Whether you crave its pungent heat or avoid it, cayenne pepper is a versatile and healthy spice that adds a boost of vitamin A even in small amounts. With a little respect for capsaicin -- the ingredient responsible for its heat -- and some kitchen experimentation, you'll find that cayenne pepper adds flavor to almost any dish.
One of the most surprising facts about cayenne pepper is that its active ingredient, capsaicin, causes the sensation of burning or pain even though it doesn’t cause any real harm. The amount of capsaicin determines a pepper's heat. The Scoville scale is a tool that gives you a clue by rating the heat level. Jalapeno peppers are rated at 2,500 to 5,000, cayenne pepper has a score of 30,000 to 50,000, while habaneros are 1 million to 3.5 million.
Tips to Start
If you’re not familiar with cayenne pepper, begin with a taste test. Stir a small amount of ground cayenne pepper into olive oil, dip a piece of white bread into it and take a bite. You may not feel the heat right away. That could mean you used too little cayenne, but it also takes a few seconds for the sensation to register and then it may continue to build, so wait a few minutes before trying another taste. If the burning is too intense, drink some milk or eat some cheese because dairy products help relieve the sensation.
Cayenne pepper sprinkled into any food enhances the flavor and makes a good salt substitute. Shake a small amount straight out of the bottle onto your mac 'n' cheese, french fries, corn on the cob, rice or spaghetti. Stir some cayenne pepper into mayonnaise to add a new flavor to turkey, ham and roast beef sandwiches. Mix it into scrambled eggs, beans and stew. Cayenne can also be added to a variety of snacks, such as popcorn, cereal mix or cheese twists. If you enjoy the flavor, you'll find that cayenne works well in many of your favorite foods.
Before roasting or baking meat, poultry and fish, add flavor with a dry rub that includes cayenne. Begin by using 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne for every pound of meat. A simple dry rub made with cayenne and garlic powder works well with beef and chicken, but try including a variety of other herbs, such as oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil and thyme. A rub for fish might combine cayenne with tarragon or dill. Except for the cayenne, use about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon for each seasoning. Take inspiration from an Ethiopian mix called berbere that’s used for beef and lamb roasts. It blends cayenne, cumin, turmeric, garlic powder, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and ginger.
A classic salsa mixes tomatoes and garlic with jalapeno, ancho or green chili peppers, so cayenne isn’t usually used. Take that concept and add cayenne to spaghetti sauce or to any dish calling for tomatoes. As always, begin with a small amount. Try about 1/8 teaspoon for every 2 cups of sauce and then experiment by adding more cayenne and other seasonings. A Spanish Romesco sauce that’s often used as a dip or condiment, mixes tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, nuts, cayenne and garlic and thickens the sauce with white bread.
Fresh Cayenne Peppers
Fresh cayenne peppers can be sliced and added to any dish. Wear gloves when cleaning them to avoid contact with capsaicin, which is quite painful if it gets into your eyes. The capsaicin is in the veins and membranes inside the pepper and surrounding the seeds, so removing those lowers the level of heat.
- New York University, Langone Medical Center: Cayenne
- North Carolina State University: Cooking With Herbs and Spices
- USDA Nutrient Data Laboratory: Spices, Pepper, Red or Cayenne
- California Institute of Technology: Herbs and Spices Enhance the Flavor of Foods
- Epicurious: A Visual Guide to Peppers
- University of Illinois Extension: Peppers
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.