So you have a recipe calling for dried chilies, and that’s not something you normally stock in your kitchen? Or maybe your specialty grocer is simply out. What’s the next best thing? What’s a good dried chili substitute that’ll still bring that hot pepper intensity while not overwhelming your dish in other ways? Here are your best options, and one seemingly obvious one to actually avoid.
Option 1: Paprika (and its many varieties)
Paprika is likely the simplest solution found in a decently stocked spice rack. It’s made from 100% chili powder – which, of course, is simply pulverized dried chilies – no filler ingredients or other exotic spices. But the chili used can range in heat. Many sweet paprikas use pimento pepper as a base, but other varieties (and there are many) use hotter chilies, ranging up to cayenne pepper heat.
If you go this route it’s important to understand the heat of the dried chili you are meant to use, then plan your paprika accordingly. Hungarian paprika has a scale covering eight levels of heat; Spanish paprika has a similar level system covering three levels of spiciness. Generic paprika will typically be very mild unless labeled “hot”, then expect that it’s cut with a hotter red chili like cayenne.
Option 2: Named chili powders
Cayenne pepper powder is the most common of the named chili powders found in a normal spice rack, but others are growing in popularity. For instance, the smoky chipotle powder has become a favorite for spicy barbecue and mild ancho powder brings that terrific earthy taste with only a small sizzle of spice. Like with paprika, understand the spice level and flavor of the dried chili you were intended to use, then plan accordingly. Cayenne packs a wallop compared to many dried chilies, and chipotle powder might just be too smoky for your intended meal. Use less of whichever you choose to start, then ramp up the spice.
Option 3: Crushed Red Pepper
Like chili pepper powders, all crushed red pepper (a.k.a. red pepper flakes) is dried chilies crushed down to flakes. The main differences between the powders and the flakes are heat level control and how the dried chili alternative melds into your food.
Chili pepper flakes are a blend of multiple dried chili varieties, with cayenne typically being the base. So you’ll typically get a solid medium heat from a bottle of generic red pepper flakes. But varieties of crushed red pepper are becoming more and more common, so experimenting with heat in this option is becoming possible.
Crushed red pepper is also very visible in dishes you use it in unless you crush it down to powder form. The size, too, makes it so the overall heat may be inconsistent in a dish since the flakes won’t disperse as completely as a powder into your food. If you don’t want to see the dried chili in your dish and heat consistency is a concern, then powders are your better bet.
Not recommended: Generic chili powder
This may surprise many since it seems like the obvious first place to turn, but generic chili powder is not your best solution here. Generic chili powder is cut with many other spices, so while it may bring the heat you want, you could as well be adding in many unintended flavors that go well beyond the those typically brought by hot peppers, like cumin and garlic powder. It’s much better to go with paprika or a specific chili powder where it’s known to be 100% chili.