What's Actually Going On In Your Jar Of Red Pepper Flakes

Few condiments are more anonymous than those labeled "red pepper flakes." At first glance, the name seems obvious, but upon reflection, it actually raises many questions — especially since many spice jars won't give a list of ingredients. What's going on in there?

The short answer is that, since the primary goal of red pepper flakes is to provide heat, a jar consists mainly of dried and crushed cayenne peppers. Cayenne peppers, of the Capsicum annuum family, rank in the middle of "hot" on the Scoville scale at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville Heat Units, or SHU. By comparison, ghost peppers rate at 1.5 million. Slightly fruity and just a little earthy, cayenne peppers are not as strongly-flavored as some of their counterparts, making them ideal as a modest heat source for your pizza slice.

They're also a mix of other peppers from the Capsicum annum family, which includes Fresno, Anaheim, jalapeño, and bell peppers. Depending on which brand of red pepper flakes you buy, some or all of those other peppers might be included. If you're the DIY type, however, it's well worth making your own chili flakes at home.

DIY hotness

Given the variety of flavors and heat available in the form of dried chilies, you're only limited in your imagination when making your own bespoke red chili flakes. Consider Korea's gochugaru, slightly smoky and a little sweet, as a delicious popcorn topper. A combination of a New Mexico chili's earthiness combined with some smoky pasilla or chipotle would bring depth to any meat or poultry dish. If you're inclined to dry your own peppers, do so in a low oven (around 200 degrees Fahrenheit) until they can be crumbled in your hand. Once they're dried and crushed in a clean coffee mill or mortar and pestle, use your chili flakes sooner than later, as they go stale fairly quickly.

If you're looking for a little quick spice, find the jar of red pepper flakes that best suits your taste, and rest assured that it contains mostly cayenne peppers. If you're feeling adventurous, experiment with different types of dried and fresh chilies and peppers until you create your signature blend because life should be delicious and a little spicy.