What Is Crushed Red Pepper?

We’ve all used it before, whether at home, a pizza joint, or at an Italian restaurant: Crushed red pepper. It’s tasty, spicy, and a staple of the North American kitchen cupboard. But what is crushed red pepper (a.k.a. red pepper flakes)? What chili flakes make up the typical mix? And are there different varieties of flakes? The answers may surprise you. Let’s dive in.

What is crushed red pepper?
What is crushed red pepper? There’s more than cayenne here.

What is crushed red pepper made of?

The short answer is crushed red pepper is simply a mix of chili pepper flakes. It’s normally more than one dried chili variety that’s in the mix. In fact, most popular store brands will have three or four different varieties of chilies in them. You can see that by simply paying close attention to the flakes – there will be different color variations in the mix. But there tends to be one particular chili that’s the base more often than not: cayenne pepper.

Cayenne pepper is, of course, a spice rack staple in powdered form. And it carries some significant medium spiciness, 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units. That makes the cayenne 4 to 20 times hotter than a jalapeño. But, as mentioned, crushed red pepper is typically a mix of multiple ground chilies, so you don’t get the full intensity of cayenne here. It’s certainly diluted with milder chili flakes. Other peppers that may be in the mix: serrano (10,000 to 23,000 SHU), jalapeños (2,500 to 8,000 SHU), ancho (dried poblano, 1,000 to 1,500 SHU), and even the no-heat bell pepper may be added.

Because of this mix of chilies, commercially sold crushed red pepper tends to run 15,000 to 30,000 Scoville heat units in overall heat. That’s half of the Scoville range of uncut cayenne pepper, but still quite a bit hotter than a jalapeño (6 to 12 times hotter).

Of course, if your crushed red pepper is labeled as a single chili, you can look up exactly how hot it will be. Simply, go to our hot pepper list, type in the name of the chili used and you’ll see the Scoville heat range (and flavor) to expect.

–> Learn More: Crushed Red Pepper Vs. Cayenne

Can you make your own crushed red pepper?

It’s easy to make homemade red pepper flakes. Simply pick up whole dried chilies (or dry fresh chilies yourself), then crush them using a mortar and pestle or a food processor. Stop once you reach the size of flakes you prefer. If you want a full recipe, with fresh pepper drying included, see our homemade crushed red pepper recipe.

I see seeds in my crushed red pepper. Is that normal?

Yes, many varieties keep the seeds in the mix. These seeds add a modest amount of heat of the crushed red pepper. Granted, it’s fiction that seeds contain the majority of the spiciness in a chili pepper. It’s technically the membrane (the white pith) that holds the seeds that contains the most capsaicin (the compound that gives chilies their spiciness.)

Does crushed red pepper have a flavor?

Commercial crushed red pepper, being typically cayenne pepper heavy, tends to have more of a neutral earthy, peppery flavor. But there are many different single pepper flakes out there that will share in the flavor profile of the chili it comes from. Habanero flakes, for instance, may have a slightly citrusy flavor to go with the earthiness from being dried. Red jalapeño flakes may have a slight sweetness to them. And chipotle flakes will certainly have a noticeable smokiness to them.

But those flavors aren’t as noticeable as crushed red pepper compared to the fresh chili or even the pepper as a powder. Why? It’s the shape and how it combines with food. Powders tend to permeate a dish, becoming almost invisible in the recipe. The flavor becomes a part of the dish. While crushed red pepper, being a larger flake, tends to sit on food. And it can be unevenly combined across a dish. In this way, red pepper flakes are better used as a heat source with some modest flavor benefits, instead of being a way to bring the nuance of a chili’s flavor to life in a dish.

Cooking with crushed red pepper

Red pepper flakes are definitely a kitchen cupboard staple, and in a pinch they are an excellent way to bring some heat to a dish. But there are some areas where it excels as an ingredient and other areas where the value is limited.

  • Crushed red pepper excels as a finishing spice to provide a quick heat source. Adding it atop pizza, salads, or sandwiches can really fire up a dish, and it only take a pinch of CRP. There can be some mild flavor benefits, too, depending on the type of red pepper flakes used.
  • Red pepper flakes add visible flair to a plate. Unlike chili powders that tend to blend right into a dish (to the point of invisibility), red pepper flakes are a noticeable splash of color. This, of course, is both a benefit and potentially a weakness, depending on what your looking for with your plate aesthetics.
  • Crushed red pepper can lead to spotty spiciness. If it’s not mixed well into a dish, or sporadically sprinkled atop a meal, then your heat will vary from bite to bite.
  • It’s certainly possible to over-spice a dish with CRP. Read our post on handling moments of too much crushed red pepper to find ways to balance out the spiciness.

Does it go bad?

It can, depending on how you store it. But when stored properly, crushed red pepper can last for up to three year. Learn more about shelf life and keeping your CRP fresh.

Is buying at my local store the best option?

If you are simply looking for the normal pizzeria type CRP, you can pick up a jar nearly anywhere. All grocery stores carry it, and it’ll taste pretty much like you expect it to. But if you want to control your freshness level, the ingredients in the mix, and the heat experience, you are likely going to need to purchase via the web. There is a wide world of crushed red pepper there that goes well beyond your common store-bought option.

Must-read related posts

  • Seven Tasty CRP Uses: Have extra red pepper flakes sitting around? Take a look at some uses that you may not have considered.
  • What’s A Good Chili Flakes Substitute? Sometimes you don’t have any CRP around. Learn what you can use instead.
  • Old Bay Pickles Recipe: Sure, the famous crab seasoning is the star, but we use CRP as well. And it looks great in the brine. A nice aesthetic touch to go along with the heat.

UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on April 7, 2022 to include new content.
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Johnny Patterson

For a fresh, clean, taste in pepper flakes, try using pure Fish Pepper flakes. The taste is amazing, and can’t be beat for cooking or sprinkling on finished food products. Also, after drying & crushing, it is very easy to separate the dried seeds from the chaff. You will never go back to regular flakes after using these.