Let’s talk about spices. Specifically spicy spices. There are a zillion types of non-spicy spices that I love (cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger) but I want to focus on spicy spices because their applications are much more complex and the distinctions between them are sometimes confusing.
Here are the most popular spicy spices:
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Cayenne pepper, otherwise known as red pepper since that’s what it is in ground form, is a gorgeous burnt orange color which I love. It’s extremely spicy (a little will go a long way) but not hot. It has a lingering tangy flavor. My favorite uses for cayenne are in marinades, dry rubs, and soups.
Red Pepper Flake
Red pepper flake, otherwise known as crushed red pepper (or simply “crushed red” if you’re Anne Burrell), is made from dried hot peppers. It’s slightly sweet, very spicy, and has a lingering hotness. Red pepper flake is my favorite of all of spicy spices however, it’s very easy to overdo and blow your whole dish. There aren’t many foods you can’t add red pepper flake to, in my opinion. I love it in pad thai, pasta dishes, and it’s probably been on every single piece of pizza I’ve eaten in the last 10 years.
Ah, black pepper. So simple and underappreciated. Black pepper is probably the most versatile of all the spices. Yeah, I said it. If you have any spice in your kitchen it should be ground black pepper (paired with some good kosher salt). Black pepper is not spicy but has a mild bite to it. I add it to literally every single dish I make minus desserts; it’s perfect in everything. My favorite black pepper applications are the simplest ones: on a hot buttered baked potato, over pasta and parmesan cheese, or sprinkled over a freshly boiled ear of corn.
Chili powder is the most diverse of the bunch as it is usually made from a blend of dried chili peppers. It is said to add piquance to dishes. (PS – Piquance is my new favorite word) I like chili powder because it’s smoky and salty, and that combination always reminds me of BBQ. For that reason I highly recommend chili powder for BBQ rubs or meat marinades. However my favorite use for chili powder is in mac and cheese. It adds huge flavor to the roux that carries throughout the whole dish.
Last but not least is paprika. Paprika is the mildest of all the spicy spices because it’s usually made from ground bell peppers (which are not hot at all). Because it’s so mild paprika is often used in recipes just to add color, believe it or not. Paprika is sweet and slightly smoky with a non-lingering flavor. Hungarian Paprika is the best variety, in my opinion. My favorite uses are in risotto and on homemade pita chips.
I mentioned specific uses for each of these spices but I wanted to mention a few recipes where they are interchangeable or where you can use them all. They are chili, tikka masala, BBQ dry rub, and spicy chicken.
One last pro tip on spices: Buy them at Penzey’s. In my opinion their products are of the highest quality, impart the best flavor, and last the longest.