Chili Powder vs. Cayenne vs. Paprika — What’s the Difference?


Seasonings can be confusing. When you go to the store, in the hopes of picking up something to add some flavor to your cooking and are met with several orangish-redish looking spices, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know what to choose. It’s fun to experiment with dozens of different spices, but if you want to learn more about the three main spicy seasonings, we hope this post will help and make that next shopping trip less overwhelming!

Paprika and cayenne are made purely from peppers, without additional seasoning. Paprika varies in spice level, but cayenne pepper is almost always hot. Chili powder, however, usually contains both paprika and cayenne, and some other seasonings, and makes for a unique blend of flavor and spice.

Although all three of these famed spices share many similarities, their flavors, spice level, health benefits, and individual variations do present enough nuance to learn more.

What is Chili Powder?

It’s tempting to think of chili powder as simply a combination of paprika and cayenne. Although this is mostly right, chili powder uses other ingredients as well. This difference allows for a wider variety of taste and spice than the other two seasonings.

Most chili powders do use a bit of paprika and a pinch of cayenne, but garlic powder, oregano, onion powder, and other ingredients are often used as well. Depending on how much Cayenne is added to your chili powder will dictate how spicy it is.

Since chili powder can have so many different spices and seasonings, it generally has the richest flavor of the three.

What is Ground Cayenne?

Cayenne peppers come from the same family of peppers that paprika does, capsicum annuum. Though they are part of the same plant family, the peppers used for cayenne are aptly named Cayenne peppers for their thin, vibrant red color. This unmistakable red pepper lets you know that a spicy punch is awaiting your mouth.

Like most kinds of paprika, cayenne powder is made by grinding up the single type of pepper without additional ingredients or flavors. Out of the three—paprika, cayenne, and chili powder—cayenne is traditionally the purest, as it only consists of the cayenne pepper plant, without any additional indgredients.

What is Ground Paprika?

Native to Mexico and central North America, paprika uses capsicum plants, or bell peppers, that are ground into a powder and served. In addition to regular capsicum bell pepper plants, capsicum annuum plants are used as well. These are simply sweet or spicy peppers, which tend to be longer and thinner than traditional bell peppers.

The simplest versions of paprika are ground from traditional bell peppers. Others, usually the ones you will find at a store or restaurant, use a combination of normal, sweet, and/or slightly spicy bell peppers to give the paprika a more layered, rich, and spicy taste.

How are Chili powder, Ground Cayenne, and Paprika similar?

Each of these spices are used differently and add a different dimension to a dish. Chili powder is used mainly in Indian, Mexican, and Spanish cooking and has the other two spices included in it. All three of them provide additional flavor to dishes, with the cayenne and chili powders (and some parika powders that are more spicy) adding extra heat.    

How are Chili powder, Ground Cayenne, and Paprika different?

As one might expect, seasonings often come in a large variety of flavors that are made of different ingredients and give off different flavors and spiciness.

Paprika

The three primary variations of paprika are regular/basic paprika, Hungarian paprika, and Spanish paprika.

Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)
Jalape_o_Pepper_Lines (4)
  • Regular paprika is what comes to mind when most people hear “paprika”. It is pretty mild, made from usually only a few ingredients, and goes well with many dishes.
  • Hungarian paprika is a big deal in Hungary and is actually the coutry’s national spice, but is also widely used outside of Hungary as well. Hungarian paprika has around eight subtypes of paprika that vary in flavor and hotness.
  • Like Hungarian paprika, Spanish paprika is more complex than the basic kind. Spanish paprika can be spicy or mild, and it has made a name for itself because most of their paprikas have been pleasantly smoked to give their seasoning a deeper, more savory taste than other variations.

Cayenne Powder

Unlike paprika and chili powder, cayenne seasoning does not really have a variety of different types. There are some different kinds of cayenne peppers, ranging in differing levels of spiciness, but the spice itself remains pretty basic unless it is mixed with another seasoning.

Chili Powder

There is a lot of variety within the different kinds of chili powder, mostly due to the number of ingredients that are used when making the different types. Below is the basic distinction between most of the different kinds.

  • Dark chili powders have more pure powder from the actual pepper (or added paprika or cayenne), giving it a darker, richer look.
  • Light chili powders often have an amalgam of different ingredients, most of which cannot compete with the deep color of basic chili powder, giving it a lighter hue and  usually less spicy tast.

Which is Hotter By Ranking—Cayenne Powder, Chili Powder or Paprika?

SeasoningsSpice LevelFlavor
Cayenne30,000-50,000 Scoville heat units (SHU)—Pretty hot but it’s no Carolina ReaperSpiciest of the three, stands out in dishes
Chili Powder500-2,000 SHU—Mild with a little kickVariety of peppery, salty, garlicky taste, with a kick of spice
Paprika250-1,000 SHU—Mild but you can taste it   Ranges from spicy to sweet, often described as “earthy”

Most paprika powders have a pretty low spice level, so almost anyone should be able to handle it unless someone is extra sensitive to spicy things.

Though ground cayenne will likely not be featured in a “Man v. Food” spice contest, it does pack a bit of spice. Between 15-20x spicier than the other two seasonings, it is not recommended to eat a spoonful of cayenne on its own. Many hot sauces use cayenne but adding a little bit into a seasoning mix should be fine for most people.

Can You Use Each to Substitute the Other?

These spices are not interchangeable. However, you will probably need both cayenne and paprika to make chili powder. But, if you find yourself running low on any of these spices, you can make them yourself.

If you are going to make paprika or cayenne from scratch, then you will need to cut and dry the peppers, and then grind them up in a blender or food processor of some kind. This will yield a fresh powder seasoning ready to serve.

Chili powder is the only one of the three that you do not need to make from scratch. You can buy paprika and cayenne and simply add it with the combination of other ingredients to make your own quick and tasty chili powder.

What Are the Health Benefits of Each Seasoning?

Paprika and cayenne both have significant health benefits that travel far beyond the taste buds. Since chili powder is a combination of the two other powders, we will only be focusing on highlighting the health benefits of cayenne and paprika below.

Paprika:

  1. Has antioxidant properties that help cleanse toxins and boost the immune system
  2. Contains large amounts of vitamin A which helps with eye health
  3. Possesses anti-inflammatory properties which has several benefits, one of which is aiding digestion
  4. Has anti-cancerous properties

Cayenne pepper:

  1. Has more vitamin A thanpaprika
  2. Can help to boost metabolism
  3. Acts as a natural hunger suppressant
  4. Can help to fight cancer
  5. May even help with psoriasis (a skin condition)

Closing Thoughts

Each of these seasonings adds a different type of spice and flavor to a dish. Try a little bit of each on something mild, like cauliflower or just the tip of your finger to better understand the flavor and sice that each one has to offer. It’s a good idea to have all three in your pantry so that you are well equipped for whatever flavor profile is needed to any dish you cook up.

Supriya

Hi! I'm Supriya. I'm a home cook, bulldog mom, spicy food lover, and founder of The Spicy Trio. I have been a home cook for about 15 years and have been growing plants for the past six years.

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