What’s A Good Chili Flakes Substitute?

Chili flakes, a.k.a. red pepper flakes or crushed red pepper, are a kitchen spice rack staple. But just like any spice, you can run out at the most in-opportune time. Where do you turn when you need a chili flakes substitute in a pinch? We lay out the best options below. You’re bound to have one of these alternatives sitting around the cupboard.

Note: for all of the options, a 1:1 amount substitution is not recommended. Opt for under-spicing, and then spice to taste.

Your best option: Cayenne powder

Cayenne powder is a very common spice rack spice, so it’s one of the easiest of the options to find among those listed here. And it’ll heat up a meal just as well as red pepper flakes. But there are a few considerations when using cayenne as a chili flakes alternative:

  • Cayenne will be much hotter than standard red chili flakes. Those flakes are a mix of various chilies. Yes, cayenne is likely in there, but it’s not the only pepper. So the heat of crushed red pepper won’t be near the 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units you get with cayenne powder. It’s especially important here not to use a 1:1 ratio during the substitution. You can easily overheat your dish due to the density differences between flakes and powder.
  • Powders react differently with foods than flakes. Flakes tend to sit atop food, while powders permeate a dish. So if you do over-spice with cayenne powder, it’s a lot harder to remove. Flakes can often be manually removed to lessen the heat.

Other 100% chili powders will work as well, so if you have chipotle powder or another sitting in that spice rack, they are viable alternatives. Cayenne is your best option, though, as its flavor is rather neutral (like crushed red pepper) compared to other chilies. Others will carry unique flavor nuances, along with the heat. For instance, chipotle powder will be both smoky and earthy in flavor.

The better (but not as common) alternative: Make your own chili flakes

Do you happen to have dried chilies around in whole pod form? Pull out that mortar and pestle and crush them down to flakes. Really any dried hot pepper will do, but the medium-heat of chile de àrbol is a very good match for the heat in your typical jar of red pepper flakes.

–> Make This: Crushed Red Pepper Recipe

In a pinch: Chili powder seasoning

You’re likely aware that chili pepper seasoning has more than chilies in it. Garlic powder, onion powder, and cumin are often prevalent, among other spices. So only use this alternative if the other common spices will also work with the dish you’re making. To get an idea of what to expect in terms of spices, see our homemade chili powder seasoning recipe.

Other options

Chili paste

Heat levels can vary wildly with chili paste, so read the label carefully. It may be a mild chili base, and in that case additional paste will need to be used. There are also some wildly hot chili pastes out there that use Thai chilies which are easily double the heat of cayenne.

There’s also the consistency to consider. You are adding a paste (which contains liquid) which can alter the overall recipe. Because of that, this is a better option for spicy soups, stews, and sauces where the paste can dilute.

Hot sauce (recommended Sriracha)

Like chili paste, there’s a wide span of heat in hot sauces, so proceed carefully. A few drops is often enough to supply the same level of heat as a teaspoon of red pepper flakes.  There’s also a wide variety of flavors here, too, from tangy Cajun hot sauces to tropical hot sauces that use fruit. These can quickly alter the overall flavor of the dish. The best option is to stick with a basic hot sauce here. In terms of similar heat, we recommend a few dashes of Sriracha. It’s a tasty basic hot sauce that won’t greatly impact your dish’s overall flavor.

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UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on May 16, 2022 to include new content.
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