You’ve probably seen your fair share of crushed red pepper flakes: at your local pizza place, sprinkled on top of chicken parm, and even in your own pantry. But nowadays, other varieties of chile flakes are widely available. And that makes sense, considering there are so many varieties of peppers that can be dried and pulverized to make flakes. With so many types, it can be confusing to figure out what kind your dish requires, especially if you’re new to the chile flake game.
“I’d never experienced [red] pepper flakes growing up in India,” says Meherwan Irani, the founder of Spicewalla, a spice brand based in Asheville, North Carolina. “Ninety-nine percent of the time we use either whole chiles or ground chile powder, and there are [innumerable] varietals of red chiles. But in many other cultures, chile flakes [as opposed to whole chiles] are quite common.”
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about every single chile flake out there—there are countless varieties, each with their own flavor profile and preferred applications. The chile flakes’ flavor profile comes from how the chile peppers are grown and prepared.
Some chiles, like your pizza parlor red pepper flakes, bring heat. Others, like the Korean staple gochugaru, offer a sweeter flavor. Since not all chile flakes are interchangeable, don’t substitute willy-nilly. Understanding broad flavor categories (i.e., fruity, smoky, hot, sweet, mild) can help you choose the perfect chile for the dish you have in mind; plus, knowing what category of chile you need (as in, sweet as opposed to hot) means that you’re more prepared to make a good substitution. There’s nothing worse than expecting a sweet and fruity dish, only to have it be way spicier than you expected. Try tasting your chile flakes on their own before adding them to get an idea of flavor and heat.
Here are a few types of chile flakes to incorporate into your own cooking:
Gochugaru is a Korean seedless chile pepper that’s been dried in the sun. According to food writer Eric Kim, gochugaru has a very powerful and sweet flavor. “They’ve got this mellowness,” he says. “They’re not very spicy, but they add this real fruitiness and so much flavor to a dish—not just heat.”
Aside from being foundational in Korean cuisine, gochugaru’s fruity flavor profile lends itself well to salad dressing, which is one of Kim’s favorite ways to use it. “I do a dressing of fish sauce, sesame oil, sugar, [raw] gochugaru, and some garlic and ginger,” he says. “It’s not spicy and adds a lovely third note to whatever it is you’re cooking.”
Another popular chile flake is Aleppo-style pepper, which “turns up the heat modestly but has some fruitiness and some earthiness to it,” says Irani. Aleppo-style peppers are a star at SOS Chefs, a shop in New York City that sells gourmet spices, oils, and other ingredients. “Because it’s so crunchy [rather than] powdery, it’s something you can use differently than a chile powder and it has a lot of flavor,” says Atef Boulaabi, the owner. Aleppo-style pepper is smoky and fruity, with cumin-like undertones.
According to Irani, “They’re named after the eponymous city in Syria, and as you can guess, they’re popular in Middle Eastern cuisines, from hummus to kebabs. But they’re also fantastic in tagines and braised chicken and on roasted vegetables.”
For those looking to add a bit more heat to their dish, guajillo flakes are a delicious option. “They have an earthy, grounding flavor,” says Jocelyn Ramirez, founder of Todo Verde, a plant-based food business in L.A., and author of La Vida Verde. “They give you just enough heat to remind you that you’re eating chiles without being overpowering.”