Cayenne Vs. Chipotle: PepperScale Showdown

Cayenne pepper and chipotle powder are both common kitchen spices, working equally well for upping the spice level of food and for adding a touch of spicy color. Both come from chili peppers and are as easy to find as they are easy to use. Even so, there’s quite a bit different between these two spices – enough so that their use cases can differ quite a bit. Let’s break down what makes each tick in another PepperScale Showdown.

Note: We compare the powdered versions of these two peppers in our showdown below, as they are both spice rack staples. It’s how they are most often considered and compared by home cooks. Though much holds true (heat, general flavor) when comparing fresh cayenne to the dried whole chipotle pepper.

How does cayenne differ from chipotle?

The most significant characteristic of chili peppers from a flavor standpoint is their heat, and this is one area where cayenne pepper and chipotle powder are quite different. Cayenne pepper powder is considerably hotter than chipotle powder. Cayenne pepper scores between 30,000 and 50,000 on the Scoville scale; in comparison, chipotle pepper maxes out between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville heat units. That’s the same heat as a jalapeño pepper, which is no surprise as chipotle pepper is simply smoked and dried jalapeño.

Aside from heat, these two hot peppers offer contrasting flavor notes. Cayenne pepper has an overall neutral peppery flavor. The heat is the real story of the experience with cayenne. Chipotle powder, on the other hand, has a smoky and earthy taste that matches very well with barbecue, smoky salsas, and grilled meats.

Cayenne pepper and chipotle powder do not look alike. Cayenne is striking bright scarlet color while chipotle powder is a darker and duller red. 

If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?

Cayenne pepper and chipotle powder have noticeably different characteristics, which is why they are not perfect substitutes for each other. That said, they are both chili powders and can replace each other in some cases as long as you don’t expect to get identical results.

Cayenne pepper is much hotter than chipotle powder, so you will have to use less of it if you want the same level of heat. Since cayenne won’t provide the smokiness, you can either do without that flavor or add it with another source like liquid smoke or smoked paprika.

Chipotle powder is not a good substitute for cayenne since it will bring a smoky note that may not work in some recipes that require cayenne. Use it only when you want to add that smokiness. Since it is not as hot as cayenne, you may need to use much more of it to get the same level of heat. If you don’t want a mild dish, add another type of hot pepper to raise the capsaicin level.

When should you use cayenne and when should you use chipotle?

Use cayenne pepper as an all-purpose source of heat. It works in dry rubs if you want a little spice or you can use it to make your own hot sauce. Add it to the breading for fried chicken to get a spicy version of that dish. Use it, , in dishes where you want certain spiciness but with a neutral overall flavor. For instance, this cayenne pumpkin pie. Pumpkin pie spice is the star here and the cayenne simply does one job – brings the spiciness without getting in the way of the traditional flavor.

Chipotle powder can be just as versatile as cayenne pepper, as long as you’re a fan of smoky flavor. It’s perfect sprinkled on barbecue (including sides) and added to dry rubs to give meats a smoky heat. Its complexity also makes it a good addition to a homemade taco or fajita seasoning to create a unique flavor experience to these common spice blends. Use can also use it on snacks like popcorn or pumpkin seeds to add a surprising flair to common snacks and dishes.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on March 19, 2022 to include new content.
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I can’t off hand think of any situation where I would prefer cayenne over chipotle. This isn’t to say there isn’t such an animal, but I can’t think of one. Chipotle offers so much more than just the heat. I go through a lot of it.