Chili powder is the original Tex-Mex seasoning. It is a blend of spices that a Texan named William Gebhardt put together to make it easy for Americans to replicate the flavor profile of the chili dish, a stew also known as chili con carne. It contains a variety of spices commonly used in Mexican cooking. Let’s break down what’s in chili powder into its most common ingredients, but each seasoning blend can differ from recipe to recipe.
The ancho is a dried poblano pepper, one of Mexico’s most popular chilies. Ancho chilies are typically deseeded before being powdered for use in chili powder. The ancho is what gives this spice blend its distinctive maroon color that differs from the brighter red of other peppers like cayenne. Ancho gives chili powder a depth of flavor along with a mild heat; it is the single most distinguishing ingredient of the blend.
Some recipes for homemade chili powder suggest the use of paprika instead of ancho. While regular paprika can provide a similar fruitiness, it will not bring the same heat nor the desired color.
As one of the fundamental spices in both Latin American and Indian cuisines, cumin delivers one of the essential flavor notes in chili powder. It brings an earthy and nutty note to the spice blend that enhances its savory qualities.
All chili powder blends include some amount of cumin, though its flavor can be intense and overpowering. Because of its intensity, many blends — particularly those sold in U.S. grocery stores — do not contain a lot of it. If you are making your chili powder from scratch at home, experts recommend that you buy and grind whole cumin seeds to get the best flavor. Toasting them a little before you grind them can enhance their flavor.
The garlic in chili powder is dried and ground garlic. Garlic is another savory spice that you will see in many chili powder blends. It offers a sulfur note that is heavy on the umami and that goes well with meats and other savory food items. Garlic is the perfect complement to the other ingredients in this seasoning blend.
Oregano is the sole herbal ingredient in the standard chili powder blend. Its woodsy, minty note works mostly in the background. It is often so subtle that you might not even detect its presence except in the ways that it augments the other ingredients. The fact that oregano and garlic pair well is evident in many Mediterranean dishes. Many depend on both of them for flavor.
Dried and powdered onion often makes an appearance in chili powder. Onion powder is not essential, nor does it show up in all commercial blends. That said, it can provide an extra dimension to the spice blend’s flavor profile. Onion works well with all of the other chili powder spices. Plus, it helps enhance the umami aspects of the dish.
Salt/Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Some commercial blends may include salt or MSG as a means of providing a single seasoning option. We don’t recommend these if you want to control the amount of salt in your dish precisely. MSG can enhance your chili’s flavor, but it is always best to add it separately for the same reason.