Paprika is a universal seasoning and a ubiquitous item in the spice cabinet. It is made of a combination of dried peppers from the Capsicum annum family, which include both sweet and hot peppers. This striking, crimson-red colored powder is very versatile; it is used to season dishes, to garnish foods, and to add color to a recipe. It can even be used to dye eggs and fabric. Most paprika comes from Hungary and Spain and is either sweet, hot, or smokey. The type of pepper used, where it comes from, and how it is prepared determines the flavor.
Varieties of Paprika
The variety and flavor of paprika can vary greatly depending on the country in which it was made. The most well-known paprika producing countries are Spain and Hungary, but paprika—mainly the most basic version—can also be made of peppers from California and South America, as well as other regions.
Regular (or Sweet) Paprika
This is the version you will find in the average supermarket spice aisle. It is very mild in flavor, with a sweet taste and subtle touch of heat. This generic paprika is best used to sprinkle on a finished dish, such as deviled eggs, and add color to grilled meat like in a rib spice rub.
When it comes to Hungarian paprika, most people are familiar with a sweet or mild-tasting spice. However, Hungarian paprika has eight different grades: special or különleges which is very bright red and has no heat at all; félédes which is a half sweet and half spicy; delicate and mild called csípősmentes csemege; csemege paprika which is similar to the latter but more pungent; csípős csemege which is actually delicate yet hotter than csemege; and rózsa or rose paprika, which has a mild taste and can sometimes have more of an orange-red hue.
Edesnemes has a slight heat and is the most commonly exported Hungarian paprika. The last is the erős variety, the most pungent or hottest of the Hungarian paprikas. This paprika has more of a brownish tone compared to the natural redness of the other grades.
In Spain, paprika is actually known as pimentón. Spanish paprikas are sold in several varieties, like dulce (sweet), picante (spicy), agridulce (sweet and spicy combined to create a medium heat), and the famously smoked pimentón. Drying the peppers over open fires is what imparts that smokey flavor.
Paprika vs. Chili Powder
The most common spice confused with paprika is ground red chili powder. At first sight, the two look pretty much the same; the only physical difference may be a slight variance in color tone. However, where paprika and chili powder differ the most is in their ingredients.
Paprika powder is made from very specific peppers found in paprika-producing countries such as Spain and Hungary. Ground chili powder, on the other hand, is a mixture of spices that includes ground chili pepper as well as cumin, garlic powder, salt, and, in fact, paprika.
The second most obvious difference between paprika and chili powder is their taste. A typical paprika will taste sweet, while chili powder has a more earthy flavor with a bit of spice.
What Does It Taste Like?
Depending on the type of paprika, it can range from mild and sweet to spicy to smoked. The heat factor has to do with how the red powders are produced. Sweet or mild paprika does not contain any capsaicin since the seeds and membranes are removed, which is what gives chilies their heat. For the spicy paprikas, some of the seeds and the placenta and the capsaicin glands (or veins) are left on the pepper when they are dried and ground into the powder. Smoked paprika obtains its flavor from being smoked over an oak fire.
Cooking With Paprika
The type of paprika—whether sweet, spicy, or smoked—will determine how it is used in cooking. A basic, mild-tasting version will add a pop of color without overwhelming the flavors of the dish and can be added to marinades and rubs or sprinkled over a finished dish like hummus.
A paprika with more flavor, like Hungarian and Spanish, takes a starring role in recipes. Sweet or hot versions are the main ingredient in traditional Hungarian dishes such as chicken paprikash and goulash, contributing significant flavor and a deep red hue to the dish. The powdered spice is added along with other ingredients and cooked over low heat. Spanish smoked paprika will make the most impact in a dish, as the smokiness becomes the predominant flavor, like in a slow-cooked chicken and vegetable recipe or broiled mahi-mahi. Keep in mind that replacing one type of paprika for another can significantly change the taste of a dish.
Most recipes call for simply adding the spice directly to a recipe, but for paprika to fully release its flavor, scent, and color, it should be quickly cooked in a little oil first. (Many Hungarian cooks swear by this step.) It can go from heavenly to bitter and unpalatable if it cooks even a few seconds too long, so pay close attention.
Recipes With Paprika
Paprika is an ingredient in some Hungarian sausages, and often a seasoning for Spanish octopus tapas. A great way to use smoky paprika is to add it to marinades and bbq sauces, as well as to season roasted vegetables such as potato wedges.
Where to Buy Paprika
Regular paprika is readily available in the spice aisle of the supermarket; it is simply labeled "paprika." Well-stocked grocery stores may sell Hungarian and Spanish paprika, which are marked as Hungarian sweet or hot, and Spanish sweet, hot, or smoked (or pimentón) paprika. Specialty grocery stores and spice shops, as well as online, are a good source for authentic Hungarian and Spanish versions. If possible, buy paprika in a tin versus a glass bottle and check for any packaging or expiration dates as paprika's flavor will diminish over time.
All types of paprika should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark spot, either in a spice drawer or the refrigerator. Light and heat will adversely affect the spice, so keeping it in a tin instead of a glass jar will help maintain freshness. For best results, use within six months as paprika will lose its potency and taste with age.
Health Benefits of Paprika
This spice is packed with nutrients while being low in calories. One tablespoon of paprika has nearly 20 percent of the daily requirement of Vitamin A, which protects vision, boosts the immune system, and supports organ health. It is also high in a variety of antioxidants, including Vitamin E, which protects the body's cells from damage caused by free radicals.