Paprika Galore

My husband wanted to smoke a chicken the other day and I was happy for him to do so! The poultry rub he was using called for paprika. When he went to my spice drawer, there were three different varieties from which to choose. How many do you have in your spice cabinet? My favorite spice store, Savory Spice, sells six different paprikas. Another popular spice shop sells four. What is with all these different varieties and when do you use which one?

Paprika is a spice made from ground red peppers. It is not made from any one pepper and is often a variety of peppers. Its flavor can range from mild to pungent. Its color ranges from bright orange-red to deep blood-red. Most commercial paprika comes from Spain, South America, Hungary & California.

In the spice shop, you will see some paprikas labeled sweet, some hot, some smoked & others may have a combination of those terms. The difference comes from the specific variety of pepper and how the pepper is processed.

The most common is sweet paprika. It may also be called “Hungarian paprika” or just “paprika”. It is very deep red in color and has a subtle flavor. In actuality, the Hungarians list eight different varieties of Hungarian paprika ranging from mild to very hot. In the US, if you see a bottle labeled “Hungarian”, it will most likely be of the sweet, less hot variety.

Smoked paprika is a Spanish innovation and is produced by slowly smoking & drying the peppers over an oak fire. This gives the product a rich, smoky quality. You may see the term “Pimenton” when referring to this Spanish smoked variety. There are three versions:

  1. Dulce – sweet & mild

  2. Agrodulce – bittersweet, medium hot

  3. Picante – hot

Two varieties of pimenton (Pimentòn de Murcia & Pimentòn de la Vera) have actually been given “Protected Designation of Origin” by the European Union. This means they cannot be given these names unless they are produced using traditional techniques and come from these specific regions of Spain.

Another protected product is Piment d’Espelette. Although not truly a paprika, it is similar in that it is also made from ground peppers. These peppers are grown in the Basque region of southwest France. Its flavor is said to be bold & warm. The peppers are hung to dry in the sun for at least 15 days and up to 3 months. There is also a version from California, called Piment d’Ville.

When should you use which variety? If your recipe just calls for “paprika” and does not specify which kind, it is best to use the Hungarian, sweet variety. Smoked paprika is recommended for seasoning grilled meats or if you want to add a smoky flavor to your dish. The hotter varieties are great for soups, stews or chilis.

Have fun and experiment with the different paprikas. Whether you just want to add a dash of color, a mild spiciness or something more bold, there is a paprika for you!