Purists would argue that there's no substitute for cayenne. Chef Eric Ripert calls it the turbo engine of hot peppers because it brings heat and spiciness to foods so quickly. That said, you can experiment with other hot spices to mimic the taste of cayenne and adjust amounts to amp up the heat. The good news is that using any spicy red pepper substitute encourages you to cut back on the salt or fat you normally add to food to boost flavor.
The even better news is that the heart-healthy capsaicin chemical in cayenne also appears in most other spicy cayenne substitutes. A 2017 study in Open Heart found that capsaicin may help to counteract hardening of the arteries, liver disease, high blood pressure, obesity and ulcers. What's not to like about that?
Try Red Pepper Flakes
Red pepper flakes, sometimes called crushed pepper flakes, taste the same as cayenne because they come from the same pepper. (And you'll get the same capsaicin health benefits from the flakes as you do from the pepper.) Cayenne pepper results when the peppers are processed into a powder. Sometimes cayenne pepper is called red chile powder, but it's the same pulverized product. Look for red pepper flakes in the spice section of your grocery. Use slightly more of the flakes than the amount of ground cayenne pepper called for in your recipe – the flakes take a bit longer to deliver the heat.
Use Chili Powder
No matter how tiny, virtually every grocery in the U.S. carries chili powder. The trusty spice typically contains ground Anaheim peppers which, like sweet bell peppers, rate only one flame on a Scoville-like heat scale, versus the three flames of cayenne peppers. Fancy chili powders may be made with only one type of chili and no additional ingredients, but most include other spices, such as cumin, garlic or even cayenne. Use chili powder instead of cayenne pepper with no change to the amounts, but know that the flavor of your enchiladas or salsa will change a bit.
Test Out Paprika and Smoked Paprika
If heat is not your thing, paprika is your go-to substitute for cayenne. Just be sure to read the label, because paprika can be either mild or hot depending on the brand. Most paprikas have the same color as cayenne, but they're made with mild sweet red peppers. Smoked paprika is not hot, but it has a strong smoky flavor and needs a dash of salt to bring out its flavor. Throw in both regular paprika and smoked paprika to a dish to amp up the flavor.
Make Your Own
Peppers that are in the same heat range as cayenne peppers have a similar flavor and similar health benefits. These might include jalapenos, chipotles (which are dried and smoked jalapenos) or fruity, ancho chiles. If you have dried versions of any pepper, you can grind them into a pepper that mimics cayenne pepper.
Make your own pepper by first cutting off the stems of the peppers with scissors, then cutting the pepper lengthwise and cleaning out the seeds and membranes. Finally, grind the peppers in a blender, food processor or spice grinder.