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Eric Akis: How hot should chili powder be?

Q I made some chili and it was unbearably spicy. I checked my supply of chili powder and found I had two different packages. One chili powder was from the bulk section at Save-On-Foods, which I found quite mild.
Three types of chili powder, from left, hot chipotle chili powder, milder, fruitier ancho chili powder, and the powder blended with other ingredients, such as cumin, that we find in most supermarkets in familiar bottles or packets.

Q I made some chili and it was unbearably spicy. I checked my supply of chili powder and found I had two different packages. One chili powder was from the bulk section at Save-On-Foods, which I found quite mild. The other one, which I used in the chili, was in a bag, bought from another grocery store. The only writing I could find on the package was "product of India." When I sampled that one, my tongue did a meltdown. It was more like cayenne pepper. How is one to know the heat in the chili powder if there is no marking on the package?

Emma Robbins

AThere are two main styles of chili powder, and Emma had one of each kind. Grinding a single type of dried chili makes one type; blending ground chilies with flavourings makes the other.

According to the chilirich website,, operated by Indian spice exporter Ramdev Food Products, chili powder used in South Asian countries, such as India, is made by drying and grinding red chilies to create a highly pungent red powder. The pungency varies according to the chili used, but according to most sources I checked, and as Emma's taste buds noticed, it can be cayenne-pepper-like in spiciness.

Although Emma's package did not say "hot" chili powder, its Indian source and the ingredient list (if there was one) just listing ground chilies and no other ingredients, except perhaps oil to help retain the chili's red colour, are signs that she purchased a more potent form of chili powder.

This type of chili powder made with one kind of chili pepper is also produced in North America. Knowing a thing or two about chilies can help determine how spicy they'll be.

According to spice and herb company McCormick's website,, two types they sell are ancho chili powder, made from dried ancho chilies, and chipotle chili powder, made from dried chipotle peppers.

Ancho chilies, called poblano when fresh, have a sweet, fruity flavour and are mildly hot. Chipotle peppers, which are smoked jalapeño peppers, create a powder with a smoky aroma and taste that, spicewise, is described as being medium in heat.

Combining a ground, fairly mild tasting chili pepper with other ingredients, such as cumin, oregano and garlic powder, is how the second main style of chili powder is made. According to The Complete Spice Book, this type of chili powder is an American invention.

The story goes that it was created by an Englishman living in Texas in the 1800s who was trying to recreate the complex flavours of the curries he enjoyed while serving in the British army in India. Local ingredients and nearby Mexico, which has been using spice blends made with chilies for centuries, influenced what he mixed up.

The first American commercial blends of chili powder were created in the 1890s and became a key ingredient in chili con carne.

This blended type of chili powder, which is generically labelled -you guessed it -chili powder, is what you most commonly see in bottles or bags, or in the bulk section, of most mainstream supermarkets. Spice and herb company Club House ( describes its chili powder as earthy and slightly sweet, with a mild heat.

This type of chili powder also comes in hot varieties, where spicy cayenne pepper is added to the blend.

Emma will be pleased to know that companies such as McCormick's and Club House do label it: "hot chili powder."

Another type of blended chili powder is called Mexican chili powder, which is made similarly to the chili powder noted above. It is mild or medium in heat and can also be hot, with the latter most often being noted on the label.

Eric Akis is the author of the recently published Everyone Can Cook Slow Cooker Meals. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.



Juicy roast chicken flavoured with sweet and fruity ancho chili powder, and smoky-tasting chipotle chili powder. The chipotle chili powder gives the chicken a moderately spicy taste. If you prefer things mild, reduce the amount used by half, or use regular chili powder instead.

Preparation time: 10 minutes, plus marinating time

Cooking time: 50 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 tsp finely grated lime zest

2 Tbsp fresh lime juice

2 Tbsp honey

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tsp ancho chili powder

1 tsp chipotle chili powder

8 chicken thighs

- salt to taste

Combine the first seven ingredients in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken. Add the chicken and turn to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for four hours, or overnight, turning the chicken occasionally.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set the chicken on the baking sheet, skin-side up. Brush any marinade in the bowl over the chicken; season with salt and pepper.

Roast the chicken, basting with pan juices occasionally, for 50 minutes, or until chicken's temperature in the deepest part of the thigh registers 170 F on a meat thermometer.

If a cooking issue has you scratching your head, send your question to Eric by email at, by fax to Ask Eric at 250-380-5353 or by regular mail to Ask Eric, Times Colonist, 2621 Douglas St., V8T 4M2.

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