Black pepper and red pepper are both fundamental spices in food cultures all over the world. Black pepper comes from the Kerala region in Southern India while red pepper comes from Central America. While both of these spices play similar roles — they provide heat — they do so differently. You need to consider those differences if you are trying to decide which of them to use. We compare and contrast the two in our PepperScale Showdown below.
How does black pepper differ from red pepper?
The most obvious difference is indicated by the names: black pepper is black and red pepper is red. The appearances of the two differ dramatically because they come from two very different plants. Black pepper is made from the dried drupes of the Piper nigrum plant, while red pepper is made from the dried capsicum fruit making it a chili pepper. In most cases, red pepper (crushed red pepper flakes or cayenne powder) is made with cayenne pepper. Cayenne pepper is a Capsicum annuum variety.
Black pepper and red pepper differ in terms of flavor as well. The first big flavor difference has to do with heat — these spices provide their spicy kick to foods in different ways and to differing extents.
Black pepper provides a mild heat at best. The source of its heat is a compound called piperine. The cayenne pepper used to make red pepper is much hotter and is typically classified as a medium-hot chili pepper with a Scoville rating of between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville heat units. it gets its heat from the compound capsaicin.
Aside from the heat, freshly ground black pepper will have a relatively complex flavor with notes of pine and citrus. Cayenne pepper can sometimes have a mild fruitiness but most cooks use it as a source of heat and nothing else.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
If all your recipe needs is a gentle heat then yes, you can probably get away with using either one in a dish as long as you adjust the quantities to compensate for the different heat levels. You can’t use black pepper as a 1:1 substitute for capsaicin since it won’t make your food as hot as red pepper will.
Too much black pepper is also likely to result in a bitter taste. You can use a little of it to provide gentle heat in a recipe that requires a hint of red pepper.
Because it provides heat, a red pepper like cayenne will work as a black pepper substitute but only if you use it in very small amounts. Note that neither is a great substitute for the other if appearance is important to you.
When should you use black pepper and when should you use red pepper
Use black pepper in classic European dishes that require a very gentle heat and that are mildly flavored. The milder the flavor, the more the pine and citrus characteristics of black pepper will stand out. The delicate flavor profiles of these dishes would be overwhelmed by the relatively hot red pepper.
Use red pepper (cayenne powder/red pepper flakes) when you want some heat. It makes a great addition to foods with strong flavors that will be complemented by heat rather overshadowed by it.