What's a Good Paprika Substitute?

Paprika in a wooden spoon

Annick Vanderschelden / Getty Images

Paprika is a widespread spice used in all kinds of sweet and savory recipes, from soups and stews to main courses, side dishes, and desserts. Commonly used because of the sweet and flavorful kick it provides to dishes and the pretty red hue it adds, you might find it in plenty of recipes. So what to do when you run out of it and need a replacement? The options are varied and depend on your heat tolerance and what the overall flavor profile is you're looking for.

What Is Paprika?

Paprika is a spice made from dried red peppers that are ground into a powder. Depending on what type of paprika it is, it'll be made from a different variety of red pepper. It has a sweet, pungent, earthy, and somewhat fruity flavor, and varying levels of heat, ranging from the most common very-mild type to the less popular pretty-hot. Good paprika should have a pronounced aroma that you'll notice when you take a whiff from the jar, and it needs to be thrown out after six months as it will lose its potency over time.

Although red peppers originated in North America, they were brought to Europe in the 1500s, starting in Spain and Portugal, before making their way via the spice trade to North Africa, Central Europe, and even Asia. Today, paprika has established itself as a pantry staple from the Mediterranean to North Africa, Africa, and the Middle East.

It remains a staple in Spain, where it is known as pimentón and is a crucial ingredient in paella, and in Hungary, where numerous medium-to-hot varieties of paprika are used in traditional recipes including goulash, paprikash, and stuffed cabbage.

Types of Paprika

Paprika is divided into three categories—sweet, hot, and smoked—and each one is made from different types of peppers.

Sweet paprika is the most common and available type, at least in North American supermarket spice aisles. If a recipe, or a spice bottle, simply says "paprika" without specifying which kind, it refers to the sweet kind. Sweet paprika has a very mild, sweet flavor and imparts a reddish hue to whatever it's sprinkled on or mixed into.

Hot paprika is something you're more likely to come across in an authentic Eastern European, Portuguese, or Spanish recipe. And like all peppers, what constitutes "hot" is subjective and can also vary from one type of paprika to another. 

Smoked paprika is paprika that's made from peppers that have been dried and smoked before grinding, and it has a distinctive smoked, charred aroma and flavor. 

How Hot Is Paprika?

The heat of peppers is measured using the Scoville Heat Scale, which ranks the heat of a given pepper in units known as Scoville Heat Units (SHU). Bell peppers of all colors register zero SHU, meaning they're not hot at all. Jalapeños are medium, measuring 2,500 to 8,000 SHU, while extremely hot chiles like habaneros or Scotch bonnets come in at 100,000 to 350,000 SHU.

Sweet paprika measures 500 to 1,500 Scoville heat units, making it a very mild pepper indeed. Hotter varieties of paprika can approach 30,000 to 50,000 heat units, which is basically equivalent to pure cayenne pepper. So if your recipe explicitly calls for hot paprika, you could substitute cayenne pepper.

When substituting, use common sense. Cayenne pepper is as much as 50 times hotter than sweet paprika, so a 1:1 substitution wouldn't work unless you want some heat—the right substitution, in this case, would be 1/3 of a teaspoon of cayenne per 1 teaspoon of paprika. Make an informed decision, but also use thorough recipes that might suggest reasonable substitutions.

What's a Good Paprika Substitute?

So the question of what is a good paprika substitute comes down to what dish you're preparing and how much paprika that dish calls for. 

If it's just a small amount, like half a teaspoon or less, you could conceivably get away with substituting chili powder, which is mainly paprika along with other seasonings such as garlic, salt, cumin, and a bit of cayenne. It's slightly hotter than plain paprika, but not overwhelmingly so. Some other ground red peppers like ancho chili powder, chipotle powder, or hot sauce would also work. Chili powder will also suffice if the paprika is just being used for a garnish. With these spices, you can go with a 1:1 ratio of the substitute spice to the paprika amount needed.

Another option is to use a spice blend or a spice rub because these may contain large amounts of paprika. Cajun and Creole seasonings, for example, are mainly paprika along with garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne, so you could certainly substitute one for the other. Similarly, Old Bay seasoning is mainly celery salt and paprika. As in the cases above, go with a 1:1 ratio.

In some cases, the paprika is being used primarily to add color to a dish, in which case you could add a small amount of some other red ingredient, which could be anything from a teaspoon of ketchup with a dash of chili powder mix to tomato sauce, finely pureed red peppers, tomato paste, or red beet powder. If you have bell pepper powder, use a 2:1 ratio, as the bell peppers are very sweet and don't have the kick of sweet paprika.

For traditional recipes that call for paprika, it's best to use what the recipe calls for, as the paprika is there for a reason, and its flavor and color are intended to give the dish an overall flavor profile and aspect that substitutions can't add.