October 20

7 Chili Powder Substitutes For Heat or Savory

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So you’ve run out of chili powder, and you find yourself digging in the spice cabinet for a substitute. Let us help! Chili powder, a six-spice blend, is the backbone of numerous American and Mexican recipes, and it can be tricky to substitute. 

Below we've outlined the 7 best chili powder substitutes according to heat, mild heat, and savory complexity.

Enjoy!


Our On-the-Go Reference Table


For High
Heat 

  • Hot sauce
  • Chipotle powder

For Mild
Heat

  • Red pepper flakes
  • Ancho powder
  • Paprika
  • Cumin

For Savory
Complexity

  • 2:1 Paprika and cumin
  • Pre-mixed spice blend
  • Mix-your-own chili powder

What is Chili Powder?


The spice we know as “chili powder” is actually a blend consisting of six components:  paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, cumin, and a dash of cayenne powder. Common in southwestern cuisine, this spice blend is found in everything from barbecue sauce to Bloody Marys!  

It’s important to determine chili powder’s role in your recipe before choosing a substitute. If its job was simply to add heat, hot sauce might do the trick. If you wanted complexity without much kick, you might get equal satisfaction from another pre-mixed spice blend.  However, some recipes lean on the specific combination of flavors in chili powder. In these cases, you may find that the only option is to mix your own blend (see number 7).

7 Chili Powder Substitutes 

1) Single Chili Powders (Ancho, Chipotle, etc...)


These spices come from the ground, dried fruits of plants from the genus Capsicum (chili peppers). Depending on the species and preparation technique, the resulting powder can have varying spice, heat, and flavor complexity levels

Similarities: Ancho powder, made from ground poblanos, and chipotle powder, made from smoked jalapenos, are both excellent substitutes.  Chipotle is hotter than ancho.  Other ground chilis are less than ideal, because their flavor profiles don’t match or because they pack too much heat. 

Suggested Conversion: ½ Tablespoon ancho or chipotle powder per 1 Tablespoon chili powder.  Then taste, and increase if desired.  
Flavor Notes: Earthy, sweet, mild spice, smoky

Suggested Dishes: Mexican stews, red meat, sauces

2) Cumin


Cumin is the dried, crushed seeds of a flowering plant from India and the Middle East. The powder has an intense color and a powerful savory aroma that is instantly recognizable.

Similarities: While it's not spicy, cumin’s potency can make up for the lack of more delicate spices (like the oregano or onion in chili powder). Like chili powder, cumin provides earthy, savory undertones.  

Suggested Conversion: ½ Tablespoon of cumin per 1 Tablespoon of chili powder, then increase to taste  

Flavor Notes: Powerfully aromatic and earthy

Suggested Dishes: Chili, stew, roasted meat and vegetables, Latin American dishes

3) Paprika


Paprika is dried and powdered sweet chilis, such as red bell pepper.  Many styles of paprika exist. All have mild heat, but different subtle overtones.  

Similarities: Paprika is the base of chili powder, making up most of its volume and backbone flavor. 

Suggested Conversion: Use in a 1:1 ratio  

Flavor Notes: Mild, but savory and with a strong character

Suggested Dishes: Marinades, dry rubs, stews, soups, egg dishes

4) Red Pepper Flakes


Red pepper flakes (the type often shaken on top of Italian dishes) are the fragments of several different pepper types--usually cayenne.  They are mild, as red pepper flakes do not include the seed.  

Beware! A similar product, called “crushed red pepper,” includes seeds, and therefore offers a much more serious dose of heat. 

Similarities: Like chili powder, red pepper flakes provide mild heat with flavor complexity.  You may choose to grind the red pepper flakes in a mortar and pestle. 

Suggested Conversion: Start with ¾ Tablespoon of crushed (powdered) red pepper flakes for every 1 Tablespoon of chili powder.  If the flakes are not powdered, a 1:1 ratio will do.

Flavor Notes: Red pepper flakes are slightly hotter than chili powder, but not quite as flavorful.  You may want to increase the other spices in your recipe to compensate.

Suggested Dishes: Dry rubs, mixed seasonings, stews

5) Harissa, Taco, Cajun Seasoning, etc...


While spice blends are usually intended for use in specific dishes or cuisine styles, a visionary cook shouldn’t feel limited by the label.  Use your nose as your guide and get creative! 

Similarities: Like chili powder, all of these spice blends have a base of ground chilis combined with other savory elements.  The devil is in the details here--use your senses to make sure you like how a spice blend combines with your other ingredients.

Suggested Conversion: All are likely to substitute in about a 1:1 ratio with chili powder, but taste to check.

Flavor Notes: Complex, savory

Suggested Dishes: Stews, sauces, seasoned meats

6) Hot Sauce


A blend of spicy peppers and acid (usually vinegar), hot sauces can be very flavorful but usually contribute more heat than spice.

Similarities: Both chili powder and hot sauces contain ingredients with a kick.  However, chili powder is considerably milder than most hot sauces!  

Suggested Conversion: Start slowly: use just a couple drops of hot sauce per tablespoon of chili powder called for in the recipe.  Then taste, and increase hot sauce if desired.

Flavor Notes: Hot, pungent, acidic.

Suggested Dishes: Marinades, sauces, soups

7) Mix-Your-Own Blend


A blend of spicy peppers and acid (usually vinegar), hot sauces can be very flavorful but usually contribute more heat than spice.

Similarities: These blends will offer the closest taste similarity to chili powder.  Use them in recipes where the flavor of chili powder is meant to shine

Suggested Conversion: See Above

Flavor Notes: Smoky, robust

Suggested Dishes: Savory Southwestern stews like American chili and baked beans


Frequently Asked Questions


Substitute for ancho chile powder?

Chili powder (the subject of this article) substitutes well for ancho. So does chipotle powder; both are earthy and deep, but chipotle has more kick.

Substitute for chipotle chili powder?

In the absence of chipotle powder, try ancho powder, or a blend of ancho, smoked paprika, and a pinch of cayenne to replicate the smokiness and heat of chipotle.

Can I substitute chili powder for cayenne pepper?

Cayenne is much hotter than chili powder, and it lacks the depth of flavor, so it is not an ideal substitute.  If it is your only option, start with small amount (¼ tsp cayenne per Tablespoon of chili powder) and increase to taste.

Substitute for chili powder in cooking?

Check out the suggestions above for some ideas!

Conclusion


There is no need to panic if you need to make chili or tacos and you have forgotten the chili powder. With this list, you are sure to find a substitute that is already in your spice cupboard!

Leave a note below if you have any questions or comments. We love feedback 🙂

Cheers,

Caitlin


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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