How spicy do you need a cayenne pepper substitute to be? And what do you want to do with it? We’ve got 10 substitutes to consider.
Cayenne pepper is made from dried cayenne chili pepper, but it has been grounded into a powder to be used like other spices.
Sometimes categorized under the ‘red pepper’ banner, this is a broad phrase for any reddish pepper powder.
Cayenne stands out from this group because it’s spicier, so it’s not just about swapping one red pepper for another.
When substituting cayenne pepper, not only do you want to replicate a similar spice, but you may want it to be an earthy powder, and of course, that signature red color.
Best Substitute for Cayenne Pepper?
Before diving into the best possible substitutes for cayenne pepper, it’s important to understand the ‘Scoville scale’ which measures the strength of spice.
Most cayenne pepper ranges between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville heat units (SHU) which is considered mild.
That said, what’s considered mild to one tongue can be intense for others. So, you may want a weaker substitute, a similar spice level, or maybe something stronger.
Without further ado, here are our top 10 substitutes for cayenne pepper.
People can sometimes confuse cayenne pepper and paprika and consider the two ‘red pepper.’
Paprika can deliver a reddish color to a dish and can come grounded, but importantly it’s not as spicy as cayenne pepper.
How to make it work: If you want to achieve a similar spicy taste to cayenne pepper, you’ll need to double your dose of paprika, or look for ‘hot paprika.’
Like cayenne pepper, cumin has an ‘earthy’ aroma to it and in powder form, it can easily be added in the same way.
The only thing cumin lacks over cayenne pepper—which will be a dealbreaker for many—is that it’s not spicey.
How to make it work: Cumin works best as a substitute for cayenne pepper when mixed with other spices, ideally, those that lack the earthiness of cayenne.
3. Chili Powder
Like paprika, chili powder is often a reddish powder but like cayenne pepper, it has a nice spicey kick.
Chili powder could be a little healthier than cayenne pepper, with higher levels of calcium, iron, and zinc, though it is higher in sodium, which can be problematic for some.
How to make it work: Chili powder can work as a one-to-one substitute for cayenne pepper with no additional help needed.
4. Crushed Red Pepper
Crushed red pepper is usually made of dried flakes from different red pepper varieties, though it can also contain plenty of seeds.
Depending on what you buy, it can contain some cayenne pepper in the mix, though it’ll probably not be as spicy as cayenne pepper alone.
How to make it work: Grind it down into a powder and use more if you want it a bit spicier. You may want to remove seeds, though that could be time-consuming.
5. Cajun Seasoning
You may also know it as ‘Cajun spice mix,’ Cajun seasoning is often made with both cayenne pepper and paprika as well as other spices.
Cajun seasoning can be a great substitute if you’re looking for a more flavorful, southern taste.
How to make it work: Before adding Cajun seasoning, make sure you know what other seasoning it includes to avoid overpowering certain tastes.
6. Black Pepper
Black pepper is the mildest option on this list and can work if you need a kick to a dish but if you’re cooking for people who can’t handle spicy food.
Black pepper is also the easiest to find in the grocery store and is likely something you already have at home and can add a great zing when cooked.
How to make it work: A few sprinkles ought to do the trick, avoid trying to match the same amount you’d use for cayenne—it’ll taste strongly of black pepper and not any spicier.
Tabasco sauce is the go-to spice for many when cooking. A few small drops can be all you need to add the tingle of spice you desire.
Tabasco can fall into the same Scoville Heat Units range as cayenne—30,000 to 50,000—so depending on the brand, it can deliver a similar level of spice.
How to make it work: To substitute cayenne pepper for Tabasco sauce use approximately four drops for each 8th of a teaspoon of cayenne.
Sriracha is a spicy sauce made from fermented chili peppers and is popular across the US and Southeast Asia.
What’s particularly likable about sriracha is how well it works with other foods, and its umami (savory) taste.
How to make it work: You may need to add more to reach the same spice level. It’s also a sauce, not a powder so depending on what you’re making you may need to add it differently.
9. Serrano Pepper Powder
Serrano pepper powder is made from serrano peppers and can range between 10,000 and 25,000 SHU, slightly less than cayenne pepper.
Do note that serrano pepper powder can come in a green or red color, so aesthetically it may look a bit different depending on the color you find.
How to make it work: Like sriracha, you may need to add more to reach the same spice level as cayenne pepper.
Like sriracha, gochujang is a red fermented chili sauce that often ranges between 1,000 and 2,500 SHU.
Korean in origin, it may be just what you need to add that needed spicy kick when cooking. It differentiates from sriracha in that it uses soybeans instead of garlic.
How to make it work: Gochujang works best when used when cooking, or as part of a marinade. It can also be quite thick, so you may want to add something to thin it out.
What Can I Use if I Don’t Have Cayenne Pepper?
There are a lot of spicy and not-so-spicy alternatives to cayenne pepper. Some might need a bit of help, and some are sauces, not powders.
As always, it comes down to what you want to achieve.
Are you cooking for people who hate spice? Do you need a red pepper to sprinkle on top of a dish? Or do you want to add some spice to a sauce?
If your cayenne pepper substitute must be a spicy powder, consider:
- Chili powder—A red and spicy powder, this is probably the closest substitute you can find.
- Crushed red pepper—When crushed into a powder it can closely resemble cayenne (and may include some in the mix).
- Cajun seasoning—Made from a mixture of spices often including cayenne and paprika.
- Serrano pepper powder—Made from serrano peppers, it can be slightly milder and may come in a shade of green.
If it can be a milder alternative (aka, not spicy or not very spicy), then consider:
- Paprika—A red pepper powder that is sometimes confused with cayenne; it’s not considered spicy.
- Cumin—Similar to cayenne for its earthiness, it will need some assistance to become spicy,
- Black pepper—A super basic pepper almost everyone has (no one will be tearing up over this pepper).
If a spicy chili sauce will do, consider:
- tabasco—A similar spice level to cayenne pepper.
- Sriracha—A Southeast Asian chili sauce.
- Gochujang—A Thick Korean chili sauce.
Be careful when using more than one substitute—you may accidentally end up making something a lot spicier than you intended.
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