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Chili powder is essential for making perfect game-time chili, but many products fumble with weak, wan flavor. Do any score a touchdown?
Published Feb. 1, 2013. Appears in Cook's Country February/March 2013, America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: A Taste of Mexico
Top PicksSee Everything We Tested
What You Need To Know
What is Chili Powder?
Chili powder is a seasoning blend made from ground dried chiles and an assortment of other ingredients. Much like curry powder, there is no single recipe, but cumin, garlic, and oregano are traditional additions. Chili powder is not to be confused with the lesser-known chile powder (also often spelled chili powder), made solely from chiles without additional seasonings. We use the blend to season batches of chili and in spice rubs and marinades.
How We Tasted Chili Powder
But which brand is best? Wanting a bold, complex powder with a warming but not scorching heat, we chose seven widely available chili powders (including two from industry giant McCormick) and tasted them sprinkled over potatoes—to assess each uncooked on a neutral base—and cooked in beef-and-bean chili. What did we learn?
What Good Chili Powder Tastes Like
Top picks won praise for bold heat; those we liked less we faulted as “meek.” Capsaicin is the chemical that gives chile peppers their heat; its strength is measured on the Scoville scale in Scoville heat units (SHU). We contacted each manufacturer to ask which peppers they use in their powders; three manufacturers deemed that information proprietary, but four were willing to share. Our top two products, which tasters liked for their “bold” heat, both use cayenne (30,000 to 50,000 SHU) in combination with milder peppers. The third- and fourth-place products use a single pepper named “6-4,” developed at New Mexico State University (300 to 500 SHU). The 6-4 wasn’t hot enough for our tasters. Manufacturers of the lowest-ranked products declined to reveal which peppers they use, but tasters found their heat levels lacking.
Yet a great chili powder is more than just heat. As we noted, our top two products used a combination of peppers to achieve complexity; both add paprika, which is made from dried sweet bell peppers (0 SHU), and one added ancho peppers (1,000 to 2,000 SHU). This layering of multiple peppers created depth that tasters preferred to the “flat” single-pepper powders.
Examining the Composition of Chili Powder
Supporting spices also played a role. Manufacturers of two of the bottom three products also refused to share information about their “spices”; tasters found them sweet and not much else. Two less-preferred products branched off into Indian-influenced spice blends with coriander, cloves, and allspice. Tasters found these products “muddled” and their flavor odd in a bowl of chili. Our top picks stuck with the classics: cumin, oregano, and garlic, with minor deviations, such as black pepper and parsley. The supporting spices rounded out flavor, complementing the peppers witho...
Everything We Tested
This “smoky, sizzling, full-flavored” chili powder was “much more dimensional than others.” “The flavor I’ve been waiting for!” one taster wrote. The “hot, smoky, herbaceous” powder was “balanced,” “bright,” and “lively,” with “raisiny fruitiness” and a “nice building heat.”
Our second-place powder, Penzeys’ best-selling chili powder, was similar to our winner, with “rich, round, balanced, roasted chili flavor [and] mild but perceptible heat.” “Smokiness is tempered by sweetness,” with “savory and bright” notes. The “nice kick” of heat was “low-lying.”
Recommended with reservations
This “sweet” powder was “perfumy,” “earthy,” and “woodsy and fragrant,” with “Indian flavors” (coriander, allspice, and cloves are included). Tasters found it “nice but not super-complex,” with a “lingering sweetness” and “mild” heat: “I could go for something livelier,” one taster wrote. “Frankly, it’s kind of boring.”
This dark-hued powder had strong “roasted,” “earthy” chili flavor, “like I ate a bag of anchos,” one taster wrote. Some thought it less versatile than other products in our lineup: “Overt smokiness would prevent my using this as all-purpose.” A common complaint was a “lack of heat” that made it “wimpy.”
This powder was “so mild it was hard to taste,” “super-boring and a little sweet, with no heat,” said one taster. “Tastes like curry, cinnamon, or any of those warm spices,” “not distinct chili.” It had a “subtle” heat that was “bland and boring.” “Doesn’t taste of much.”
Marketed as “hot,” this product was hotter than the standard powder made by the same manufacturer but still “very mild” compared with others in our lineup. “Really one-dimensional,” and “straight-up sweet,” with “virtually no heat” and “little oomph.” “Why bother?”
This last-place powder was weak all around, making for “school-cafeteria chili, wan and bland, lacking complexity and heat.” “Am I even eating chili?” asked one taster. At best it was “weak” and “oddly sweet.” It was also “dusty,” with a “metallic twang at the end.”
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