Both dark and light chili powders are blends of the same ingredients. All chili powders contain dried and ground hot peppers along with cumin, garlic, and oregano. Those are just the foundation ingredients, some blends will have other ingredients. The most common chili pepper used to make light and dark chili powder is the ancho pepper, which is typically very dark; however, other peppers (like chipotle and cayenne pepper) can show up in some blends. While dark and light chili powder blends have a lot in common, they also have many differences that go beyond the appearance. What makes each tick? We break it down in another PepperScale Showdown: dark chili powder vs. light chili powder.
How does dark chili powder differ from light chili powder?
The difference in the color of these blends does not mean that they have different ingredients. In fact, both types of chili powder pull from the same general list of Latin American seasonings. Dark chili powder is dark because it often contains more of the chili pepper (like ancho) with a darker color and the spices are often roasted for longer periods. This leads to a seasoning blend that’s often earthier, smokier, sweeter, and spicier than its lighter counterpart.
In comparison, the light variety often has a higher proportion of the other spices in relation to the chili pepper (and less spice roasting time) which accounts for the light color. For example, cumin and garlic powder can make up as much as 50 percent of the ingredients in some blends. Since light chili powder has more of the non-chili spices, it often has a complex flavor that goes beyond plain heat.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
Because dark chili powder and light chili powder have the same ingredients, you can replace one with the other if you are okay with the difference in heat levels and the slight variance in flavor. Dark chili powder will make recipes that require light chili powder a little darker in color, a little hotter, and often a little earthier. Light chili powder will make recipes that require dark chili powder lighter-colored and milder. The dishes will still have most of the desired flavor profile aside from the aforementioned heat.
When should you use dark chili powder and when should you use light chili powder?
Dark chili powder is one of the mainstays of the Texan chili recipe. It has all of the ingredients that most people believe are essential to an authentic chili con carne flavor profile: ancho pepper, cumin, and Mexican oregano. Also important is the fact that it has the right color as well. A true Texas chili will have a deep red color that comes from chili powder. Beyond that, dark chili powder is a great all-purpose seasoning and makes a great dry rub on its own. Keep in mind that most blends contain a variety of spices to ensure a balanced umami flavor that compliments most savory dishes.
Light chili powder is better for a milder flavor that you might find more enjoyable if you have a delicate palate. Less chili pepper, less roasting, and more of the other savory spices gives this blend a broader range of applications. It is suitable for dishes served to children and people who cannot eat spicy food.