Menu
Search
Menu
Close

Chili Powder

By Cook's Illustrated Published February 2013

How we tested

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 without dominating or distracting from them. Our two recommended products had something else in common: no added salt; the bottom three products all added it.

Our Favorite Chili Powder

We cannot recommend four of the seven chili powders we tasted, but our winner had a deep, roasty, complex flavor; subtle sweetness; and just the right amount of heat. We used it on its own to season a batch of chili that was “bright,” “sizzling,” and “full-flavored.”

 

Try CooksIllustrated.com Free for 14 Days.

Included in your trial membership:

  • 20+ years of Cook's Illustrated foolproof recipes
  • In-depth videos of recipes and cooking techniques
  • SAVE all your Favorites for easy access
  • Up-to-Date reviews and product buying guides
  • Get everything Cook's Illustrated — become the Smartest Cook you know, guaranteed
Email is required
How we use your email address

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*