Chile powder is a highly contested subject in terms of its spelling so let me address that right here at the top. Here we are going to call it “chile powder” with an “e”. My definition of chile powder is a single type of chile pepper that has been dried and ground into a powder.
For those of you that are curious, chili powder with the “i” on the end is typically a blend of spices and often includes cumin, oregano, and often one or more types of chile powders. This is often used to flavor the dish of the same name (and spelling.) Confusing, I know.
Chile powder is a spice made from dried and ground chiles with few or no additives. This type of powder can be made from almost any chile and is often named after the origin of the pepper. Each type will have its own flavor profile and taste that is suited to the dish you are cooking.
Let’s look at some of the different options that you will likely see in the store:
Ancho Chile Powder
Dark, reddish-brown in color with a sweet and mild heat, ancho chile powder has richness and intensity. This next part is a bit surprising. This powder is made from poblano chilies. I know what you are thinking to yourself, “But wait, aren’t those green?!”
Yes, the poblanos we know and love in things like chile rellenos are green and they are also unripe. As this chile ripens, it turns an intense red and that is when it is harvested and dried to make this powder. The red, ripe version of the poblano is called an “ancho.”
This is also a type of chile powder and surprise, it has been around since the time of the Aztecs. Crazy, right? It is made from dried and smoked jalapeno peppers.
This one has a bit more kick than the ancho powder and falls into the moderate range on the spectrum. It also has some fruity undertones to it.
Cayenne (a type of chile powder)
This powder is red or brown and is made from the dried version of the fiery red cayenne pepper. Some versions include the seeds in the ground mix and those tend to be a bit spicier than the ones that don’t contain them.
Cayenne is the hottest of the three and is one of the main ingredients in Tabasco Sauce. It is very popular in a wide variety of cuisines from Creole to Indian and Thai to Korean.
Fun fact: what makes chilies hot is an odorless and flavorless substance. It is part of a family of chemical compounds called, capsaicinoids. The specific one in question when it comes to chile peppers is capsaicin.
Most people believe the seeds are the worst offender in each pepper, but the truth of the matter is that the spiciness is actually most highly concentrated in the pith or the white parts of each pepper.