Is Cayenne Pepper the Same As Red Pepper?

Is Cayenne Pepper the Same As Red Pepper? (Image: urbazon/iStock/GettyImages)

When it comes to pepper-based bottles in your spice rack, things can get pretty confusing. You have red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper and paprika on top of black pepper and peppercorns. What's the difference between each of these spices, and can you freely and safely substitute one type of spicy pepper product for another without ruining your recipe?

Red Pepper vs. Cayenne Pepper

Both cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes are used to add spice and heat to dishes, and both are often made from the same family of peppers. Both spices are also used around the world in a variety of cuisines, from Mexican fare to Asian dishes to Italian grub. However, the two spices are slightly different and are utilized by chefs in slightly different ways. What are the biggest cayenne pepper and red pepper differences?

Cayenne pepper is simply dried cayenne peppers that have been ground into a fine powder. One of the biggest cayenne pepper benefits? This bright-red spice can be sprinkled onto any type of dish, distributing heat evenly and without changing the texture of the food.

Red pepper flakes, also known as crushed red pepper, are made from crushing dried chilies. While cayenne chilies are often used, crushed red pepper can be produced from a variety of spicy chilies, sometimes more than one in each bottle. For this reason, red pepper flakes are usually slightly less spicy than cayenne pepper, though some are spicier (such as crushed ghost pepper flakes). Red pepper flakes are optimal for sprinkling on dishes like pizza, sandwiches and salads – meals that taste better with pops of heat.

Subbing Cayenne Pepper for Red Pepper and Vice Versa

If you don't have cayenne pepper on hand when a recipe calls for it, you can almost always use red pepper flakes (and vice versa). Just be aware that the two spices do have subtle differences.

When subbing red pepper flakes for cayenne pepper, make sure that you distribute them as evenly as possible and that the texture of the dish won't be negatively affected by the flakes. For instance, you don't want to add flakes to a velvety smooth soup. Also know that pepper flakes are slightly less hot than ground cayenne pepper, so taste your recipe as you go to adjust the heat level.

When subbing cayenne pepper for red pepper flakes, just be aware that cayenne can be hotter than crushed pepper. Again, do a lot of taste tests and adjust the heat level carefully.

The Differences Between Red Pepper and Black Pepper

Black pepper comes from peppercorns, a small, spicy dried fruit. Although they're very different, both ground black pepper and ground red pepper are used to add spice and heat to dishes. In a pinch, one can be substituted for the other, but be aware that cayenne pepper is much hotter, and you'll need to use significantly less. Tread carefully and taste test as you go.

Cayenne Pepper vs. Red Pepper vs. Paprika

There's probably another vial of ground red pepper in your spice cabinet: paprika. Paprika is made from dried red bell peppers and is a common spice for soups, stews and casseroles as well as a brightly colored garnish. Like the bell peppers from which it's made, paprika is often not spicy unless specifically labeled as such. It simply adds a mild red pepper flavor to your dish.

There are three main types of paprika: sweet paprika, hot paprika and smoked paprika. Only hot paprika is a suitable substitute for cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes.

When it comes to red peppers, read your recipe very carefully. There is a big difference between red pepper and red bell peppers, for example, and it could ruin your dish.

Substituting Fresh Peppers for Dried Pepper-Based Spices

Depending on the recipe, you may be able to substitute fresh peppers for dried pepper-based spices. For example, a fresh cayenne pepper or jalapeno pepper can take the place of red pepper flakes or ground red pepper as long as the fresh diced pepper won't change the texture of the dish for the worse. Again, though, know that the heat levels of different varieties of peppers vary and that tasting your dish as you cook is the best way to ensure it has the right level of heat.

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