The Best Cayenne Pepper Substitute For One-To-One Flavor

Finding a substitute for cayenne pepper is important because it is as close to an essential spice as you can get. Cayenne is, first and foremost, a heat delivery system, but it's one that gets used all the time, even in recipes that aren't meant to be that spicy. Its big advantage is its taste, which is to say it doesn't have a strong one. That near lack of flavor actually works to cayenne's advantage, however, because you can use it to add a spicy kick to recipes without altering the flavor too much. Mixed in spice blends and rubs, cayenne pepper can, in small doses, add a subtle warmth to a dish without overpowering it, but it is also hot enough that more than a pinch will really get you sweating. That versatility is key to cayenne's popularity, and it's what you need to recreate when finding a substitution.

Thankfully you may have a great option to replace cayenne on you right now — one that will do the job of bringing neutral-tasting heat in an almost identical fashion. Red pepper flakes are a little less spicy than cayenne, but they can still pack a punch and aren't as distinctly flavored as other dried chiles and powders. If you use about 25 to 50% more red pepper flakes than the cayenne you needed you should get very similar results heat-wise without altering the taste of your recipe.

Red pepper flakes are made from a mix of cayenne and other peppers

A jar of red pepper flakes, aka crushed red peppers, has a generic name because it's made from various dried peppers. The mix and proportions thereof can vary by maker but commonly includes varieties like serrano, jalapeño, and Fresno peppers. It works well as a substitute for cayenne because the most common red pepper in these mixes is the cayenne pepper itself. At 30,000 Scoville units or above, cayenne is pretty spicy compared to the serrano's 8,000 units and the jalepeño's 2,500 units, so the other peppers mixed in with it make red pepper flakes milder, but other than this, you won't notice much of a difference between the two options.

After red pepper flakes, your options get limited without altering the flavor. Paprika, even hot paprika, doesn't have the spice to mimic cayenne, and other chile powders will have a stronger flavor with much more smokiness than cayenne. In fact, your closest options may not be bottled spices at all. Some Louisiana hot sauces like Crystal are made from cayenne, and if you don't mind the extra vinegar, they can add similar heat. Dried chiles de arbol may be your best bet; they are pretty common and just as spicy, you may just have to chop them up or grind them down yourself. Sometimes, when you don't have the right ingredients, there are no perfect answers.