Substituting Powders, Pastes, and Sauces

It would be difficult to ignore the influence of chili – in any form – in our food these days.

It is simply everywhere, from fast food joints to salad dressings. You’ll find spicy dishes gracing the menus of five-star restaurants and served in food trucks to hungry passers-by.

If you’ve done half a recipe search or paged through food-oriented magazines, you can’t help but notice that so many of them call for a dash of paprika or a splash of your favorite hot sauce (might we recommend Mad Dog?). Hardly coincidentally, there are more chilies, spices, sauces, extracts, and pastes available than ever before. There are so many possible chili-derived ingredients that it would be damned difficult to have them all in your kitchen cupboards. (That said, if you do have a rather healthy pantry collection, we’d love to see a picture of that!)

So, what are you supposed to do when a recipe calls for chili flakes, and you only have chili powder. And, can you substitute cayenne pepper for paprika?

It’s your food; of course, you can do whatever the hell you want with it! But, if you’re looking for a quick guide to substitutions, you’ve just found it.

The Difference between Chili Powder and Chili Flakes

If your recipe calls for a half teaspoon of chili powder, can you put chili flakes into the mix instead? Well, yes, but not if you have a low tolerance for spicy foods. Chili powder (we’re talking about the ordinary stuff – not the kind you find in a specialty, heat-seekers stores) does include some ground chilies. But, it’s not enough to write home about. You’ll usually find these chili powders have a high concentration of non-capsaicin bearing spices. Sorry.

Chili flakes, on the other hand, are dried chilies. Even if the manufacturers throw in a bit of salt or reconstitute it with some oil, you’ll quickly discover that there’s a big difference. Dried chilies are often quite potent, though it is all based on the chilies used.

Which One’s Hotter? Paprika or Cayenne Pepper?

If a recipe calls for paprika, it’s because it needs pepper flavor, not pepper heat. If you eat baby food all day every day, then you’ll experience a small burst of heat from that dash of paprika. More refined palates will probably not even notice it. Cayenne is another story. While these peppers are hardly in the same league as ghost peppers, they have a bite. Pure cayenne will offer a bit of a sting. (Still, it’s nothing compared to Mad Dog.)

Substituting Chili Peppers, Sauces, and Extracts

When you’re faced with a recipe that calls for cayenne, but you’re fresh out, you can easily substitute paprika for the hint of flavor needed. But the trouble comes when you’re looking to maintain the heat - and you’re supposed to have chili pepper flakes. Should you quadruple the amount of paprika?

Again, we’re not telling you what to do in the kitchen, but that’s not always the best idea. A better bet would be a drop or two of fairly mild hot sauce with a dash of whatever chili powder you have on hand. Otherwise, you’re just drowning the flavors of the other ingredients.

To take this concept even further, you can always substitute according to heat level rather than the form of the heat. If a recipe calls for a paste, but you only have hot sauces, you can douse a slice of bread in hot sauce and add a touch of water to make it really moist. Blend that and you’ve got a paste consistency. To the same extent, you can also add a little water to a paste to create a hot sauce.

But, of course, what you really should do, is experiment with all sorts of chilies, powders, pastes, and sauces. It’ll give you one of those drool-worthy pantries that we really want to see a picture of.

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