For many people, their only experience with paprika is a half-hearted sprinkle of reddish powder on top of deviled eggs or potato salad. More adventurous cooks might have heard of using the spice in chicken paprikash or goulash — both classic Hungarian dishes. But have you ever wondered what paprika is and where it comes from? We checked in with Nancy Waldeck, a healthy-cooking chef, cookbook author and food educator. Waldeck also travels extensively, leading wine and culinary trips for small groups of guests. She loves using local spices in her recipes and is knowledgeable about their origins, uses and benefits.
Paprika (the Hungarian word for "pepper") comes from the Capsicum annuum variety of red peppers, specifically, the longum family. They are long and bright red, and the flavors range from sweet to hot. The peppers are harvested, dried and ground into a fine powder — paprika. In making smoked paprika, the peppers are dried over a fire, giving them a delicious smoky flavor.
Using paprika in cooking is prevalent throughout Central Europe, Spain and Portugal, but it's wildly popular in Hungary, where it's known as the "national spice."
How Many Kinds of Paprika Are There?
In Hungary, Waldeck says it's not unusual to find shops carrying up to 20 varieties of paprika, ranging from very sweet to sweet, hot and extra hot to bittersweet, and on and on. Officially, there are four different grades of paprika:
- special: finely ground, sweet/mild
- gourmet: slightly coarse, either hot or mild
- noble: light red, coarse grind
- rose: dark red, medium coarse texture, very hot
"The two things they use a lot of paprika in are chicken paprikash and goulash," says Waldeck. "But in the Hungarian countryside, I've also had potatoes with paprika or in mushroom soup. They're very proud of their mushroom soup."
But why is Hungary so well known for paprika? Interestingly, paprika peppers weren't introduced to the region until after Christopher Columbus returned from the New World. That's right. The peppers were native to Mexico and Central America and made their way to Hungary through the Balkans over the years. The peppers "took root" in southern Hungary, where the region's cool climate helped the peppers retain their natural sweetness. Because the plants were so abundant, the spice became inexpensive to produce and, unlike other spices, even the poorest people could afford it.
Paprika pride runs high in Hungary, so if you ever get to the village of Röszke, be sure to visit the Paprika Museum, which was founded by PaprikaMolnar in 2008 and is also a working paprika production facility.
Paprika Isn't Chili Powder
Spanish varieties of paprika, whether sweet, bittersweet or hot, tend to be smoked. "In Spain and Portugal, the dried peppers are smoked over an oak fire," Waldeck says. "The package doesn't even say 'smoked' on it. It just says 'pimentón' (paprika) on it. And it's used in my favorite thing to make with smoked paprika, an old-world sauce made all over both Spain and Portugal, Romesco sauce. It's a combination of old bread, bell peppers, smoked paprika and almonds." Romesco sauce is served in various ways, including as a spread on bread, on meats and stirred in soups.
Waldeck describes paprika as having the "taste of the smell of bell pepper."
"I think it's because I use Romesco sauce a lot," she says. "If it's a hot paprika, it's more like a hot chili pepper, but if it's sweet, it's fruity flavored. In wine (tasting), there's a term 'pyrazine,' that's the smell of bell pepper. That's what paprika smells like to me."
Just because paprika is the same rich color as chili powder (or chipotle chili or ancho chili powders) doesn't mean you can use the seasonings interchangeably. In many cases, the seasoning labeled "chili powder" in most cabinets is a blend of spices, including garlic powder, cumin, black pepper and various chili powders. The chili's heat or sweetness could be very different from the paprika called for by your recipe. When the recipe calls for paprika, it's best to use actual paprika.
You want to buy paprika from a place that has a good turnover in spices; otherwise, you don't know how long it's been sitting there. Those little tins of spices can be notoriously dated.
"The red and red-orange ground spices have a lot of natural oil in them," she says. "They will go bad quicker than other spices. It's best to keep paprika in a dark jar in a cool place. And not near the stove — heat isn't good for it either. If it doesn't smell good and it's brown when you open it, it's dust. It's no longer paprika. The good thing about paprika is that it's inexpensive and easy to replace. Just don't buy a ginormous package. This is a case where buying smaller is better."