Note: Below we compare the spice rack powders, not the fresh chili pepper version of cayenne.
Paprika and cayenne are both dried and powdered chili peppers known for being bright red. Both spices are easy to find and relatively affordable, which is why they are staples in most serious cooks’ spice cabinets. Beyond their cosmetic similarities, there are some major differences in flavor between paprika and cayenne. Let’s break down both in our SPICEography Showdown below.
How does paprika differ from cayenne?
While there are hot varieties of paprika, the best-known paprikas and (the one you are most likely to have in your spice cabinet) are sweet and have no heat at all. Even hot paprika is not exceptionally hot. The hottest paprikas can top out at around 15,000 Scoville heat units (SHU), but keep in mind that these are the very hottest examples; most hot paprikas are in the 500 SHU range. In comparison, cayenne pepper falls into the “hotter than most common chilies” category with a rating of between 35,000 to 50,000 SHU. Thought that range sits firmly in the medium heat level of the scale.
When it comes to flavor (aside from its heat), paprika certainly shines more than cayenne. Paprika is sweet and fruity. Along with the sweetness and fruitiness, there are smoked paprikas that can give your dish a subtle smoky flavor. Cayenne pepper powder does not offer much aside from its heat and color. It’s a rather neutral peppery flavor.
Paprika is made mostly from tomato peppers, which are small thick-walled peppers that look like tomatoes. Tomato peppers are popular in Hungary, the world’s leading producer of paprika. Paprika can also have other peppers in it. For example, some of the hotter paprikas include cayenne. Cayenne powder is made from the cayenne pepper only. Cayenne peppers are small, narrow, and have pointed tips.
Can you use paprika in place of cayenne and vice versa?
You can use paprika in place of cayenne in most applications but only if the paprika is hot. You could still use the sweeter variety if you wanted an alternative with less heat, but the whole point of using cayenne in the first place is the heat. Because even the hottest paprikas are much milder than cayenne pepper, you will need to use considerably more of it when replacing cayenne or settle for a milder dish. The good news is that paprika’s flavors are mild enough that you can usually increase the amount of it in a dish without throwing off the dish’s flavor profile.
Both spices provide similar brilliant shades of red and are therefore interchangeable from an appearance standpoint. You can use cayenne in place of hot paprika but not a sweet one unless you specifically want a hotter flavor profile. If you are using cayenne in place of smoked paprika, you will need to replace the smoky aspect of the flavor. You can add a smoky note with liquid smoke or smoked salt.
When should you use paprika and when should you use cayenne?
Use paprika in Hungarian dishes and any others that benefit from the spice’s sweetness or mild heat. For example, paprika is important for chicken paprikash and goulash. Use it in Spanish dishes like patatas bravas and paella. Spanish paprika recommended here, but not required.
Switch to cayenne when you want a source of moderate heat with no additional flavors that might clash with other spices in the dish. Cayenne could be considered a general-purpose source of heat that you can add to dry rubs or use to make your own hot sauce.