The Conundrum of Chili Powder vs. Chili Powder

A particular terminology duplication has arisen in modern American cookery, and I’m at a bit of a loss on how to resolve it.

In ordinary USA recipe parlance, “chili powder” has come to denote a particular spice blend. Go to any grocery store, or even most dollar stores, and you will see offered among the spices “chili powder” which is not, for certain, powdered chilis. Perhaps powdered chili pepper might make up one component of the spice mixture, but those chilis are unlikely to be very hot since most mainstream American palates run to the mild side (certainly, mainstream Pittsburgh tastes do). This chili powder is, in fact, a blend of spices intended for Mexican and Tex Mex recipes, popularized and mainstreamed more than anything by recipes for the quintessential Tex Mex stew, itself called Chili.

Chili Peppers

Chili Peppers

I have nothing against spice mixes, certainly. As a hobby cook of some conscientiousness, I do like to make my own spice blends when it is practical to do so, especially when a particular blend is not easy to come by in a form offering consistent quality and/or value. Berbere, the standard spice blend for Ethiopian recipes, as an example, is not readily available in grocery stores, and those that do offer it usually do so at a high price, and purchasing a blend online incurs added expense of shipping and the ever-present risk that one’s favorite retailer will discontinue the specific brand of berbere mixed spices that the chef has come to rely upon throwing all of her tried-and-true Ethiopian-style recipes into flux and chaos… rather than tangle with all these contingencies, I make my own so that every batch of Mesir Wat will be the same as the last.

Other blends produce fewer stumbling blocks and thus fewer qualms on my part with using the pre-mixed grocery store blend. Badia makes a good line of spice mixes, including a turmeric-centered curry powder, cajun seasoning, chili powder, etc. I do have a preferred recipe for making my own chili powder (which I will share below), and my own recipes for various differing styles of curry powder, such as garam masala, which should never be confused with other types of curry powders, such as the turmeric-based powders or the Madras powders, etc. But sometimes, a gal just wants grab a jar of spice mix and measure, without going to the trouble of pre-mixing her own blend. By now, I have a pretty good sense, for the sake of my own tastes, when using my homemade blend makes the difference and when throwing myself on the mercy of a commercial spice company makes little to no difference.

And so, I have no qualms with recipes calling for spice mixes, chili powder among them, as it affords the chef a simple opportunity to choose either a homemade spice blend or a store-bought mix. The problem with “chili powder” is that there is an ingredient by the same name that shows up in recipes: namely chili peppers that are powdered.

Powdered Chili Peppers

Powdered Chili Peppers

I’ve become pretty good over the years at telling which type of “chili powder” a recipe is calling for. A recipe for Indian or Thai curry is probably calling for powdered chili peppers, whereas a Mexican, Spanish, Cajun, mainstream American cuisine recipe, quick & easy recipe, etc. are probably calling for the spice blend. This duplicative term bothers me the most as a recipe author; when I post recipes online containing the spice blend called “chili powder” I always feel that I have to clarify in some way. I more often find myself making recipes with chili powder, rather than powdered chilis, and yet I always feel that I have a responsibility to clarify as the writer of a given recipe.

This sense of responsibility, this commitment to clarity makes me wish to solve this terminology impasse in an easier, more efficient way. I suppose I could use the distinction indicated above, chili powder vs. powdered chilis. But this division would really only work for people who follow my recipes close to enough to know I had pre-established this distinction. The term “chili powder” is so well-established in both meanings out there in the world of recipe writing, that I would still feel the need to clarify every time I included “chili powder” in a recipe. What is the elegant solution here? What can I call “chili powder” to make it clear that I mean the spice mix, and not powdered chilis?

I am open to suggestions!

Component Spices for a Chili Powder Blend

Component Spices for a Chili Powder Blend

SARAH’S FAVORITE CHILI POWDER SPICE BLEND

5 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon oregano
3 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon allspice

Combine all ingredients in a container. Mix well. Use in recipes calling for the spice blend chili powder.

One thought on “The Conundrum of Chili Powder vs. Chili Powder

  1. hi and thanks for your post. i stumbled upon it doing related research. i’m from the u.s. but now in spain and i was trying to determine whether u.s.-style chili powder exists here – meaning the common spice blend for tex-mex that you refer to. then, if it exists here, i needed to know the name of it to try to locate it. anyway, commenters on various forums suggested that chili powder refer to the u.s.-style spice blend and that chile powder would be a dried ground chile. seemed like a good solution to me! and if anyone stumbles upon this looking to answer my original question, i found a very similar spice blend to u.s. style chili powder at Mercado Russafa in Valencia Spain. it was at a stall dedicated to spices and this particular blend was marked for “carne” – meat. because i knew the common components of us-style chili powder i could read the ingredients on this blend and know it was similar. the bonus is that it also said “no contiene sal” which means does not contain salt. yay! because i like to add my own himilayan pink salt. some other spice blends i found first had salt as the first ingredient – yuck! hope all of that helps! -cynthia

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