Paprika and cayenne stand out the most on spice racks. Unlike the distinctly leafy greens of dried herbs or the sandy beiges of crushed onion or garlic powder, paprika and cayenne stand together as the hotly colored outcasts of the cabinet.
Their similarities have bound them eternally as the enigmatic spices of the pantry — the sibling rivalry that is paprika vs cayenne.
But are they spicy? When do you use them? And can I put them on my eggs?
The truth is, paprika and cayenne are unique spices with their own identities. And they’re pretty fun to get to know.
Prepare your taste buds. You’re about to level up your culinary skills while trying new mouthwatering dishes.
What’s the Difference Between Paprika and Cayenne?
Is cayenne pepper the same as paprika? In short, no. While they share a lot of similarities, paprika and cayenne are different spices.
Paprika and cayenne originate from dried chili peppers ground into the deep orange-red powders you’ve come to know and love. However, paprika and cayenne have notable differences that impact how and when you use them. Let’s look at them individually before we compare them.
What Is Paprika?
Paprika is a ground spice made from the sweeter varieties of red peppers from the plant family Capsicum annuum. In other words, paprika is made from red bell peppers and similarly sweet, mild types of peppers.
In fact, these peppers were first cultivated and ground into the spice we know today in Central North America. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the mild peppers were introduced to Spain, Portugal and Hungary, where this spice is used to add color and an earthy flavor to dishes.
Today you might notice paprika garnishing a deviled egg. However, deviled eggs aren’t spicy, and neither are red bell peppers. So, why are some types of paprika spicier than others? Let’s check out the most common types of paprika and their flavor profiles.
Hungarian Paprika (Sweet Paprika)
After paprika reached Hungary, the craze for this savory spice took flight. Today Hungary is the world’s largest producer of paprika. So, it’s no wonder why the paprika most of us are familiar with is sweet paprika.
In Hungary paprika is typically made from a relative of the red bell pepper, the tomato pepper. Equally as rich in deep, rusty color, this form of the spice is extremely subtle. It’s often used to add color, but is also used in mild hot sauces that need the pepper taste without the spice.
Chef Yasmin Mansukhani, graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in London and culinary professional for over 20 years, described Hungarian paprika as earthy-mild, sweet and great to season and color savory foods such as goulash.
Hot Paprika (Spanish Paprika)
Hot paprika can be fiery enough to compete with cayenne. We say it “can be” that hot because even hot paprika describes a wide range of spiciness.
Hot paprika is a combination of mild peppers and chili peppers. This mixture often includes the cayenne chili pepper. Because paprika’s mild peppers are cut with these hotter peppers, there’s no way to say for sure how spicy your hot paprika could be.
Smoked paprika is a favorite among barbecuers. Why? Because high-quality smoked paprika adds an earthy pepper taste, a hint of spice, and the primitive attractiveness of smoke. Compared to liquid, smoke is an all-natural and well-balanced way to add smoky flavor without the preservatives.
Smoked paprika is made similarly to sweet paprika, except the dried peppers are smoked over a fire before they’re ground into a spice. If you’re looking for the smokiness of chipotle seasoning, but without the heat, smoked paprika is a great alternative.
What Is Cayenne?
Fortunately cayenne is a lot simpler than paprika. Cayenne is a type of chili pepper revered for its fiery spice. While it maintains the savory flavor of ground peppers, that quality is almost overshadowed by the spice factor.
Cayenne peppers are long, almost conical peppers that hang from a bush instead of growing upright from the ground. They’re often confused with the similarly shaped but much spicier Thai chili pepper. In fact, some manufacturers use red Thai chili peppers to make “cayenne.” Our cayenne powder, however, is made from 100% organic cayenne peppers.
Chef Mansukhani described cayenne’s flavor as “earthy-spicy.” She added that it’s wonderful for flavoring robust, spicy sauces.
Comparison: Paprika vs Cayenne
So, what’s the difference between paprika vs cayenne?
The first noticeable difference is their consistency. Paprika is ground into a fine powder, like cinnamon. When it gets wet, it looks like muddy clay straight from the ground.
On the flip side, cayenne pepper is coarser and grittier. It’s more difficult to hide cayenne in a dish than paprika, due to its texture alone.
The next difference is the color of the spice itself. Normally you might not take the color of a spice into account when preparing your family dinner. However, top chefs such as Mansukhani know that people eat with their eyes. This mindset makes the rich, playful orange of paprika a key element in the world of culinary professionals. Cayenne’s dark color simply does not stand out the way paprika does.
Lastly, paprika is commonly sweet and subtle, while cayenne enters the pan like a fiesta for your taste buds.
Is Paprika Hotter Than Cayenne?
In most cases, cayenne pepper is almost always considered to be hotter than paprika pepper. There are many different types of paprika pepper, but ground cayenne is more consistent in its source because it comes from the same type of pepper.
But how do we know that one is hotter than the other? Can spiciness be measured?
In the early 1900s, Wilbur Scoville answered, “Yes.” This American pharmacist invented the Scoville Scale in 1912 to measure the “heat” of spicy foods in Scoville Heat Units (SHUs).
Cayenne pepper typically ranks between 30,000 to 50,000 SHUs. This level is about 3 to 5 times spicier than a jalapeno pepper, but not quite as hot as a habanero.
Because paprika is not made from a single type of pepper, it’s harder to know where exactly it lands on the Scoville Scale.
For example, Hungarian paprika made from tomato peppers would rank around 0-100 SHUs. However, hot paprika mixed with cayenne could bring the spice closer to 30,000 SHUs. It all depends on what type of paprika you purchase.
Can You Use Cayenne Pepper Instead of Paprika (Or Vice Versa)?
Now that you understand the flavor profiles of paprika vs cayenne, let’s explore whether or not you can (or should) use these spices interchangeably.
This is a common question, probably because the two spices look similar and both are made from ground peppers. However, culinary experts like Chef Mansukhani warn against trying to use cayenne and paprika interchangeably.
She argued, “One instance where they are almost interchangeable is if you have hot paprika on hand.”
Nonetheless, she clarified that substitution would only make sense if you were out of one or the other spice.
Instead consider your goal. Is your dish supposed to be spicy? If not, you shouldn’t use cayenne to replace paprika. Sure, they both add a smooth, peppery flavor, but cayenne will make your meal spicy.
If you do decide to go this route, avoid using cayenne in the same quantity as paprika. A little cayenne goes a long way.
If your dish is supposed to be spicy, but you’re out of cayenne, most paprika won’t help. The flavor is too mild, even if you double the amount you would normally use. You can also use hot paprika, but it won’t be as hot as cayenne.
What is The Difference Between Cayenne Pepper and Chili Pepper?
It might be easy to taste the difference between paprika and cayenne, but can you get away with replacing cayenne with hot chili powder?
Chili powder is often made with cayenne peppers and a variety of other peppers. These other peppers are usually lower on the Scoville scale. You’ll also find other spices included in jarred chili powder, including cumin, garlic powder, and onion.
Because of these additional ingredients, ground cayenne is normally hotter than ground chili pepper. You also have to account for the additional ingredients found in chili pepper.
So, put simply, you won’t find a perfect replacement for cayenne pepper in chili powder. Although both may be derived from the same pepper, there will likely be a major flavor difference between the two.
Paprika vs Cayenne: Which Should You Use?
The easiest test to see if you should use paprika vs cayenne is this: Do you like spicy food? If not, opt for paprika in your next chili.
In spite of spice, each powder has a purpose and a place.
Cayenne takes earthy flavors and elevates them with heat. Use it to make your own hot sauce or beef and black bean chili. It’s also a welcome addition to hot fried chicken or a spicy fish filet. Chef Mansukhani suggested trying cayenne in Indian curry for a spicy kick. What will you do?
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