Skip to main content

Flavors of the World: Cayenne Pepper of the New World

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Fresh cayenne peppers

Fresh cayenne peppers

Cayenne Vs. Paprika

My first memory of cayenne pepper was in my mother's kitchen; we were preparing a picnic lunch of fried chicken, homemade pie, and potato salad.

My job was to sprinkle paprika on top of the potato salad to make it look "festive." (Hey, I was only 5 years old!). I still remember to this day my mom saying "Make sure you use the paprika—DON'T use the cayenne pepper."

Yes, they look the same—dried red peppers ground to a fine powder. But that is where the similarity ends. Both are the fruit of the capsicum. Paprika is more hue than heat; cayenne, on the other hand, is undeniably a powerhouse on the Skoville Scale.

However, as I think back on my childhood I wonder, "When did Mom ever use that cayenne?" It seems that it was always lurking in the back of the spice rack, but using it was forbidden.

Potato salad with the paprika (or cayenne)

Potato salad with the paprika (or cayenne)

A Twist of History

Most history lessons of herbs and spices begin in the Old World—lush plants carefully tended by monks in monasteries of medieval Europe, fragrant trade-route commodities passing through oases in the cradle of civilization, abundant supplies of spice pods and berries in idyllic tropical islands of the Far East.

The reverse is true of peppers. Columbus found them in the Americas, and the rest, as they say, is history. Eventually, these little heat capsules made their way into the cuisines of Africa, India, Asia, and even England.

John Dryden, England’s first Poet Laureate, was moved to mention them in his writings:

The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run

To the parch’d Indies, and the rising sun;

From thence hot pepper and rich drugs they bear,

Bart’ring for spices their Italian ware.

— John Dryden "The Fifth Satire of Perseus"

What About Today?

How is cayenne pepper used in cooking in the 21st century?

Serranos, jalapeños, poblanos—these are what come to mind when one is looking for a bit of heat in their cooking. Why is cayenne so underappreciated, so rarely recognized, so misunderstood? (Clearly, cayenne needs a public relations firm to help it with marketing).

If you eat at a neighborhood pizzeria, next to the ubiquitous shaker of ground Parmesan will be another shaker. That, my friends, is cayenne. If you don't recognize the name "cayenne," you might be familiar with its other form—crushed red pepper or red pepper flakes.

How to Grow Cayenne

  • Botanical name: (Capsicum annuum ‘Cayenne’)
  • Common name(s): guinea spice, bird pepper
  • Type of plant: annual
  • How to cultivate: propagated from seed in nurseries; typically grown in the home garden from seedlings
  • Where to plant: Can be planted in rows; good candidate for container gardening
  • Days to germination: 6 to 12
  • Days to harvest: 100
  • Light and water requirements: Full sun; regular watering
  • Soil: Warm, moist, nutrient-rich, slightly acidic


In 2000, Juliette Binoche and Dame Judith Dench starred in the movie Chocolat, a beautiful and touching movie directed by Lasse Hallström (The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News, What's Eating Gilbert Grape).

The story of Chocolat takes place in post-War France; a single mother with a young daughter opens a "chocolaterie" in a very conservative village during the season of Lent. Of course, the "indulgence" of chocolate is frowned upon as sinful and forbidden. But one by one the residents of the little community succumb to the Heavenly bliss of chocolate.

One of my favorite scenes is with Judi Dench—she portrays a grumpy old woman who is decidedly against the chocolaterie, that is, until one day when the proprietor offers her a cup of "special" hot chocolate—hot chocolate enlivened by a pinch of cayenne pepper.

Chocolat Hot Cocoa with Cayenne Pepper


1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
5 1/2 cups milk
1/8 teaspoon salt


1. Whisk together water, cocoa powder, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Slowly bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture thickens and resembles a syrup.

2. Mix in remaining ingredients and heat thoroughly. Do not allow to come to a boil.

Bloody mary

Bloody mary

Bloody Mary

Mary Pickford, Queen Mary I of England, maybe even a bastardization of the name "Vladimir," there are as many stories of the origin of the name "Bloody Mary" as there are claims to who first concocted this boozy salvation for those suffering from a hangover.

Me? I just happen to like tomato juice.

IngredientsNew York School of Bartending RecipeMy Recipe


Fill highball glass with crushed ice

Place 2 ice cubes in highball glass


1 ounce

2 ounches

Tomato juice

Fill glass

5 ounces

Celery salt



Ground black pepper


to taste

Tabaso sauce


3 to 4 dashes

Worcestershire sauce

2 to 4 dashes

2 dashes


1/8 tsp (pure, not creamed)

1 teaspoon

Lemon juice


1 1/2 teaspoons

Cayene pepper


1 pinch

Optional Garnishes

  • Celery sticks
  • Dill pickle spears
  • Cooked shrimp on bamboo skewer
  • Cooked crisp bacon strip
  • Olives (green, Kalamata, or both)
  • Pickled okra
  • Pickled asparagus spear
  • Pepperoni stick
  • Cucumber spear (a pickle without the attitude)

Nigerian Mixed Grill has a great recipe for a mixed grill of chicken, shrimp, and beef with a hot cayenne rub. Be warned—this dish is not for the faint of heart.


Spaghetti with Garlic, Olive Oil, and Herbs


  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 generous pinch red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, finely minced


  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil over high heat. Add spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente—about 8 minutes.
  2. Just a minute or so before the spaghetti is done, place the garlic and olive oil in a large sauté pan and cook over medium heat until the garlic begins to sizzle. This should take just a minute or so. Be careful to not let the garlic color, and certainly don't let it burn. Burnt garlic is bitter garlic.
  3. Drain the spaghetti, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
  4. Add the red pepper flakes and cooked, well-drained spaghetti to the sauté pan. Add some of the pasta cooking water to make a sauce—about 5 or 6 tablespoons. Cook together for a minute, tossing constantly. Add the minced parsley, toss again, and serve.

I like to add a grinding of fresh black pepper and some grated Parmagiano-Reggiano.

Broccoli and Blue Cheese Gratin

David Leite, blogger, author, and culinary genius has a passion for all things related to food. On his website, he has assembled thousands of recipes from restaurants, cookbooks, and chefs throughout the world.

This recipe from David's blog (or blahg as he puts it) combines broccoli (one of my favorite green veggies) with Gorgonzola cheese (one of my favorite cheeses), and THEN a pinch of cayenne pepper to kick it all up a notch. How could we lose?

Cucumber Mango Salad With Lime Dressing


  • 1 English (seedless) cucumber, cut into strips
  • 2 medium mangoes, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 cup red onion, minced
  • 3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper (or more to taste)


  1. Place cucumber, mango, and red onion in a large bowl.
  2. Whisk together remaining ingredients and pour over cucumber and mango.
  3. Toss to coat.
  4. Serve within 1 hour.

Do You Dare?

Just a pinch of cayenne can liven up just about any dish--from soup to dessert. Will you be adding a little bit of heat to your foods?

© 2016 Linda Lum