One of my more recent cooking revelations happened in the last year, when my friend Serge Madikians, the chef at Serevan restaurant in Amenia, NY, sent me two containers of Aleppo pepper he'd brought back from a trip to Armenia. One was sweet, the other hot. He warned me: the hot one was hot. Excited to cook with both, but wary of making anything unreasonably spicy for my two-year-old, I started blending them—a tiny pinch of the hot stuff, and a much more generous dose of the mild one. It worked perfectly, delivering a pronounced capsicum flavor with a low-level heat that wouldn't make my toddler cry.
At first, I thought I'd stumbled across a cool parenting tip: Blend your chile powders to gradually acclimate your kids to increasingly hotter dishes. Ramping up heat over time in a child's food isn't a new idea—parents have been doing that for ages. The exciting part, at least to me, was that by working with different ratios of chile flakes of different heat levels, I could decouple the chile's spice from its flavor, allowing me to access as much dried red pepper flavor as I wanted, without it being directly tied to its heat.
Over the next several weeks, this became my approach to all sorts of dishes that routinely call for red pepper flakes, particularly in pastas like aglio e olio, clam sauce, and amatriciana. And over those weeks, it has become more and more clear to me that this approach isn't just useful for parents, it's something we all could—and should—be doing frequently. At this point, I'm not just blending pepper powders for my kid, I'm doing it for myself as well.
In the past, the amount of chile flakes I added to most dishes was dictated by how much heat I was seeking, which often meant a relatively small amount to prevent the dish from becoming atomically spicy. That was unfortunate, since chile peppers usually have great flavor beyond just the heat they bring to a dish. With this new approach, I add only as much of the hot stuff as I want, and then, if I want a deeper pepper flavor, I add a milder option on top of that. A lot of my food has been more delicious as a result.
This doesn't have to be limited just to moderating the heat level of ground chiles. There are all sorts of flavor dimensions at our disposal, and blending allows us to control more of them. Some are smoky, some are fruity; some earthy, some sweet; some more fresh, others more dried; and all can be layered in different ways to build whatever flavor profile you're going for.
Here's just one recent example from the other night when I was clearing out my fridge and pantry of shrimp, an aging onion, and some pasta. I started by sautéing the onion in olive oil, then added a small pinch of the hot Aleppo pepper my friend Serge had given me. That tiny amount gave a baseline heat that my toddler would enjoy, but it wasn't enough to add much flavor to the dish; adding more of it was out, since that'd make the pasta too spicy.
On top of that, I added a much heftier dose of the sweet Aleppo pepper flakes. The mild Aleppo provided almost no heat, but it increased that aromatic, dried-pepper flavor tenfold. Finally, I snuck in a small scoop of Calabrian chile paste, which has a fresher and brighter flavor than most dried chile powders do.
The combination of chiles stained the olive oil a deep orange color and made what was an otherwise very simple, potentially one-dimensional dish into something truly flavorful.
Unfortunately, the one thing I can't easily do is offer specific instructions on how to do this. There are far too many chile flakes, powders, and pastes out there for any kind of comprehensive list. And they're far too variable—even your most basic red pepper flakes range from mild to very hot, depending on the source, its age, and more (this is also why I'm loathe to give exact red pepper flake quantities in my recipes, since I know neither how hot your chile flakes are, nor how much heat you can handle).
The best thing to do is build up a small collection of chile flakes, powders, pastes, and more spanning a range of heat levels and flavor profiles. Some options include milder chile powders like the sweet Aleppo I had, Kashmiri chile powder, Korean gochugaru, and sweet paprika; hotter dried chiles like potent red pepper flakes, Thai bird chiles, hot Aleppo pepper, urfa chile powder, etc.; and smoky ones like chipotle chile powder and smoked paprika/pimentón; and pastes like jarred Calabrian chile paste and harissa. Become familiar with their nuances, then mix and match as you see fit.