These Are the Best Chili Powder Substitutes to Use When You’re Running Low

published Jan 30, 2023
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Chili powder is one of those pantry staples that helps give dishes like chili, enchiladas, chicken tortilla soup, and other Mexican American–inspired dishes their signature flavor. If you open up your kitchen cabinet and find you’ve run out of the seasoning, however, there are some substitutes for chili powder you can definitely use in a pinch.

The Difference Between Chili Powder and Chile Powder

First, we should clear up some commonly confused ingredients. Chili powder is not technically the same thing as chile powder. Chili powder refers to a mix of one or more types of dried and ground peppers along with commonly paired seasonings like cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, and paprika (which is made from dried ground mild-flavored red peppers).

Chile powder — with an “e” at the end  — usually refers to one type of pepper that has been dried and ground, such as chipotle chile powder, ancho chile powder, and chile de arbol. “Chile” is also how peppers are referred to in Spanish, more commonly in Mexico. Different brands in the United States label them in various ways, so it can be confusing to always remember the difference. If you’re ever unsure, always take a look at the ingredient label.

The Best Chili Powder Substitutes

Make Homemade Chili Powder

Although chili powder is commonly sold at grocery stores, it’s actually pretty easy to make the mixture yourself at home. As a substitute for premade chili powder, you can make your own by combining chile powder (such as ones made from anchos, guajillos, and chiles de arbol), paprika, ground cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, ground oregano, and a small amount of cayenne pepper. If you don’t like dishes with a lot of heat, though, leave out the cayenne.

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Chipotle Chile Powder

This is where knowing the difference between chili powder and chile powder is most critical. Chipotle chile powder is made directly from the dried chipotle pepper. It is both smoky and spicy and can be used as a substitute for chili powder, although you’ll likely need to use less of it to get the same effect. Chipotle chile powder by itself does have a bit of heat, so use it carefully as a substitute for chili powder.

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Before you toss that empty bottle of chili powder, take a look at the ingredient label. You’ll see that paprika is one of the largest components of chili powder. The name paprika comes from the Hungarian word for pepper.

Paprika, which is made from mild red peppers that are dried and ground, is a versatile pantry ingredient that helps give food a smoky flavor. Although you may need to adjust measurements (some varieties of paprika can be very salty) you can use plain paprika as a substitute for chili powder. Shop around and look for different types of paprika, such as smoky pimentón (Spanish paprika) and sweet Hungarian paprika.

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Ground Cumin

Another prominent ingredient in making chili powder is the use of ground cumin. Ground cumin, which is a dark brown or greenish powder, is made from pulverized and toasted cumin seeds. Cumin seeds are a part of the parsley family and have a very deep and earthy flavor. Cumin is one of the most recognizable flavors in many Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Latin American dishes. Ground cumin almost always makes an appearance in dishes like white chicken chili, chicken tortilla soup, and chicken tikka masala.  

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Cayenne Pepper

If you always prefer your chili on the spicier side, then you can use cayenne pepper, along with ingredients like cumin and paprika, to achieve the same flavor that standard chili powder has. Cayenne peppers are small, thin, and bright red peppers used to make the dried and ground powder which is most commonly referred to simply as “cayenne pepper.” 

Keep in mind that a little goes a long way when it comes to cayenne pepper. On the Scoville scale, cayenne peppers rank somewhere in the middle at around 5 on a scale from 1 to 10, which is a good amount of heat. When using cayenne as a substitute for chili powder, just be sure to start small, with about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon.

Chipotles in Adobo Sauce

Although you can find chipotle peppers dried, smoked, and whole or in the form of a powder, you can also find them canned in adobo sauce. Chipotles in adobo can be a good substitute for chili powder, as it delivers both smokiness and lots of heat. In fact, you can simply add some of the sauce (a blend of tomato sauce, chipotle peppers, water, vinegar, onions, salt, sugar, paprika, soybean oil, and spices) to any dish you’re making in place of chili powder. Because chipotles in adobo are much spicier than your average chili powder, use less than you would normally for chili powder.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Taco Seasoning

Taco seasoning and chili powder are somewhat similar. In fact, many variations of taco seasoning will call for chili powder as one of the main ingredients, along with paprika, salt, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, and coriander. The main difference between taco seasoning and chili powder is the ratio of different seasonings. 

Chili powder often (although not always) contains cayenne pepper, whereas taco seasoning doesn’t. Aside from this difference, taco seasoning tends to be heavier on both cumin and oregano, whereas chili powder is very paprika and cayenne-forward. Taco seasoning can also be a bit saltier than chili powder and is not spicy like certain types of chili powder. 

Crushed Red Pepper Flakes

If you love chili powder particularly for the heat, then you can definitely use crushed red pepper flakes to get a similar effect of spicy chili powder. Crushed red pepper flakes are basically very spicy red peppers (along with the seeds and ribs of the pepper) that have been dried and crushed but not pulverized into a powder. Because the seasoning includes the spiciest part of the pepper (the ribs and pith), you only need a small pinch to add the same amount of heat the spicy chili powder would.