cooking.

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A note on the names of these chilies

One of the quirks of the Scoville scale (the chili pepper heat measurement system) is that certain dried chilies take on a different name than their fresh equivalent. That’s true here. Cayenne is cayenne, whether discussing the fresh chili or its popular dried version. But ancho only refers to the dried variant. When fresh, anchos are known as poblano peppers.

What we compare here are the two dried chili types: dried cayenne (what you find on your spice rack) and ancho peppers.

Where did each pepper originate?

Like all chili peppers, cayenne and ancho come from Central and South America but they come from geographically distant areas. Cayenne comes from French Guiana while ancho peppers are from the Puebla region of Mexico.

Which is hotter, cayenne or ancho?

On the Scoville scale, ancho peppers rank at around 1,000 to 1,500 Scoville heat units (SHU.) That’s a mild level of spiciness, quite a bit less than a jalapeño (2,500 to 8,000 SHU.)

Cayenne pepper, on the other hand, ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 SHUs. That’s a solid medium heat, making the cayenne 20 to 50 times hotter than an ancho chili.

Let’s compare these peppers by how often they are searched for on Google. Cayenne pepper is the more searched of the two, and it’s not really close. The term “cayenne pepper” is searched approximately 74,000 times per month in the United States. In comparison, “ancho pepper” and the generic term “ancho” receive 12,000 monthly searches.

That doesn’t mean anchos are unpopular – far from it. It just happens to be the case that cayenne pepper is a staple of nearly every home. Few spice racks are without it, so visibility is high.

How does each pepper taste?

Cayenne peppers have a very neutral peppery flavor to them. They are a traditional tool for adding heat to dishes without other strong flavors. It’s an all-purpose seasoning that you can use to bump up the spice level in everything from chili to deviled eggs. 

Anchos, on the other hand, are well known for their unique flavor – even more so than its very mild heat. Ancho peppers have a sweetly fruity and earthy flavor to them, with an undertone of smokiness. There’s a lot of depth here – some taste hints of raisin, coffee, and even chocolate in ancho peppers.

The traditional way that Mexican cooks use ancho peppers is in moles and they are also great in marinades for meats. Use ancho peppers when you want the fruity flavor of a dried pepper, but with only a subtle warmth instead of strong heat.

How do they differ in shape and colors?

Cayenne peppers are long and thin, typically four to five inches in length and one inch in width. They have a deep red color when dried and are wrinkled with a slightly curved shape.

Ancho peppers also have a deep red color when dried (sometimes taking on even darker coffee-like tones). They are much larger than cayenne peppers, typically three to four inches wide and six inches long. They are also flatter and have a rounder, heart-like shape when dried.

Which is easier to find in stores?

Cayenne and ancho are available to different degrees. Cayenne is readily available in much of the world. You will be able to find it in the spice aisles of most major grocery stores in the Americas. Whole dried cayennes are also possible to find in some well-stocked grocery stores.

Ancho is usually available in the Mexican section of most U.S. grocery stores and in pretty much every grocery store that caters to a Latin American clientele. It’s also becoming more popular on the spice rack, so ground ancho powder is showing up more and more in the spice aisle as a milder alternative to cayenne.

Which is used most often in commercial products?

Cayenne takes the prize here as well, but it’s not often as a front-and-center ingredient. Crushed red pepper (red pepper flakes) typically have cayenne pepper flakes as a base (and are sometimes cut with ancho pepper flakes as well.) Cayenne is also an ingredient in many generically “spicy” products, from hot sauces to potato chips.

Ancho chilies are a staple in commercial mole sauces (anchos are part of the Mexican holy trinity of dried chilies used in mole, along with pasilla and guajillo.) They often find their way into hot sauces, salsas, and sauces where an earthy, smoky, and sweet undertone makes sense. But it’s nowhere near the level of the commercial use of cayenne.

  1. Whole Dried Cayenne Pepper (8 ounces)
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    02/18/2024 04:59 pm GMT
  2. Whole Ancho Peppers
    $6.95 ($1.74 / oz)
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    02/18/2024 01:04 pm GMT
  3. Ancho Powder (from our Spicery)
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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on September 10, 2022 to include new content.
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