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What are Red Pepper Flakes?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Red pepper flakes are hot, dried bits of pepper and seeds that are made from hot red peppers of varying kinds. They should not be confused with red bell peppers, which are sweet and have very little heat to them. Many people are familiar with these spicy flakes as a topping for pizzas, and many a pizza restaurant has glass shaker jars full of them for people who love extra spice with their slice. They are also available for sale in just about any grocery store.

Many people associate red pepper flakes with Italian food, but they can be used to give a kick to a variety of cuisines. Chinese food that a cook would like to make sweet and spicy can be given a shake or two of flakes. Cajun or Caribbean food, virtually any Asian cuisine, and of course most recipes from Latin and South America benefit from these potent peppers.

Some brands are hotter than others, depending upon the peppers used, so cooks who haven't used them before or who are trying out a new type should be cautious when adding them to a dish. It's always possible to add more if a dish isn’t spicy enough, but it’s harder to reduce the heat of a dish if the cook has been overgenerous when you first sprinkled.

Chefs who are not satisfied with store offerings can make their own red pepper flakes, though it requires some time. Essentially, it's necessary to dry whole peppers in the oven at its lowest heat setting for about eight hours (overnight is best). When the peppers are completely brittle and cool, the cook can use a rolling pin to crush them, grinding them into small flaky bits. The choice of peppers is really up to the cook, and people can make blends of mild, moderate, and spicy peppers to add some different tastes, or make fairly mild ones for kids or people with sensitive palates, and five alarm mixtures for adventurous folks.

It is important for cooks who decide to make their own — or anyone who touches the flakes with their hands — to not rub their eyes during the rolling out process. In fact, it’s best to wear gloves, and to place the hot peppers in a plastic bag prior to rolling to avoid any pepper-to-skin contact. Even store bought flakes can cause irritation if rubbed in the eyes, so if someone is eating a pizza covered with dried peppers, he should be sure to keep his hands off his face.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By feasting — On Feb 22, 2013

@seag47 – Crushed red pepper is powerful, but when you use it in moderation, it can do some good. I like to eat foods with red pepper flakes sprinkled on them when I have nasal congestion from a cold.

Spicy foods are great for opening up your sinuses. I love being able to actually breathe for awhile when I have a cold, even if it is just for a couple of hours.

Since red pepper flakes are super spicy, they are perfect to use during this time. I could always go to a Mexican restaurant and eat, but I feel more like staying home when I don't feel well, and the red pepper flakes will do just as much good as actual peppers in a dish would.

By orangey03 — On Feb 21, 2013

It's important to remember that a little sprinkle of dried crushed red pepper flakes goes a long way. I wasn't sure how much to use when I was making some spicy pineapple chicken, and I over-seasoned the dish.

We salvaged some of it by rinsing it off with water, but this took most of the flavor out. I learned the hard way, but I won't forget in the future.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 21, 2013

I had no idea that making your own crushed red pepper flakes was so easy! I figured you would have to dry them out in the sun for days or weeks on your roof or something. It's neat that you can do it all in the oven.

Normally, I wouldn't want to leave my oven on while I was sleeping. However, since making red pepper flakes only requires the lowest setting, I think I would feel safe with this.

I would definitely wear disposable gloves while working with the peppers. I wouldn't want to risk forgetting which gloves I used and putting them on later and rubbing my eyes. The disposable gloves would go right into the trash!

By seag47 — On Feb 20, 2013

I certainly understand how hot red pepper flakes could irritate your eyes. After all, pepper spray is made from a chili pepper extract, and it is meant to stop your enemy dead in his tracks so you can run away!

By Slothrop — On Jul 21, 2010

@CoolWish – There is certainly nothing wrong with your view, but I suspect that much of your comfort with and appreciation of red pepper flakes is due to familiarity with hot foods.

By CoolWish — On Jul 21, 2010

While there is a school of thought that hotter spicing is overkill and can overpower the flavors of an otherwise intricate dish, I see it as more of a compliment. As long as the heat isn't so overpowering that my eyes are watering, I tend to feel that spicier is better.

Red pepper flakes are a favorite of mine, as they add not only heat but a distinctive flavor that I find a welcome addition to many dishes (especially Italian).

By Gallimaufry — On Jul 21, 2010

@anon58292 – I'm not entirely sure that this is correct, but I think it's probably safe to assume that you could just use about 2 teaspoons of the ground to replace the flakes; it's essentially a measurement of volume, so I think that should be fine.

Really the main difference I can imagine is a slight variation in perceived spiciness, as the ground pepper will have somewhat greater surface area than the flakes and might be more intense as a result.

By anon58292 — On Dec 31, 2009

ground red pepper vs red pepper flakes. how much ground to replace 2 teaspoons flakes?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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