Cayenne Pepper Guide: Heat, Flavor, Uses

What is cayenne pepper?

The modern kitchen has found a special place for the cayenne pepper. It’s a terrific culinary chili fresh, bringing a medium-heat (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units) with a neutral, peppery flavor. But it’s even more popular dried. In fact, few cupboards are without a bottle of this chili in powder or flake form.

Ground cayenne pepper is a spice staple, and most likely the hottest one you’re going to have around. It’ll bring heat to nearly any dish. But there’s more that you can do with cayenne peppers beyond the spice bottle. Lots of culinary hobbyists love the spicy tastiness of using it fresh, especially in salsa and hot sauces. And it’s purchased quite often as a health supplement in pill form in order to incorporate the benefits of capsaicin into your diet.

Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne pepper fast facts

Scoville heat units (SHU)30,000 – 50,000
Median heat (SHU)40,000
Jalapeño reference point4 to 20 times hotter
Capsicum speciesAnnuum
OriginFrench Guyana
UseCulinary
SizeApproximately 3 to 5 inches long, curved
FlavorNeutral (peppery)

How hot is the cayenne pepper?

This is typically a medium-hot chili (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville heat units), fitting neatly between the serrano and the Thai pepper. In terms of our jalapeño reference point, on average it is around 12 times hotter than a jalapeño. It has a bit of zing to its flavor, but the cayenne pepper is still a ways away from habaneros and the hottest end of the chili pepper spectrum.

Though, there are varieties of cayenne that eclipse this level of spiciness. Some generically labeled cayenne, and others like the Charleston Hot, reach 100,000 SHU and beyond. If you don’t see a range on the label, it’s likely the typical American “spice-rack ready” cayenne ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU.

Cayenne pepper spiciness - heat comparison

What does this chili look like? And where did it originate?

You’re probably used to seeing it in flake or powder form, but the cayenne looks nothing like your typical bell or poblano pepper. It’s more akin to a Thai pepper in terms of shape: thin, long (up to 3 to 5 inches), and curved. It matures from green to red.

It, like most hot chilies, originates from South America. Its name comes from a city in French Guiana – the city of Cayenne. But, also like most chilies, it has gone by many different names from region to region, including Guinea spice, bird pepper, and cow-horn pepper. In powder form, it is often just simply referred to as red pepper.

Fresh cayenne pepper on the vine

What does that mean in terms of taste?

In terms of handling the heat, cayenne peppers are at a very good level for most people. It’s hot enough to feel very spicy, but not so hot as to turn off the great majority of palates. And since it has more capsaicin than a jalapeño and the lower heat peppers, this is a hot pepper that goes well beyond its culinary uses. Lots of people rely on it for its health benefits through cayenne pepper supplements and skin creams among other products.

Yes, it is.  The cayenne (aka red pepper) has become a go-to spice on the spice rack for most amateur and professional chefs. It is a very versatile way to add some spice to nearly any dish, from soups and pizzas to meat entrees and baked desserts. The famous red pepper flakes you find at pizzerias (and in many homes) use a variety of hot peppers, but cayenne chili pepper is what gives it perhaps its greatest kick.

But as chili peppers have become more and more popular, the cayenne pepper has also become more than just that red pepper powder on the shelf. People are finding lots of culinary uses for fresh cayenne pepper, especially in Asian cuisine. It also makes a mean medium-spice salsa, and hot sauce aficionados are finding love for cayenne hot sauces these days.

What are the health benefits of Cayenne pepper?

Really it’s the health benefits of all hot peppers, and it’s all due to the compound which gives these chilies their heat: capsaicin. Capsaicin has been shown to be an amazing pain reliever (including for arthritis), appetite suppressant, and much more! Read this article on capsaicin to see more of the benefits of this compound, and you’ll see why cayenne pepper herbal supplements are so popular.

Dried cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes

Where can you buy cayenne pepper?

All supermarkets carry it ground or as red pepper flakes in the spice section. And cayenne pepper supplements are available in many pharmacies. But check the prices online to see if there’s a better deal around. Finding fresh (or whole dried) cayenne is a whole different matter. You’ll most likely need to shop online to find products (Amazon). You’ll also find a larger selection of cayenne hot sauces and pre-made salsas online than you will in most general grocery stores.

This is really quite a popular pepper when it comes down to it, rivaling the jalapeño in many ways for its space in the modern kitchen. The cayenne pepper is a family-friendly chili: one that’ll bring your dishes to life while not turning off those most sensitive to heat and spice. If you’ve only ever used the ground version of this chili, then try giving the fresh version a go. And if you don’t have cayenne on your spice rack, then you are definitely missing out on a lot of culinary opportunities.


UPDATE NOTICE: This post was updated on November 17, 2021 to include new content. It was originally published on July 8, 2013.
  • I’ve been growing these for years, also. Not impressed with the green ones; lack flavor. Waiting for mine to turn red. My Indian friend Bimala says green for cooking and red to eat fresh. Red ones are nice n sweet. t

  • I have raised these for years and my father before me. They are addictive once you can overcome the heat. Best eaten fresh off the plant.

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